Moral authority and the military

The military virtues of duty, honor, country are real and important.  I know a number of young men who led aimless, delinquent lives who straightened themselves out as a result of military service, which provided them a sense of order and discipline they had not found in civilian live.

While the military virtues in and of themselves are good, it is not good that they are coming to be regarded as the only virtues.   A democratic society also needs the civilian virtues of freedom, reason, tolerance.

A society in which the military is regarded as the main source of moral authority is in danger of devolving into becoming like a Latin American or the Middle Eastern nation, in which the armed forces regard themselves as the repository of national honor, with a right overrule civilian leadership.

“Lambert Strether,” who posts on the Naked Capitalism and Corrente weg logs, wrote a good two-part series on this subject, using President Obama’s State of the Union address as his point of departure.  In the first part, he described how the American military’s self-definition has shifted from loyalty to the Constitution and the laws to loyalty to “The Mission,” which in practice is whatever somebody in power says it is. This is an attitude reflected in techno-thriller fiction and movies, in which the hero (sometimes a trained assassin) operates outside the laws and morality of civil society.

In the second part, he contrasted military values with the historic American genius, as described by Alexis de Tocqueville and others.   What Tocqueville found exceptional about the United States of his day was the ability of ordinary Americans to self-organize and initiate projects without waiting for a leader to tell them what to do.  American society was based on initiative from the bottom up, not orders from the top down.

President Obama’s authoritarian rhetoric is deplorable, but it does not exist in a vacuum.  It reflects the way the American political climate and popular culture has devolved in the past 10 years.

Click on Obama’s SOTU, authoritarian rhetoric and civil society Part I and Part II to read the series.  Both parts are well worth reading in full.  The posts originally appeared on the Corrente web log, and were cross-posted to Naked Capitalism.

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