Why They Are Applauding

August 7, 2013

You know you are maturing when the Saturday morning crossword starts to take precedence over brunch mimosas and Bloody Marys. I am not cultured enough to finish the New York Times crossword, nor do I have the inclination to throw the Sulzbergers a few shekels to ease the brakes on their long slide downward.  The Washington Post crossword is just about right for a knuckle dragger like me; that I enjoy their national security fare is merely a bonus. I ready my quill (pencils are for children) and punctuate the early morning silence every few seconds with the faint scratches of victory.

This past Saturday was the same as every other—after about 20 minutes of alternating between scrambled eggs and terse clues, I had enveloped the enemy into the upper right quadrant.  I set my sights on the seven letters of 12-Down that were manning the last line of defense.  My eyes scanned down to read the clue: “Soldier.”  I smiled.  I used to dabble in such business a few years ago and, although I lacked that all important first letter and a few others, I assumed that this position would likely soon fall.

I checked the horizontal crossings against possible clue synonyms.  One minute turned to two, two to four, and I wondered if I had lost my edge.  I pondered surrendering despite being so close to my objective when I realized that the crossword writer likely sees the world through a very different perspective than I.  Begrudgingly I solved the clue, and with it the puzzle soon fell. Many, if not most, people reading the clue would interpret it differently from its intended meaning, so too it may never have occurred to me to use “Warrior” as a synonym for “Soldier”.

However, I was a rifleman in the Marine Corps from 2005 to 2009.  Not in the sense that “Every Marine is a Rifleman,” but an actual Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) designated 0311 Rifleman.  I did a tour in Iraq when it was fun (2006) and again when it was not (2007).  In the defense contracting world we talk about supporting the “Warfighter”, which means anyone and everyone wearing a military uniform, regardless of how much war they actually fight.  Al Gray, a legendary Marine Commandant, brought the “warrior” moniker into vogue during the 1980s.  He succeeded in buttressing institutional support for the Corps by perpetuating this identity, but at the cost of blurring the citizenry’s view of the distinct and complex machinery that enables us to successfully grind the gears of war.

A couple of months ago I attended the Class of 2013 graduation for my old public high school in Fairfax County.  One of our corporate employees, an extremely sharp and hardworking young man, was graduating, and I wanted to support him and reminisce about my own stepping out into the world as a member of the Class of 2000.

This time there was the usual regalia, the speeches, and the honorifics.  It seemed similar, except toward the end when a speaker asked for the graduates entering the military to stand and be recognized.  Thunderous applause rained down from the bleachers across the stadium.  Neither the recognition nor the applause occurred when I graduated.  It was the largest standing ovation throughout the entire ceremony and it made me wonder.

Why was the crowd applauding?  The newly minted graduates had not yet entered the military, so the crowd was not celebrating their service.  What they were recognizing through their applause, I think, was that these young men and women were volunteering to put themselves in harm’s way by serving in the military during a time of war.  Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, Sailors—these young adults would soon be the warriors protecting us from that which is bad, dangerous, and evil.

This perception—that every service member is a warrior engaging in combat—has certainly benefitted the military.  After a dozen years of trudging along in Iraq and Afghanistan, its manifestations permeate life everywhere: high defense budgets, public applause for military service, and astronomical approval ratings for the military.  These are good things, much preferable to our own recent historical alternatives and the current realities facing many of our allies.  In the short term, our embrace of the military has done us well by many metrics.

But there is only one metric that matters.  Minnesota Vikings’ running back, Adrian Peterson accepted  the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2012 on Super Bowl Eve after the Vikings lost and were  eliminated from the playoffs.   Upon receiving the award, he said “Hopefully next year I will be winning this award again, but I won’t be here to accept it, because I will be winning…the most important award, that team award, the Super Bowl.”

Public recognition of individual achievement is enjoyable.  Increasingly generous financial emolument is satisfying.  But if we cannot define and prioritize victory for the team on the battlefield or the tools necessary to achieve it, then these things are ultimately irrelevant.

This is not about disparaging those who serve but do not fight nor come near danger.  This is about letting Americans know that to be successful, a modern military must have more than warriors.  This is about telling friends and families about the important jobs that support those that fight.  This is about moving away from the “everyman-a-warrior” saccharine narrative that we—the national security community of service members, veterans, politicians, advocates, civil servants, and pundits—have allowed the public to embrace at our collective peril.

I read the scholarly and not so scholarly articles bemoaning the supposedly increasing civil-military divide.  The military has been at war for a decade and America has been at the mall, they say.  The All Volunteer Force has divorced the public from its historical responsibilities, they say.  Maybe.

But no one forced us to pretend that we are all warriors pulling triggers.  We did that to ourselves because it was easy and immediately beneficial.  It is not difficult to understand a civil-military divide when most of the public thinks that everyone who serves fights, that most who fight kill, and that those who kill barely survive.  We allow this misperception to linger knowing it not to be true, and then accept the thanks of a grateful nation for the service that most have not rendered.

Our military and political leaders need to stop peddling to unaware Americans the belief that all troops are fighting exposed on the dangerous battlefield.  Those who are fighting cannot function without those who support them.  The Marine Rifleman cannot exist without the 90% of the Corps that supports his mission to close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.  The gears of war turn only as well as they are oiled.

The next time someone thanks you for your service, tell them who you are, what you do, and why it is important.  Supporting the troops has been good for the military, but understanding the troops is better for the mission.  When there are no more wars to wage and we are battling to justify our existence, it will be better for America too.


Dave Goldich is a War on the Rocks contributor. He served two tours in Iraq as a Marine rifleman. He currently works for Lanmark Technology Inc. in business development.