Medium Speed, Some Drag
The Role of the Average Guy in Warfare
Some readers will have heard or read my Two Lies theory of America’s relationship with her military. The short version is that many American citizens tell themselves two lies about their Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. The first lie is that service members are uniformly, or almost uniformly, heroes, the second is that we are the bottom five percent of our high school classes that had no other options but to join the military.
The first lie is probably more common in this century, although perhaps less dominant than when I was still in. It’s a lie that serves the interests of the Department of Defense-- any budget cutting proposal will attract negative attention for any politician that dare suggest it, regardless of whether the cut has merit or not. And veterans become a convenient political football for any number of issues.
It’s a fiction that feels good—we’ve an entire industry devoted to thanking our heroes, what could be more wholesome? Older Americans, and those with some historical awareness of the 60s and 70s also see it as a chance to atone for the absolutely inexcusable treatment Vietnam veterans received when they came home. Personally, I always feel chagrined being thanked by the guys who served in Vietnam. Veterans have longer institutional memories than the general populace, and most of us know in our bones that the guys in ‘Nam usually had harder wars and shittier welcomes home.
To some extent, though, this lie serves my generation of veterans. I feel as awkward as any other Iraq/Afghanistan vet being thanked for my service, but my interview for the first job I got out of the Army was sealed as soon as the interviewer realized I had a Purple Heart. Oh, I was articulate and reasonably intelligent in the interview as well, sure, but I was hardly the only candidate who could string sentences together coherently. In the General Manager’s eyes, I was a war hero, and my (accurate) protestations to the contrary only made it worse.
Joking aside, the raw truth is that the day I was wounded, I did not one damn thing that could be considered heroic. The infantrymen and medics who saved my life, stopped the bleeding, and got me on a MEDEVAC bird to the Combat Support Hospital? Yes. Those guys are my heroes. But I was just fortunate not to have died, I was certainly no more worthy of survival than the two men who didn’t make it out of that Humvee.
And I want to be clear that aside from that terrible day, and a handful of other exciting times, the biggest threats I faced in the Army weren’t enemy fire but absurdity and bureaucracy—but perhaps I repeat myself. It’s likely those enemies that have left me angrier than the survivor’s guilt or combat stress.
And let’s be real real here. A lot of military occupation specialties (MOS) are far safer than working an oil rig or a coal mine, or just driving in certain parts of Dallas during rush hour.
This isn’t to deny the existence of real heroes in the ranks. I served alongside more than a few who absolutely lived up to the label of hero in combat, and most of them were also good men in their day to day lives as well. That being said, I also served alongside some rat bastards and more than one coward. The number of fools and villains I knew was far less than the number of good solders, but it was enough to convince me never to uncritically apply the word hero to everyone who ever wore a uniform.
Like the first lie, the second lie, that soldiers are, “the scum of the Earth enlisted for drink,” to borrow from Arthur Wellesly, has some concrete examples. You don’t talk to a veteran long before hearing some humorous drunken exploit, and we have a nontrivial number of incidences of domestic violence, substance, abuse, suicide, and a host of other issues.
Furthermore, many people absolutely do enlist because it’s a step up the socioeconomic ladder for them. My own people were coal miners before that whole kerfluffle with Japan.
But on the other hand, active duty and veteran test scores actually average higher than the country’s average. We have a higher per capita of high school diplomas and officers and warrant officers almost uniformly have bachelor’s degrees. How necessary that four year degree is to being an officer is a matter of debate, but nonetheless, the military isn’t entirely or mostly comprised of uneducated rubes with no other options. It’s a cross section of society, always has been. Albeit, that cross section has a distinct tendency towards conservativism up through it’s middle officer ranks.
So, what’s my point? Even assuming I’m right, and that the average man or woman has a place in the military, we’ve been living with the two lies for awhile now; what’s the problem?
My point is that the current recruiting crisis isn’t only a result of twenty plus years of unaccountable strategic incompetence and deception by our senior officers. It isn’t only a result of the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. And it isn’t only a result of social experimentation with the military that is directly in conflict with the right-leaning population that usually fills the ranks.
To be clear, all of those are disastrous for national defense. For example, the Army turned their recruiting efforts towards a more progressive audience in 2022 and we got… the worst recruiting year since the end of the draft. While I’ve known several soldiers who were Left leaning, including some genuine badasses, the fact is that the Left as a group just isn’t as interested in military service as conservatives have been. Now that conservatives are increasingly disenchanted their political opponents are not filling the gap. The message seems to be that they’re now super interested in brinksmanship with Russia, but still expect someone else to do the fighting if the war widens.
To be clear, I think stymying Russia in Ukraine is totally valid strategically, I’m just annoyed with people who will ends but are unwilling to become means.
In addition to all that (and more), our inability to fill the ranks is also the inevitable result of a now deeply imbedded assumption that your average citizen has no place in the military.
If you can go to college and get a white-collar job, a term of service is just a distraction on your life path. Let someone with a mediocre GPA and three digits on their SAT serve instead of you. Unless, of course, your material for a Trident or a Green Beret, then THAT’S super badass, you should do that. But just serving your country in a regular unit? Ew. Couldn’t you get into college?
The Special Operations types are vital to our national security—and I want to be utterly clear that I am not under the delusion that I would’ve passed their various selection and qualification courses. I have the utmost respect for the men who have completed SFAS and the Q Course or BUD/S. I couldn’t have done it and they deserve their glory. Yes, even the SEALs and their interminable string of books, movies, and TV shows. More power to ‘em.
But the raw truth is that none of our wars were won primarily on the strength of elite units. I would further argue that failing to swell our ranks from the populace at large to create a LOT more regular units was part of how we lost our most recent wars.
Taking WWII as an example, Frogmen, Marine Raiders, the Rangers, and the OSS all fulfilled vital roles, but ultimately what crushed the Reich and Imperial Japan wasn’t a handful of carefully selected commandos trained to the finest edge possible—it was a metric fuck ton of Good Enough soldiers with decent equipment that was easily repaired and plentiful in supply.
But counterinsurgencies are different, right? Surely, eating soup with a knife requires warrior-scholars of the highest order… except what really pacified Iraq, for the time we had it pacified, was putting thousands of regular dudes with rifles on the streets to bolster thousands more Iraqis with rifles. Of course it was more complicated than that, but my summary, while simplified, isn’t inaccurate. Quantity has a quality all its own.
Don’t get me wrong, the operators were vital for killing/capturing HVTs and performing other high risk high reward missions, but the most hyper-trained, carefully selected twelve men in the world still can’t do the job of an adequately trained division. Nor should we expect them to, and trying to put every mission in the world on their shoulders does both them and National Security a disservice.
Whenever we’ve achieved victory, we’ve often deployed elite warriors who contributed well out of proportion with their numbers—but they were, in every case where we’ve won, supplemental to an exponentially larger number of regular guys. Guys who possessed enough physical and mental resilience to be useful, perhaps even valiant in combat, but who were never going to wear a Green Beanie, a Scroll, or a Budweiser.
And that’s why making service something for the extremes is ultimately self-destructive as a country. Relegating mental and physical toughness and courage to something hyper-specialized, not a common virtue to be expected of any random citizen means we create a shallower pool of fighting men. Courage and fortitude are our common heritage. For our sakes and the sake of our posterity, we cannot let them remain the province solely of the select few.