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Wait, the Military Isn't a Bastion of Morality?

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

During my deployment to Iraq, the highlight of my day (besides churning through a DVD or two of The Wire before bed every night) was reading the Stars and Stripes “Letters” section. It looks like a traditional letter section. It reads like a traditional letter section. But it is anything but a normal letter section.

At that time--summer of 2010--”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” understandably dominated the political debates and news coverage in Stars and Stripes. And whenever one side published an op-ed, the Stripes letter section would reverberate for weeks with the response.

Then the chaplains entered the the fray...

For example, First Lieutenant (Chaplain) David Wooten compared the the Army to a family, writing, “Simply put, it is impossible for a family that embraces homosexuality to function normally.” That line caused letters to flood in for weeks.
Then, retired Colonel (Chaplain) Alexander Webster fired off an entire opinion piece on the irreparable harm sure to come if America repealed DADT. His best line says that rescinding DADT will, “shred the social and moral fabric of our armed forces.
According to the chaplain’s pre-DADT-repeal writing, getting rid of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would rend the moral fabric of America’s armed forces, filleting it into an ungodly, immoral, unethical horde of unrepentant sinners. Since Congress did repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”--and the military continued to function just fine--I haven’t felt the need to complain about the rhetorical inconsistencies of a handful of uber-vocal chaplains.

Until l’affaire Petraeus, which again brought the Army’s sex life to the front page. The New York Times ran the headline, “Petraeus Resignation Highlights Concern Over Military Officer Ethics.” The best example was Fox News digging up the over-hyped and patently false, “deployment sex pact”. (The idea that spouses leaving for Afghanistan agree to allow infidelity for the length of deployment. They don’t.)

I hadn’t realized that not only are our men and women in uniform required to defend the nation; apparently they must also be chaste warrior monks, chivalrous knights in shining khaki.
It turns out our soldiers are human. They aren’t as moral as our chaplains would have you believe, or as evil as anti-war advocates argued in previous wars. As I wrote before in “Where did God go in Afghanistan?”, our military looks like a cross-section of young America, about as moral and ethical as the country it serves.

I have one story that captures this best. Once my men and I were talking about pay. I said that a hundred dollars was a lot of money to me. My men responded that a hundred dollars isn’t a lot to a specialist (a junior soldier). Someone said, “Yeah, because a specialist will burn through that in an hour in a strip club.” Upon further discussion, we determined that the average specialist would probably go through a hundred bucks in a strip club in about fifteen minutes.

To be blunt, our soldiers go to strip clubs...just like regular Americans. Our soldiers have sex outside of marriage...just like regular Americans. As a result, strip clubs cling to military bases like venereal disease clung to World War II GIs. According to these two websites, soldiers have historically had wicked bad STD problems.

They curse...just like regular Americans. For example...

“The [Generation Kill] miniseries DVD extras include a discussion with the real Marines, during which this phenomenon is brought up: Ray Person tells a story about meeting people who, despite his own ability to validate the material, refused to believe American serviceman would even swear so much.”

From the entry on Generation Kill at TVtropes.org

They get in fights...just like regular Americans. And they always have. Sebastian Junger captures this pretty well in War:

“There were four platoons in the company, and of them all, Second Platoon was considered the best-trained and in some ways the worst-disciplined. The platoon had a reputation for producing terrible garrison soldiers men who drink and fight and get arrested for disorderly conduct and mayhem but who are extraordinarily good at war. Soldiers make a distinction between the petty tyrannies of garrison life and the very real ordeals of combat, and poor garrison soldiers like to think it's impossible to be good at both.”

To be clear, because people will misread this, the military isn’t any more or less moral than any other organization in America. It’s simply a collection of (mostly young) people who want to serve their country. And young people curse, get in fights and go to strip clubs. The military isn’t, and shouldn’t try to be, a bastion of morality. Or a bastion for America’s truly religious. It is and should be a volunteer force of men and women--of all colors and religions and cultures--who want to fight to defend America.

Chaplains and journalists should understand that.

(By the way, in my experience, chaplains rock. I say again, chaplains were a bright spot of my time in the military. But these were chaplains that didn’t usually didn’t write letters to Stars and Stripes.)

two comments

To frame this debate, let’s talk about actual violence against women.

Historically, soldiers have used prostitution. (Any talk of legislating sexual morality should look at the world War II era soldiers first. did their massive cheating, carousing affect their fighting ability? No.)

More importantly, let’s talk about strip clubs and pornography. Most studies show that women who work in the sex trade—the legal sex trade, not prostitutes—have extraordinarily high rates of both addiction and past sexual and physical abuse. (70 abuse. And no, the stats don’t line up perfectly.)

People who frequent strip clubs are further encouraging actual harm to the women in those trades. They are actively exploiting vulnerable women.

(I hated the memoir “Soft Spots” for endorsing the Marine’s historic use of prostitution.)

Adultery (and as I wrote yesterday, I hate cheating) is immoral, but the victims are relatively contained, and not damaged the way sex workers are.

The military shouldn’t legislate sexual morality. But if it were going to legislate sexual morality, this is the place to start. And this will never happen.

As I’ve said before, the effect of the repeal of DADT won’t be known until we get into a big war, a WWII or Civil War type war. It is meaningless that the mandated diversity training is completed on time or 100% of the soldiers are wearing their reflective belts. That is about about all you can say about it now.

Armed forces comprised of young men aren’t going to be saintly places. That is the reality of the situation. But that doesn’t mean the ideal of saintliness is to be thrown overboard, that it shouldn’t try to be a bastion of morality. If it is to function effectively, it had better be just a little bit closer to that than the cracker factory. It has to enforce that. It does enforce that.

It is moral to be courageous in the face of danger. It is moral to stand with your fellows in time of danger. That behavior is strongly encouraged in the military. And if the encouragement doesn’t do the trick, they make you stick and stand by…or they kill you.

As far as sex workers and soldiers go, it is a very unseemly thing. But, and you stipulated legal sex workers, it is a voluntary thing between two consenting parties.

Besides, I don’t buy that unseemly soldier behavior is unavoidable. To a certain extent that is true, but leadership, or lack thereof has a lot to do with it. Two stories come to mind.

In the Left Handed Monkey Wrench, Ketchum tells about the bad rep sailors on leave had. But he says that one reason for that is when a ship pulled into port, the officers just sort of abandoned the men to find their own diversions, with predictable results. He said that when Daniels mandated that the officers make an effort to come up with things for the sailors to do other than raise hell, a substantial number of them did that instead of drinking and fighting.

The other story was told by a commenter on Best Defense. He said that when he was undergoing training the SGTs stressed that they were not only to aspire to be soldiers, they were to aspire to be responsible people, gentlemen if you will. That impressed him and his mates and they were able, in his view, to be both. That makes sense. Those 19 year olds are dopey and impressionable. If they see a good soldier who is also a good man, they will try to do be the same. That is just human nature.