Time for concern if military to closely resemble society

November 22, 1998|By George F. Will

MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT, SAN DIEGO -- The 9 p.m. darkness resounds with shouted cadences of freshly minted Marines marching to meet family and friends at the end of the 12-week basic training. Up Interstate 5, at Camp Pendleton, seasoned Marines, many of whom passed through this depot, are getting gear together for possible flights to the Persian Gulf.

New Marines may not yet understand what America's experienced service men and women know: Occasional crises are fleeting reminders to civilians of the reasons for having military services. The rest of the time, many Americans think of the services only when worrying about why they are so, well, different -- so disconcertingly military.

It is said that the past is another country. Increasingly, America's military is, too, because the services -- the Marines especially -- are rigorous inculcators of values and lingering echoes of a receding American past, before rigor went out of fashion.

There is indeed a widening gap between civilian and military cultures. And as more and more military jobs become more technical, a culture gap is opening within the services, a gap between those whose jobs are just jobs, and those who are warriors. In a survey of Army personnel, 32 percent of men and 55 percent of women did not agree that the Army's primary focus should be on warfighting.

There should be a gap between civilian and military cultures, especially in a democracy. That widening gap should be narrowed somewhat, but not by permeating the military with the civilian culture's values.

Much is said about the need to "close" the gap and "reconnect" those cultures. Former Navy Secretary John Dalton says, "As American society changes, the naval service changes with it. That's the way it's supposed to be."

Sen. John McCain -- no one has more standing to speak on the subject than this Annapolis graduate, aviator and heroic Vietnam War POW -- says, "It's a fundamental principle that armed services can truly serve a democracy only if they are a reflection of that society and are impacted by the same social trends."

To which one must respectfully respond: Not really.

Senior Marines here, whose mission is to make Marines, know that the phrase "volunteer military" is a misnomer. America has a recruited military. Recruiting one Marine often involves more than 12 arduous months of interviews.

After which, and after intensive pre-induction mental and physical preparation, about 14 percent of recruits will fail to make it to "the crucible." That is the arduous new 11th week of basic training, when stress, fatigue and hunger test the recruits' assimilation of the first 10 weeks of Marine training in values as well as warfighting.

Drill instructors always have been wrathful Old Testament gods to recruits, but now DIs also are, in too many cases, essentially the first fathers in the recruits' lives. So, "reflect" society? Basic training must correct consequences of contemporary society's defects, giving a crash course in honorable behavior -- instruction that should be performed, throughout childhood and adolescence, by families, schools and religious institutions.

Reflect society? Remember George Orwell's unminced words: "We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."

Rough, yes, but also polished, disciplined professionals, who became that by shedding, under the scalding rinse of basic training, much of what contemporary society inculcates -- materialism, sullen resentment of hierarchy, the language of victimization spoken by grievance groups, the litigiousness of rights-based politics and celebration of "self-expression," however unworthy the self being expressed.

Some worriers about the gap between civilian and military cultures worry especially about this: The young Marines who are marching this night to meet their parents (who in some cases will not recognize the slimmed, hardened and upright versions of the children they knew three months ago), have, regarding civilian society, a sense of moral superiority. However, instead of trying to disabuse the young Marines of the pride they have earned, civilian society, if it thinks the gap between it and its military is too wide, might try moving toward the military.

John Hillen, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says those who regret the gap between the military and civilian cultures should remember that civilian society senses nothing amiss. Make the military "reflect" society and you may revive the Army's accommodationist slogan of a few years ago, "The Army Wants to Join You!"

Good grief. Don't sleep too soundly.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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