Monday, May 19, 2008

On Being Bad Soldiers

In the June 2008 Harper's, Mark Slouka takes Colin Powell's soldierly but misleading presentation on Iraqi WMDs and Senator Jim Webb's brusque encounter with George W. Bush as points of departure:

But wait -- maybe rudeness is the point after all. Maybe rudeness, in our democratically challenged age, has morphed into a synonym for insubordination. If true, this explains a great deal. It suggests that in America today, only something done to those above us can qualify as rudeness. Done to those below it's something quite different -- a right ... What kind of culture defines "maturity" as the time when young men and women sacrifice principle to prudence, when they pledge allegience to the boss in the name of self-promotion and "realism"? What kind of culture defines adulthood as the moment when the self goes underground? One answer might be a military one. The problem is that while unthinking loyalty to one's commanding officer may be necessary in war, it is distrastrous outside of it. Why? Because loyalty, by definition, qualifies individualism, discouraging the expression of individual opinion, recasting honesty as a type of betrayal. Because loyalty to power, rather than to what one believes to be true and right, is fatally undemocratic, and can lead to the most horrendous abuses ... What we require most in America today are bad soldiers: stubborn, independent-minded men and women, reluctant to give orders and loath to receive them, loyal not to authority, nor to any specific company or team, but to the ideals of open debate, equality, honesty, and fairness.
Conversation is key -- Slouka's "ideals of open debate, equality, honesty, and fairness" -- to distinguishing the legitimate bad soldier from the merely rude one. Jim Webb's comment to Bush -- "I'd like to get him out of Iraq" or words to that effect in reply to "how's your boy?" -- is arguably rude, but whether rude or not, it speaks to a genuine disagreement on a matter of great importance. On such matters, playing Miss Manners by whining about tone of voice or choice of words sounds -- and is -- evasive.

Holding up an "iron my shirt" sign at a Hillary Clinton rally does not advance the conversation, rude as it might be. It is obstreperous but also shallow; it leads nowhere but to scorn.

Let us praise bad soldiers, but not unthinking ones.

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