It is controversial, and even uncomfortable, for many progressives to talk about individual responsibility for military service, particularly during an unpopular war, started with what many see as a dubious rationale. Many contend that because they neither voted for nor support George W. Bush, they have ample reason to be excused from military service. And their progressive values, they presume, support work for the Peace Corps or Teach for America, but not the uniformed services. Others, especially those from “good” families and schools, suppose that military service simply isn’t for people like them: Ivy League schools sent half their graduating classes for a tour of duty during periods of the Cold War, but today the percentages hover in the tenths of 1 percent. These people wouldn’t shoulder colors in a Clinton, Gore, or Kerry presidency, either.
There are two fundamental reasons for the present rift between progressives and the military. First is the emergence, during the twentieth century, of a rights-based philosophy on both the Left and the Right that sees government as a counterpoint and even a threat to the individual. Second is the Left’s reaction against the military after Vietnam, a reaction that was itself rooted in rights consciousness and, over time, solidified into a presumption that military values, and the members of the military themselves, are antithetical to progressive values. While some may charge that these characterizations are actually caricatures of the dreaded “liberal, ” these attitudes do persist. Indeed, just this year, a group of liberals, including famed activist Cindy Sheehan, published a collection of essays titled 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military. At its core, the opposition to military service on the left fundamentally misconstrues the meaning of self-government and the role of the military in the United States today. It confuses military service with militarism, equating participation in the Armed Services with subscription to the fetish of military action as a policy tool (in fact, those with military experience are often the most cautious in supporting military action). As a result, military service is left to an increasingly narrow slice of the U.S. political and economic spectrum, drawing disproportionately from military families, Midwesterners and Southerners, Christians, Republicans, and the working and middle class. In doing so, we have disconnected one of the most important arenas of national action from true democratic decision-making.
Given the likely centrality of military operations to American foreign policy over the next decade, it is time for progressives to reconsider both their attitudes toward service and their aversion to the military as a culture and value system. Indeed, the military itself–and the act of serving in it–are quintessentially progressive.
Rights Liberals vs. Civic Progressives
Today, what unites many who consider themselves “progressive” or “liberal” is the belief that the social good can best be pursued by emphasizing and expanding on the rights of individuals. These “rights liberals” subscribe to the idea that if a given policy is more likely to allow an individual to vindicate their rights and preferences, it is good. If it is likely to hinder an individual’s realization of self, it is not. And when the rights of the individual are in conflict with the dictates of the state, the former trumps the latter.
While this focus on the individual is attractive–especially to those who remember the repression and oppression of state and society against individuals based on their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation–there is an inherent weakness in this sort of society. As Harvard’s Michael Sandel has noted, this procedural liberalism creates a society in which the state is neutral with regards to people’s individual preferences and in which the concept of the individual, unencumbered by roles or responsibilities other than those they have freely and independently chosen, is paramount. As a result, such a society lacks the civic resources to sustain the institutions needed for self-government. What rights liberals ignore is another, older strain running through the left: civic progressivism. This concept holds that citizens do not stand in opposition to the state so much as they comprise it and are integral to its function. And not only because the operations of the state require people to operate them; an accountable, deliberatively democratic state requires its citizens to be engaged with it, understand it, and work within it to make it better. True democracy, then, requires civic engagement by citizens–not just debate, but participation. In this way, active self-government is actually a precondition of individual freedom and dignity.
In other words, to a civic progressive, a self-governing society makes demands on its citizens. To deliberate meaningfully about the common good requires more than the capacity to choose one’s ends and to respect others’ right to do the same. It requires both knowing something about public affairs and feeling a sense of belonging. Moreover, civic engagement requires action. The antidote to a consumer-rights- and preferences-directed society (where the individual is interchangeable with the consumer) is not merely one in which individuals only opine or even point and direct the institutions of our government. The antidote is a citizenry that actually rolls up its sleeves and laces up its boots.
Unlike the rights-based individualism in vogue among the Left, civic progressivism hails from a much older tradition. Indeed, the Democratic Party’s original philosophy is nicely summed up by its eighteenth-century name: the Democratic-Republican Party. Animated by an intellectual tradition stretching from Aristotle to Locke and Kant, its founders wished for a country where individual citizens were enfranchised to run the government with an enlightened sense of the public good–this is small “r” republicanism. But the founders of the party–including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe– wanted more than republicanism. They wanted enfranchisement to extend tothe broad mass of people: thus, democracy. They wanted neither simply mass- rule, nor wise-rule by the few, which is what they accused the “aristocratic- leaning” Federalists to prefer. The debates of the day, and the Constitution itself, are full of ideas and mechanisms for making responsible and broad self-government possible, from the system of checks and balances to Madison’s concept of allowing private interests to compete freely in order to neutralize them and the idea that a soldier’s service in defense of the country was rooted in his status as a citizen. Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, argued, “It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in its vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”
Civic progressivism was a consistent strand running through Jacksonianism into the Progressive era and the New Deal, where the question became how to preserve democratic government in the face of concentrated economic power. The leading labor union at the turn of the last century, the Knights of Labor, couched its argument for a shorter workday not in terms of individual rights, but instead in the language of civic ideals: that shorter work hours would improve the moral and civic character of workers, freeing them to engage more fully in furthering the public good.
Yet, at the same time as the Knights of Labor rose onto the scene, a nascent rights consciousness appeared among the legal debates of the day. The Supreme Court began interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment’s application of the Bill of Rights to the states; for the first time, certain rights of individuals were absolute and separate not only from federal lawmaking, but from the more powerful state lawmaking, too. After all, prior to the Fourteenth Amendment, states could and did act in contradiction to the Bill of Rights–establishing religion, for example. New Jersey, for one, restricted full civil rights to Protestants until 1844.
While many of the Court’s earliest applications of the Fourteenth Amendment were couched in the language of rights, they seemed better fitted to promote corporate interests than individual rights–ruling, for instance, in 1905’s Lochner v. New York that states could not limit work hours because doing so infringed on both parties’ right to contract (though, of course, those coerced into working long hours were hardly bargaining freely). This began to change by the 1930s during the Roosevelt presidency, when the Court continued using the language of rights, but with a more liberal interpretation. The Court even reversed Lochner on the same terms–the right to contract–that it was originally decided, now ruling that labor laws “perfected the consent” of workers in negotiating contracts.
Indeed, the New Deal era saw a growing concern for the rights of individuals apart from the state–though not exclusive of civic responsibility. Roosevelt himself spoke the language of rights. His Four Freedoms evoke the idea that individuals hold certain rights and that the government owes something specific to individuals as a consequence. But he balanced that view with assertions that individuals’ contributions to the country were necessary. The Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps were not just a system of handouts, to meet the requirement for “freedom from want, ” but salaries earned in service to the country. At Roosevelt’s first inaugural, in the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt urged that solutions to the country’s problems would be found only if the members of the nation worked together, with the “warm courage of the national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike. “
Despite the calls for duty by Roosevelt and the millions who answered during World War II, the language of rights served a political purpose during this time and did not dissipate. In the 1930s, the theory of consumerism solved the conundrum of labor/capital rivalry by reimagining all people (laborers and as consumers, with shared, market-oriented needs. Under this construct, happy consumers were those whose needs and wants were satisfied. Therefore, if the state found ways to meet consumer’s preferences, a good society would result. America’s celebration of the individual was also a “soft” way of fighting first fascism during World War II, then totalitarianism under communism. What better contrast is there to these authoritarian regimes than to emphasize the rights of the individual in the United States?
Yet even rights liberalism, in its incipient stages, saw absolute individual rights in terms of the benefit to the larger society. In the late ’40s, a leading free speech proponent, Alexander Meiklejohn, wrote, “Every voting member of the body politic [needs] the fullest possible participation in the understanding of those problems with which the citizens of a self-governing society must deal. ” Free speech is justified, in other words, because it leads to better citizenship and better self-government, not merely because it vindicates individual preferences. Over the years, though, this changed; later the courts would protect speech on the value of self-expression, quite separate from any benefit that would or would not accrue to society as a result.
John F. Kennedy continued in this civic progressive tradition. “Since this country was founded, ” he famously said, “each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. . . . Now the trumpet summons us again. . . . And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. ” The duty of citizen participation was one Kennedy returned to again and again. Speaking to relatively privileged young people, Kennedy urged in a speech at Vanderbilt University: “This Nation was not founded solely on the principle of citizen rights. Equally important, though too often not discussed, is the citizen’s responsibility. For our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. . . . Increased responsibility goes with increased ability, for of those to whom much is given, much is required. ” He concluded that “the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. “
But the predominance of this sentiment was as short-lived as the Kennedy presidency. Quickly, rights began to operate as trumps. They ceased to be justified in terms of the benefit they brought to society–rather, they were an end in themselves. From the civil rights movement to the free speech cases of the Warren Court and the right to privacy as enshrined in Griswold v. Connecticut, rights-as-trumps were used as a means to social good, to correct past injustices, extend liberty, and deepen American democracy. This was needed and necessary. Yet as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s patriotic calls for brotherhood were replaced with black nationalism and the personal truly became political, the civic progressive strand was swamped. And, by the 1980s, the language of rights had come to dominate progressive politics.
That began to change in the late ’80s with renewed (though, at first, largely unsuccessful) calls for national service and then picked up steam as New Democrats reintroduced the language of reciprocity into progressive notions of the citizen-state relationship. President Bill Clinton spoke of the “unifying power of citizen service, ” and praised “those in citizen service–whether in the Peace Corps, serving our country in the military, or serving in some other way–[who] embody the determination of America to draw closer together as we grow more diverse, ” an effort he characterized as “terribly important. ” Practically, this new outlook saw its clearest manifestation in AmeriCorps and the Welfare to Work initiatives. Beyond that, a younger generation of progressives began to see national service as part of their own calling, founding organizations like City Year and Teach for America, as well as charter schools around the country.
Despite this revival of civic progressivism, most organizations on the left
feature in their mission statements a list of rights they believe people to hold,
with no discussion of duties. So is it a coincidence that in the post-Cold War
era, during which the rights of the individual were elevated over the health of
society, we saw, in the words of sociologist Robert Putnam, “Americans growing ever less connected with one another and with collective life. We voted
less, joined less, gave less, trusted less, invested less time in public affairs”?
Rights liberalism has done much for the United States, but in many ways it has
become too dominant, a worldview of rights without responsibilities, leading
one Kennedy returned to again and again. Speaking to relatively privileged young
people, Kennedy urged in a speech at Vanderbilt University: “This Nation was
not founded solely on the principle of citizen rights. Equally important, though
too often not discussed, is the citizen’s responsibility. For our privileges can be
no greater than our obligations. . . . Increased responsibility goes with increased
ability, for ‘of those to whom much is given, much is required.’” He concluded
that “the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public.”
But the predominance of this sentiment was as short-lived as the Kennedy presidency. Quickly, rights began to operate as trumps. They ceased to be justified in terms of the benefit they brought to society–rather, they were an end in themselves. From the civil rights movement to the free-speech cases of the Warren Court and the right to privacy as enshrined in Griswold v. Connecticut, rights-as-trumps were used as a means to social good, to correct past injustices, extend liberty, and deepen American democracy. This was needed and necessary. Yet as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s patriotic calls for brotherhood were replaced with black nationalism and the personal truly became political, the civic progressive strand was swamped. And, by the 1980s, the language of rights had come to dominate progressive politics.
That began to change in the late ’80s with renewed (though, at first, largely unsuccessful) calls for national service and then picked up steam as New Democrats reintroduced the language of reciprocity into progressive notions of the citizen-state relationship. President Bill Clinton spoke of ” the unifying power of citizen service, ” and praised ” those in citizen service–whether in the Peace Corps, serving our country in the military, or serving in some other way–[who] embody the determination of America to draw closer together as we grow more diverse, ” an effort he characterized as ” terribly important. ” Practically, this new outlook saw its clearest manifestation in AmeriCorps and the Welfare to Work initiatives. Beyond that, a younger generation of progressives began to see national service as part of their own calling, founding organizations like City Year and Teach for America, as well as charter schools around the country.
Despite this revival of civic progressivism, most organizations on the left feature in their mission statements a list of rights they believe people to hold, with no discussion of duties. So is it a coincidence that in the post-Cold War era, during which the rights of the individual were elevated over the health of society, we saw, in the words of sociologist Robert Putnam, ” Americans growing ever less connected with one another and with collective life. We voted less, joined less, gave less, trusted less, invested less time in public affairs”?Rights liberalism has done much for the United States, but in many ways it has become too dominant, a worldview of rights without responsibilities, leading us to valorize the self and disregard the nation. In light of their history, it is incumbent on progressives to reverse this decline.
Progressives and the military
Many liberals ground their current identity in the various struggles for civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of the power of these stories derives from the description of beleaguered yet noble individuals triumphing over a powerful and unjust state. By extension, many leftists found common cause with the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, and many people took a principled stand to end our tragic involvement there. Being antiwar followed easily from rights liberalism–if the individual stood in opposition to the state, then it was incumbent upon the individual to criticize the state’s actions and to opt out of participation in its actions if he disagrees with them. The power of that logic and the social consequences of the ’60s were such that even today, among liberals too young to have protested the Vietnam War, the putative ” lessons” of the antiwar period remain fresh. Then and today, there is a too-easy orthodoxy about Vietnam in many liberal circles, where official U.S. actions were only bad, only harm was done by service members, and the errors were obvious. And such opinions have stuck even as the military and the United States have moved forward. For some liberals still, the contemporary military, and contemporary uses of military power, are a priori malignant.
Rights liberalism and the post-Vietnam, anti-military sentiment are mutually reinforcing: the former’s assertion that each individual is best able to assess whether the state’s actions are right or wrong has helped color many liberals’ belief in the immorality of U.S. military strength, a belief which in turn reinforces the image of a state in opposition to its citizenry. This stands in stark contrast to the perspective of the military member, for whom the legitimacy of action derives not from his or her own opinion, but from the action’s constitutionality as legitimately derived and legally conceived. As a result, both liberals and members of the military find it easy to see one other as ” the Other” at best, and as opposed to one other’s values at worst.
There is evidence, in fact, of growing distrust between soldiers and civilian elites (a disproportionate number of whom are Democrats). In recent research
by the Triangle Institute of Military Studies, Paul Gronke and Peter D. Feaverfound that a remarkable number of respondents, both in the general public and among leadership groups, believe that if civilian leaders order the military to do something that the military opposes, then the military will seek ways to avoid doing it, at least some of the time. Almost half of the top professionals without any military experience expect, as the authors put it, ” what amounts to military insubordination at least some of the time. ” This represents a startling amount of distrust.
This distrust can also be seen in the increasingly narrow political orientations of the military’s members. Historically and until the late ’70s, the majority of the military identified themselves as ” independent”; even in the late ’70s less than a third identified as Republican. Today, in contrast, nearly two-thirds are Republican, and the majority of the rest are ” independent. ” Given the lasting aversion of many liberals to military service–and the consequent aversion of the military toward the left–this should be no surprise. Thus the military, which in theory should draw from the entire public, is in fact composed of a narrow slice, a fact that reinforces progressives’ antipathetic perception of the military and military service.
Why is it important that the military draw from the entire public? The Framers of the Constitution spent a good deal of time thinking about the military and how it should integrate into society, giving it more attention than any other aspect of government–17 clauses in the Constitution and Bill of Rights in all. Perhaps the single theme that best ties together the Founders’ intent for the Armed Forces was that it be firmly connected to the citizenry. Therefore, control of the military is divided between Congress, the president, and the states (in what was the militia, and is now the National Guard). The militia and the Second Amendment together suggest America’s Founders expected that citizens in general would have military skills and would participate in some military activities. And, given their experience fighting Hessian mercenaries in the Revolutionary War, the Founders understandably favored the citizen-soldier, who left his civilian life in times of national need, not for money but out of civic duty.
There is wisdom to the Founders’ vision. By calling on citizens to participate in their nation’s defense, the Founders embedded one of the core functions of the state within the citizenry, rather than apart from it. Self-government requires a feedback loop between how things are working in the country and the people who make the decisions regarding its operation. When those executing military policy are intimately connected with those who make military policy, the feedback flows between them, and the society can better correct for errors. It is hard to make policy for strangers, hard to know what strangers are capable of, hard to understand a world that is strange. But for that feedback loop to work, we need to feel personally empowered to use and make our military the best it can be. And the military needs to feel that it can trust the civilian authorities to act wisely and with an eye to their needs, because they know us.
Today’s Military Missions
If progressives should feel bound by their principles to serve, they must also learn to reassess today’s military and its mission. Although the war in Iraq dominates the headlines, today’s military is less about fighting wars and increasingly about deterring them, enforcing international protocols, peacekeeping, nation-building, democracy promotion, and a wide variety of activities, precisely the tasks that a hypothetical ” progressive military” would undertake. Indeed, the range of missions and responsibilities of the U.S. military have grown steadily with globalization and great power status. As military sociologists have pointed out, in the beginning of the twentieth century, the job of the U.S. military was to manage violence; by the Cold War, the job was to manage defense; and in the new century it is to manage peace. In other words, the military is the main manager of our attempts at global security in the world today–far outnumbering, for instance, the number of diplomats we have deployed on the international scene. (This is not to undermine the important role of the State Department and international institutions; rather, the military is intertwined and engaged with each of these institutions as well.)
Today, there are more than 2 million service men and women, counting guard and reserves, spread across nearly 130 countries. The vast majority are stateside, training for various missions, conducting anti-terrorism overflights, and providing staff functions and support. The mission in Iraq employs about 130,000. About 200,000 more soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are spread across the rest of the world, engaged in weapons-of-mass- destruction interdiction, security and stabilization exercises, humanitarian relief projects, training programs with other countries’ militaries, and deterrence missions, such as in Korea’s de militarized zone. They are in the Horn of Africa for anti-terrorist operations, but also for civil affairs and humanitarian operations, building structures for local populations in Djibouti and Kenya. Elsewhere in Africa, the military is training a number of coastal countries to protect themselves, their assets, and infrastructure from offshore terrorist attacks, particularly their oil-platforms and their ships, which may be harassed by pirates. In Somalia, Americans tend to remember only the tragedy of the 18 service members killed by a Somali mob. What is often forgotten is that American troops ended a famine, literally saving hundreds of thousands of lives, a spectacular and unparalleled humanitarian success. American soldiers ended wars and sectarian violence in Bosnia and Kosovo, saving hundreds of thousands more.
Reflecting on the varied nature of the modern military’s work, the former combatant commander for the region stretching from the Mediterranean to the Middle East, Anthony Zinni, said, ” I have trained and established police forces, judiciary committees and judges, and prison systems; I have resettled refugees, in massive numbers, twice; I’ve negotiated with warlords, tribal leaders, and clan elders; I have distributed food, provided medical assistance, worried about baby care, and put in place obstetrical clinics; I’ve run refugee camps; and I’ve managed newspapers and run radio stations to counter misinformation attempts.”
The range of the modern military mission requires unprecedented flexibility on the part of the individuals on the ground. The Marines have been trainingfor the ” three-block” war since the mid-’90s–this describes the scenario in which the Marine may separate warring combatants on the first block, cradle a baby on the second block, and fire on an attacking enemy on the third. The military talks about the ” strategic corporal, ” how the actions of even the very junior enlisted can have enormous repercussions, for good or ill: 30-year-old captains may become de facto mayors, and 25-year-old lieutenants may find
themselves advocating for U.S. medical treatment of civilians who’ve gotten injured in private life. The military does, of course, fight wars. But, in the words of one Air Force major, military members can and do strive to “make the partof the conflict we touch as good as we can. To bring good to an evil situation; to cradle and feed the orphans; to destroy those who are given to evil; to tend the wounds of the enemy soldier; to smile at a group of scared civilians. . . . If you weren’t doing it, someone else would be, and you’d rather be there trying to do good than have someone else there who might not.”
Not only is the military’s mission increasingly oriented toward goals progressives could embrace, but the military community itself shares many progressive values. Recently, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published “American Military Culture in the Twenty-First Century,” a report finding the culture to be “rich in the traditions of self-sacrifice, discipline, courage, physical rigor, and loyalty to comrades and country.” As Democratic activist and blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who served in the Army in the early ’90s, wrote recently in The American Prospect, “The Army taught me the very values that make us progressives–community, opportunity, and investment in people and the future.” The progressive national security blog Democracy Arsenal calls the Joint Forces Command, the military command tasked with innovating and consistently reforming the Armed Forces, “possibly the most progressive organization in the U.S. government,” pointing to the Command’s use of conflict-resolution professionals in military planning sessions. Democracy Arsenal also describes how military lawyers have become global human rights champions for their work defending the rights of prisoners in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Progressives who join the service could be at the forefront of these efforts, too.
Additionally, a number of aspects of military culture reflect progressive ideals unrealized in the larger culture. It is egalitarian, with the highest ranking general earning no more than 11 times the lowest-ranking private. Moreover, military communities feature low-cost, quality, licensed day care for as little as $37 a week, with drop-in care at $3 an hour. High-quality after-school programs cost $5 for the year. Health care is universal and free. Members of the military accept lower pay in part in exchange for these services that are, at their base, egalitarian. And not only was the military at the forefront of desegregation after World War II, but it continues to rank higher than non-military institutions on race and gender issues. As Moulitsas writes, “The military is perhaps the ideal society–we worked hard but the Army took care of us in return. All our basic needs were met–housing, food, and medical care. It was as close to a color-blind society as I have ever seen. We looked out for one another.”
Choosing To Serve
The Cold War is not often invoked as an example of idealism. But the civic progressives in the Democratic Party that helped author NSC 68, the seminal document of Cold War strategy, were explicit about their ideals. They argued, “The full power which resides within the American people will be evoked only though the traditional democratic process: This process requires,firstly, that sufficient information regarding the basic political, economic, and military elements of the present situation be publicly available so that an intelligent popular opinion may be formed. . . . Out of this common view will develop a determination of the national will and a solid resolute expression of that will.”
This perspective is a refreshing alternative to today’s culture of secrecy and delegation. But even if the government were to make information widely available, it would not be enough. People need experience and perspective for information to make sense. In an era when few of our educated folks know the difference between officers and enlisted, or the Army and the Marine Corps, let alone more sophisticated controversies, we are harmed in our ability to deliberate well. We lack, as Harvard’s Sandel argues, the moral bond with the community needed for good national decision-making.
On websites and mission statements of organization after organization, one reads that progressives stand for national service and national security, for constitutional democracy, and for the broad participation of all Americans in the life of the country. Isn’t it time, then–as progressives rally themselves and their younger generation to engagement in the public sector–that they encourage military service as well?
Participating in military service means taking ourselves seriously as citizens, being willing to give up certain rights temporarily, and even risking a great deal, for the good of the whole. Military service will cultivate among educated progressives literacy with what the issues of military activities are: their structures, mechanisms, relationships. The feedback our young will provide to their families and to the circles of those they know, particularly in the opinion-making class, will contribute to our ability to engage in deliberative democracy as a country.
Of course, military service is not for everyone, progressive or otherwise. Nor does it need to be–the military requires only a small percentage of our population. But there are able and talented progressive young people in America today who may rise to the values and challenges of military service. I have met many who have joined, or who were dissuaded from doing so by a privileged culture, and a liberal culture, that is convinced that this is not the appropriate path for its own. I’ve noticed some common traits in those who’ve spoken to me about their interest: these are often the people who like to stick up for the underdog, who have a sense of their physical abilities, who read history and desire to serve a cause larger than themselves at a moment of importance. Progressives would be wise to encourage these young citizens, both to contribute and to gain what they can from serving in uniform. In doing so they would be reanimating the faith that no national institution should stand aside from a group of American citizens–and that the price of our rights is paid by the duty we shoulder. The military needs the best America can offer, including progressives, in its ranks. Progressives ought to have the transformative experience of military service. And the country as a whole would be stronger if the wall between the two were torn down.