This simple statement of fact has been routinely repeated in the media and solemnly intoned by commanding officers across countless parade fields, promotion and re-enlistment parties, Purple Heart award ceremonies, and military funerals in the last 14 years of “persistent conflict.” Even the White House reverently segregates the 99 percent who do not serve from the sliver of the population that “bear[s] 100 percent of the burden of defending our Nation.” Though it can be, and no doubt has been, meant as an accolade and source of pride, this statement conveys other messages that are both subtle and insidious.
In two ways, it actually undermines the challenging lessons about the profession of arms and civil-military relations currently being “renewed” and “refreshed” across the institutional Army. First, it undercuts the traditional sense of service to our fellow citizens. Second, it sows seeds of insubordination and contempt toward civilian leadership of the military, which—intended or not—is an attack on the democratic principles, institutions, and processes for which our “vocation” was entrusted to protect. For these reasons, leaders should consider policing their use of the phrase given a better understanding of its implications. Though we may be, in General Douglas MacArthur’s words, the nation’s “lifeguard from the raging tides of international conflict,” his characterization of the American soldier as rated among the “world’s noblest” and “most stainless” of history’s figures is an apotheosis. His half-century old admiration illustrates the dangerous elevation of the service-member – “serene, calm, aloof . . . as [the nation’s] gladiator in the arena of battle” – above and beyond our fellow citizens, in the same way that our modern “one percent” rhetoric still does.
Wake up and smell the coffee
Not long ago, in distinctly well-known coffee shops around the country, the corporate managers overseeing the purveyors of these expensive espresso drinks began stacking pyramids hardcover copies of the non-fiction work of this very coffee company’s CEO. Among other things, this book lauded the recent history of his business during which he claimed the company wisely redirected its resources and energy away from hyper-expansion and toward perfecting service and products, attempting to recapture the brand-loyalty and dogmatic mood of exceptionalism that some say pervade the company and its loyal customer base.
This advertised air of exceptionalism—this hubris—is not uncommon in modern, savvy advertising campaigns. This same breed of hubris, however, has also found its way into official military recruiting campaigns and unofficial public discourse by military leaders addressing their troops and families at highly-symbolic unit events. The message is a simple one: that volunteer service-members—immersed in combat abroad, and recovering from repeated tours of duty at home—represent part of the “just one percent of the American population” that dons the uniform and are, consequently, unique bastions in the defense of liberty. This strategic communication, just like the high-end coffee company does with its self-promoting corporate autobiography, attempts to portray and then validate our own sense of exceptionalism: who we are, what we do, and why we do it after a decade of warfare and incalculable human loss. Though simply stated, this message is also subtly corrosive in way under-appreciated by its communicators.
The Rhetoric of Exceptionalism
After a nearly ten years of sustained combat operations, the military has become very good at training its personnel to think about the layered “second and third-order effects” of their tactical decisions and actions beyond simply the body count or geography gained or lost. Unfortunately, the military is not as well-suited, despite a decade of slogging through repeat deployments fighting non-traditional small wars, in grasping the second or third-order implications of how its members define themselves professionally—our internal strategic branding. Like the coffee-shop metaphor, this branding exemplifies what I call the “exceptionalism rhetoric” of its leaders. I make no assumptions or conclusion about the effects it can have on corporate employees, or on consumers. However, I do conclude that the military’s inability to foresee the potentially dangerous road it travels when employing this rhetoric speaks poorly of our adherence to the bedrock principles guiding the military’s intrinsic role within our constitutional structure. As one recently retired Lieutenant General warned, we risk encouraging an “aloofness” from our perched spot of “splendid military isolation.”
Commanders often indiscreetly make use of this “one-percent” rhetorical refrain. By implication, we troops are especially deserving of praise from a grateful (but non-empathetic) nation that is unaffected by, or selfishly uninterested in replicating, our selfless service. When repeated over the course of a career, or even a single tour of duty or enlistment, this message naturally drives its listeners (our soldiers) to adopt two attributes that military leaders should loathe as antithetical to the concept of selfless service. First, a comforting sense of entitlement; second, ironically, a discomforting sense of abandonment: entitled to greater respect and thanks from the civilian community at large, yet abandoned by the same population, evidenced by so small a percentage actively engaged in a military during a time of war.
Why the Hubris?
This self-aggrandizing “once-percent” label is no doubt employed in good faith by leaders for improving troop morale and distinguishing the sacrifice borne by so many veterans and their families from the general population. Contrary to conventional wisdom though, such rhetoric is unproductive: like preaching to the choir, it cannot add anything new to our current condition—the audience that hears it already serves and knows the challenges. Such rhetoric is also unprincipled: it seriously risks undermining the credibility of a civilian-led military in our constitutional scheme. It strongly hints that “America doesn’t deserve its military.” This is an irresponsible idea and a highly undesirable signal to rank-and-file service-members.
Recently, the Army sponsored a professional writing competition that reflects this conventional wisdom. The competition invited serious analysis directed at any aspect of “inform[ing] our political leaders and national media as to what it means to be a member of the profession of arms.” This presumes, however, that the “profession of arms” is in some sense definable, and that it can be expressed meaningfully to those groups and institutions that are less familiar with its culture. This presumption carelessly skips past a necessary predicate: in order to be in a position where we can communicate the profession of arms externally, we must—first—internally reflect on how we define and characterize ourselves in relation to non-members of the profession. After this self-reflection, the conclusions we then champion must be appropriate and consistent with our place sketched out by the Constitution.
Our leaders’ repeated use of the “one-percent” rhetoric is just the opposite. Generally, the cultural differences between military and non-military are seen as axiomatic. It is self-evident that our profession—uniquely tasked with supporting and defending the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic—is structurally divided into both uniformed and civilian communities, and that the essential features, language, and philosophies of one of these cultures may not translate well in the other. For the most part, civilian employees of the Department of Defense, or in our communities at large, are static: they do not transfer from base to base every few years, traversing the country or the globe; they do not bear arms in combat; they are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice for missing work, for telling off their bosses, or for being un-courageous. It is, likewise, clear that the collective Armed Forces—encompassing both military and civilian members—are distinctly different from the population from which it is drawn. The commonly-held assumption is that the differences are legion; that the language barrier of sorts demands a concerted effort at translating the challenges we face into a dialect more clearly understood by those who rarely or never encounter these challenges.
Yet, oddly enough, we constantly aim to both label and then exploit those differences for our own organizational benefit, as a kind of brand value. For instance, the Navy’s slogan “A global force for good,” the Marine Corps’ recruiting promise that “Marines are men and women who, once trained, will meet the highest standards of moral and physical strength,” the Air Force’s three Core Values and its Airman’s Creed, and the Army’s universally-posted Warrior Ethos, Army Values, and the Soldier’s Creed are examples of the institution reminding itself (and the public) of its unique roles and responsibilities on behalf of the nation it protects. They are carefully constructed as mantras that we adopt for ourselves and use to define the expectations of our profession.
There is no doubt that highlighting, at least to each other, the desirable and exceptional characteristics of our service-members has at least one valid purpose: it promotes professional standards of conduct that ennoble ordinary citizens to perform extraordinary services and sacrifice. But doing so necessarily implies that those outside of the Armed Forces, unconstrained or unguided by such standards, are of substantially different (and presumably weaker) cloth altogether.The subtle implications of our mantras say we are “separate and unequal” in the same way that the “one-percent” rhetoric does. These slogans, directed both toward the organization and outward toward the public, have a recruiting and retention value as their redeeming quality. The “one-percent” rhetoric, on the other hand, as no redeeming quality.
Promoting our distinctiveness with sound-bite length platitudes incurs a risk that we will alienate ourselves from the very population that we support. This cultural differentiation, alone, is not problematic. I would be hard-pressed to find a single service-member who, wearing the duty uniform evoking a “monastic order” and traveling through airports on leave from a dirty and tiresome combat tour, did not feel isolated and in some sense better than the throngs of civilians going about their day-to-day. Many observers of the modern, all-volunteer military have commented with concern about such reverse elitism, yet service-members are not picketing, nor have they been seen to spit upon the civilian majority in public venues as an expression of their disdain. It would seem, then, that any social “aloofness” is (at least for now) a benign symptom of this one-percent exceptionalism.
The more malignant symptom of this exceptionalism has not been widely discussed. The problems begin when leaders use that cultural distinctiveness to adopt for themselves and their units a message that is both self-flattery and at the same time self-flagellation: that the military’s noble sacrifice is but our painful cross to bear. This is, of course, true. Reminding ourselves of the tortured obvious, that such a small percentage of the citizenry shares in our sacrifice and therefore empathizes with our lot, is meant as a thank-you.
However, when this message is delivered by our own, it strikes a different, discordant note. Throughout history, when the militaries are stirred by disillusionment in the ranks, the civilian government rightly quakes and fears. Our own colonial history, in which a relatively small percentage of citizens took up arms and doggedly fought what must have seemed an unbeatable enemy over many years with little to no pay that it was promised, was not immune to the winds of coup d’état as demonstrated by the so-called (and aborted) Newburgh Conspiracy. We must remind ourselves, instead, that we are not Spartans, regardless of the iconic and stoic warrior imagery such references evoke. We do not elect nor tolerate “warrior-kings;” we do not segregate and sequester our most fit children to train them in the profession of arms to be a caste among themselves; we do not live in Plato’s Republic.
Instead, we volunteer to serve in a profession that carries intrinsic sacrifice that others, who choose not to volunteer, may not experience. We volunteer to subject ourselves to policies, programs, and a way-of-life that is largely directed by outside conditions and actors. We volunteer to self-moderate, to self-censor, and to self-subordinate. We volunteer to remain in the service, even after debilitating wounds or family-wrenching deployments. We volunteer, for whatever myriad reasons, to protect not only a way of life in which liberty is taken for granted, but also to “support and defend” our Constitution and the principles for which it was drafted: a country whose armed forces are drawn from the public, who serve the public, who return to the public; an apolitical military that takes its orders and strategic direction from democratically-elected civilians; an armed force that can neither raise its own funds, nor declare its own wars, nor even choose its highest-ranking uniformed officers.
The “one-percent” rhetoric, intended as a tribute and note of appreciation, is a subtle call-to-dissatisfaction: a suggestion that our combat fatigue and weariness justifies not only an aloofness and callousness toward the non-uniformed, but also justifies a disrespect and contempt for the elaborate command-and-control architecture that the Framers so wisely erected. The disaffection that the rhetoric of exceptionalism breeds contradicts our volunteered services in support of a civilian-led institution. It is incompatible with the oaths we take. The rhetoric of exceptionalism, rather than building cohesion and esprit de corps, is divisive and undermines our credibility as a volunteer force. It is a step backward.
[Image by Leo Reynolds, via Flickr]