Friday, November 12, 2010

You Say You Want A Revolution

In 1968, The Beatles insisted, "when you talk about destruction/ Don't you know that you can count me out."  In his Nov. 10th Op-Ed. article, "Jefferson's Army of Nation Builders" in The New York Times, Dominic Tierney suggests that the Lads from Liverpool may have had something in common with the founders of the United States, namely, the realization that "we all want to change the world," but that ultimately, "you better free your mind instead."

Tierney notes that the traditionalist assumption that the "core mission" of the American military is to develop and wage ever-more-effective forms of conventional warfare in fact runs counter to the original purposes of the United States Army.

Envisioning a flexible corps of soldiers who could also serve as engineers, builders, topographers and scientists, early American leaders emphasized the role of the military in the maintenance of the emerging nation's own infrastructure, as well as its function as a first line of defense.

I think this is a really interesting point to consider, and not just because I'm a pacifist who thinks that no one should ever shoot or blow up something if somebody else cares about it.  The mindset of a reformer and a builder is fundamentally different from the attitude of a destroyer--although it's unfortunately true that the former can all-too-easily mask an agenda characteristic of the latter.

If we define military might solely as the ability to destroy and dominate as quickly and effectively as possible, we will quickly find ourselves at an effective impasse.  Once we've blasted the shit out of whoever or whatever we've defined as "the enemy," then what?  We send soldiers home to deal with the physical and emotional trauma they've endured, and troops eventually withdraw to watch the mess we said we were going to "fix" (i.e., attack) enter a new phase of collective chaos.

I wonder whether we've slowly come to limit our understanding of what it means to defend and protect the things that we value by overemphasizing technological flash over philosophical substance.  Action movies constantly reiterate the idea that, if someone loves you, they'll hunt down all real or perceived threats to your well-being and avenge your pain and anxiety in dramatic and explosive and sometimes terribly disgusting ways.

But to defend and protect can also mean to provide for and support the things we cherish over the long term--and that doesn't necessarily have to translate into billions of dollars spent on the latest high-tech missiles and jet fighters.   The fear of losing our technological edge is certainly worth addressing; an outdated or outsourced military is an obvious liability.

At the same time, however, the technological edge may not be the only advantage worth pursuing: instant destruction at the push of a button is ultimately a very short-term achievement.  A military tradition made up of thoughtful, informed and variously skilled soldiers is, on the other hand, a long-term benefit.

In the end, I'm with Lennon and McCartney: "when you want money/ for people with minds that hate/ All I can tell is brother you have to wait."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."