Fighting for Coveted Combat Badges and Patches

the point

W.J. Astore

What will West Point graduates do without wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Don’t worry! There are a lot more threats listed on the classroom chalkboard.

The New York Times this morning has an interesting article on this year’s West Point graduates.  With the end of the war in Iraq (at least for us) and the winding down of the Afghan conflict (again, at least for us), West Point graduates face the prospect of not being immediately deployed to a shooting war.  The article paints this as grim times, at least for the graduates, many of whom are seeking opportunities in the Special Forces for a better chance at earning “coveted” combat badges and patches.

And this is precisely the problem with a professional military that is self-defined as “warriors.”  Its members desire war: a chance, so they think, to test themselves in the crucible of combat.  They want to be where the action is, even if that action is ill-advised or even illegal under international law.

Two centuries ago, the model for West Point was a citizen-soldier engineering school, a band of brothers who would help tame our continent more through engineering skill than fighting prowess.  Our army, of course, has never been reluctant to fight when the cause was just (or when they were told by various leaders the cause was just), but the emphasis was on civilian needs first, notably the development of our nation’s infrastructure.

Contrast that with today.  The article in the New York Times includes a photo of a chalkboard used in a West Point class to explain today’s security environment.  The threats listed on the board include terrorism, cyber, Egypt, Syria, China, Iran, and North Korea (NK).  The Army’s priorities appear to be defense of the homeland (the HL), something about preserving order, and something about promoting our economic interests and values overseas.  Notably absent (as far as I can tell from the photo) was any explicit mention of the citizen-soldier ideal of supporting and defending our Constitution.

A slice of military education at West Point (Source: New York Times)

A slice of military education at West Point (Source: New York Times)

I wouldn’t want to make too much of a few words scribbled on a chalkboard.  But it appears from that list of “threats” that our West Point graduates will have plenty of opportunities in their military careers to march to the sound of gunfire.  And probably more than a few opportunities to add some “coveted” combat badges and patches to their uniforms.

They’ll be no lack, in short, of red badges of courage.  More’s the pity for ourselves and for our nation.

18 thoughts on “Fighting for Coveted Combat Badges and Patches

  1. As a child I joined the Boy Scouts. We coveted “Merit Badges” earned through doing various good deeds or learning skills which improved the environment or gave us constructive abilities. I was about eleven years old at the time.
    These grown men in our premier military academy are coveting ‘merit badges” for learning how to kill. In a previous posting you extolled the military for being a place that brought out “higher ethics” of military service.How does this indoctrination in our premier military academy, training the ‘leadership’ jibe with the claim of a higher ethic of “service”?

    • Military academies attract young men and women with high ideals; or, young men and women seeking high ideals. Ideals like integrity and service and excellence. At the same time, these cadets also seek to prove their mettle by displaying physical courage in battle. Ideals of service to the Constitution are not incommensurate with physical courage. The problem is that today’s military puts too much emphasis on the “warrior” image. And an officer who lacks the appropriate combat badges and patches/ribbons is looked down upon, even though he or she may display moral courage in other ways.

      This trend reflects two aspects of our society: a coarsening of American culture (with a concomitant rise of militarism and a disparagement of the “weak” and poor and vulnerable), and the decline of the citizen-soldier ideal. Omar Bradley has been tossed aside for the Patton- and MacArthur-type of officer. The ones who see wars as opportunities to win more “merit” badges.

      Too bad so many of those merit badges are red ones worn by young men and women in body bags.

  2. Another item missing from that blackboard: exterminate Muslims and anyone else deemed a threat to the rule of Jesus over our Earthly realm. I say this in deadly seriousness. I hope West Point is not as ugly a nest of “christian” fundamentalism as your own Air Force Academy, Col. Astore, was found to be a few years ago. “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war.” In a somewhat related matter, I am finally reading HIS EXCELLENCY, GEORGE WASHINGTON, by Joseph J. Ellis (the book is about a decade old already). GW apparently first used the phrase “this band of Brothers” (which is from Shakespeare’s HENRY IV, yes?) on US turf. This book is quite the eye-opener. Seems Washington was one of the most ambitious, crassly opportunistic, figures in our history. Hiding behind a pose of “Aw, shucks, you can’t really want ME to lead you?” he inserted himself at every opportunity into positions where his peers would find him the natural choice. Oh, and he lost more battles than he won over his military career! A real genius at Public Relations, for sure!

    • Of course Washington was ambitious, Greg, else he’d never have been president. The point is that his ambition knew bounds. He was not a Napoleon, whose ambitions were unbounded. Also, it didn’t matter how many battles Washington lost. What matters is that he won the war. He kept his army intact and viable until the victory at Yorktown.

      I left the Academy before the religious scandal broke, but it is true that evangelical Christianity was becoming too strong at a public institution that is supposed to be studiously neutral on the question of religion. Of course, you really can’t separate God and country and military service without fundamentally changing American culture. Good luck with that.

      • “Of course, you really can’t separate God and country and military service without fundamentally changing American culture. Good luck with that.” Your quote

        This has only come about as a result of our wars of choice that have no meaning other than to secure resources and hegemony over a large part of the world for markets. they are somewhat somewhat reminiscent of Japan, Germany, and Italy’s actions that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
        As a veteran of WWII I can attest to the fact that God and military service had absolutely NO connection. It was not a part of “American culture”. You were in “for the duration” for a very good reason. Very large air, land, and sea fleets of three heavily armed nations had shown the same inclination to control the world as we show today.
        Under G.W. Bush’s regime “god and country” was put in the military propaganda in order to cover up the real lack of reasons for such vast invasions of weak countries.

      • For better or for worse, the military of 2014 is very different from the military of 1944. From my own experience, today’s military puts much more emphasis on God and country. And for many reasons, some of them cultural, some of them historical, and some of them connected to a military that is “all-volunteer,” i.e. recruited from much narrower segments of American society, sectors that are more conservative, more evangelical, more rural and small-town and “traditional,” than the rest of America.

  3. That sounds more like an excuse by the military than a reason for ignoring our constitutional separation of church and state. The function of the military is to protect our nation not sideline our constitution.

    • I’m not sure it’s an excuse. More an expression of reality. If we want a military that’s more representative of America in its widest sense, we need a draft with no exemptions. And we need a people who demand a military that serves our ideals. Too many in America either condemn the military or genuflect before it. Both are wrong.

      • Under no circumstances should the youth of the United States ever allow military conscription to blight their lives and hopes for the future as it did with so many of my generation. Let those who wish to start wars themselves march away to fight them at their own expense. Leave the rest of us alone. We’ve done enough already.

        I never thought that one positive thing ever came from America’s devastating War on Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), except that 18-year-old citizens could finally vote. That latent threat of massive political involvement by the young, more than anything else except grinding poverty and lack of economic opportunity, explains today’s so-called “professional” — or mercenary — military establishment. Add dogmatic religious superstition (i.e., GAWD) and belligerent nationalism (i.e., “country”) to the mix and you get a “Crusading” military establishment that destroys and kills not just for a meager pay check, a few meals per day, the promise of some future educational assistance, and some cheap trinkets to wear but for “salvation” and “glory.” What a toxic combination of every conceivable horror. The “terrible worm in his iron cocoon” has returned from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to again devastate huge swaths of the earth in the name of two lethal abstractions covering for a simple but corrosive venality.

        Essentially, though, as George Orwell pointed out in 1984, permanent war no longer proves decisive anywhere, since we win all the battles against the barely armed foreign peasants but lose the wars that we have no real reason for fighting. Nonetheless, and impervious to all experience, the U.S. military continues blundering along, even as it swells and rots from within, chiefly through the self-interested economic and political interests of a few who seek their own aggrandizement, sometimes referred to as a “career.” Permanent war against someone somewhere — and it really doesn’t matter against whom — has only one purpose: namely to use up the productive capacity of the economy in wasteful destruction so that the fruits of the industrial machine do not go to raising the general standard of living. Consequently, the U.S. military establishment constitutes one vast money-laundering and political power scam. As such, it threatens the very country it purports to “defend.” As Orwell put it:

        “The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.”

        The U.S. military — through its wasteful squandering of our national resources — exists to keep the plutocratic oligarchy at the apex of the economic pyramid intact and the masses at the base of the pyramid mired in poverty and ignorance. Hence the incessant, blaring refrain of “GAWD” and “country,” two lethal abstractions propounded by priests and kings throughout history, virtually guaranteed to terrify and subjugate the people into sullen, passive subservience. Fortunately, only one half of one percent of the American people want anything to do with this kind of “service.” As Private Jessica Lynch explained her own situation: “I joined the army to get out of Palestine, West Virginia, where I couldn’t even get a job at Wal Mart.” The U.S. military had so little actual fighting to do against the Iraqi “army” that it had to invent a heroic fable around this one poor girl who got lost and shot up and eventually rescued by some Iraqi doctors. Lights! Camera! Action!

        Only one thing explains why the U.S. has suffered “only” 6,000 dead in its recent decade of debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan: namely, the absence of a Draft. Had conscription existed, that total would surely have exceed ten times as many. The cheaper the human life available to it, the more of that life the U.S. military will squander. So No Draft. Not Now. Not Tomorrow. Never. The self-styled “Best and the Brightest” (or today’s “Worst and the Dullest”) can take it from here all by themselves. I recommend making every West Point or Air Force Academy graduate a buck private and let them work their way up from there. Same for the Navy and Marine Corps. Nothing like learning a trade from the bottom up, and it will certainly save on pension costs, as most of them will only make it to first lieutenant or captain by the time they retire after twenty years. Way past time to seriously demobilize the wasteful, money-laundering beast.

      • Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing for a return to conscription. Quite the opposite. But if we accept an “all volunteer,” i.e. professional or mercenary military, we the people must also accept the consequences of the same. A military that defines itself, not as American, but as something other than American. Or, an ideal of America, the ideal of “God and Country.”

        A military that is separate from the people is the antithesis of the democratic ideal. It is another symptom of how far we’ve drifted from the ideals of our founders.

        Your critique is powerful, MM, but where does it leave us? What is the next step in reforming our ways?

    • “Hoover up, and Trickle Down.” “Public Funds into Private Pockets.” The real and enduring mission of the U.S. military establishment, which, as we saw on 9/11/2001 couldn’t even defend the Pentagon from a handful of unarmed Saudi Arabians who cleverly turned some commercial jet airliners into flying Molotov cocktails. Those damned foreign “improvisers” get the best of our evangelical “engineers” every time using our own stuff against us at practically zero cost to themselves — other than a handful of expendable lives.

      And how come the foreign “dead enders” who keep defeating us don’t need our “training” to beat us while the foreign puppets we support always seem to need decades of our “training” in order to lose? Which reminds me of what military historian Martin van Crevald said about U.S. military training of the Iraqi army: “The only thing the Americans can train the Iraqis to do is how to kill Americans. How stupid can they be?” As a former “Vietnamizer” of the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam’s brown-water naval forces, I can answer from experience: “Pretty damn stupid.”

      • MM–In another remarkable coincidence, just this evening I watched the chapter of Oliver Stone’s “Untold History of the United States” (done for HBO, now out on DVD) dealing with the Carter, Reagan and Gorbachev years. Mr. Stone’s narration stated that the U.S. DID, in fact, send training manuals to the “mujahadeen” combatting Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the early years of that war. Of course we now know support for these radical “jihadists” ultimately went far beyond mere pamphlets. Despite my own time in U.S. Army I actually do believe there are a few intelligent officers there. It’s that old bugaboo HUBRIS that was discussed here recently that keeps leading the U.S. down blind alleys of foreign policy. I am confident that 50 years from now Afghanistan will still be an unconquerable, ungovernable nest of tribal rivalries. And I fervently hope there will still be some Americans who understand that absolutely every U.S. casualty suffered there was meaningless and unnecessary. Brought no improvement to the people there, brought no security to our citizens here at home (quite the opposite on both counts). Sadly, I am also confident that no architect of this war will have been tried in this country for his/her crimes.

  4. In other words, speaking of the Evangelical, Crusading U. S. military in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa:

    The Terrible Worm in his Iron Cocoon

    The terrible worm in his iron cocoon:
    The knight in his armor enclosed,
    Has gone off again on a global Crusade
    Which has left his own country exposed.

    His lines of supply girdle heaven and earth;
    Expenses grow terribly huge;
    While folks back at home find themselves unemployed,
    Yet they shrug, after them the deluge.

    Or so they suppose as the flood of lost jobs
    Washes over their living room floors,
    While off in Iraq, and Afghanistan, too,
    Their troops break in through the front doors,

    Then haul off the males in the household to jail
    For “being of age” to resist:
    A “crime,” we insist, ‘cause our saying makes “law,”
    Enforced by the gun and the fist.

    The troop in his tank behind sunglasses blank,
    In his man-from-mars uniform finds,
    That grabbing the native oppressed by the balls
    Beats winning their hearts and their minds.

    Now bankruptcy rules in the land of the fools
    Where the terrible worms got their start
    Then charged off to do what the world would soon rue
    As not worth the tiniest fart.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2009

  5. Professor Astore asks: “What is the next step in reforming our ways?”

    Well, I just checked and the U.S. government still maintains what it calls a “Selective Service System” which requires every American male aged 18-24 to register for military conscription. Failure to register carries several penalties. If conscription doesn’t exist, then why does any young American male have to register for it? And why do not American females aged 18 to 24 have to register for conscription? But in fact, the U.S. government has no business knowing the names, ages, gender, and addresses of any young American. So, I say, abolish the Selective Subservience System. That will do nicely as the next step in reforming our ways.

    As for further steps, I propose term limits on military service: a maximum of two four-year terms of service in the active-duty military — the same as the Commander-in-Brief. Then, for those who wish to earn a supplemental military retirement pension, a further twelve years of service in a state militia would suffice. My step-father served a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Navy during WWII and later served 16 years in the Navy Reserve. He got a small pension to supplement his regular retirement from civilian employment. If that could work for him, it could work for anyone else.

    As Groucho Marx used to say: “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”

  6. In November of 1970, I found myself standing in ranks one day at an awards ceremony while the Navy captain who commanded our little river-support base decorated a reserve SEAL lieutenant for ostensible action against the enemy — or against some local Vietnamese, at any rate. I listened with growing amazement as the captain read out the particulars of a recent engagement in which the SEAL lieutenant led his squad of enlisted men in chasing a local Vietnamese man into a little grass “hootch” (or dwelling) whereupon the Vietnamese man pulled the pin on a hand grenade, dropped it onto the floor and dove out a window, leaving the whole squad of Navy SEALs standing around together in this hut with a lethal little bomb rolling around between their feet. Fortunately for them, the grenade didn’t go off. The SEAL lieutenant tried to make a joke out of things, cheerfully saying: “attendance will be up in church on Sunday.” At any rate, the captain pinned a medal on the chest of the SEAL lieutenant, uttering words I will never forget:

    “You just keep up the aggression and I’ll keep the medals flowing.”

    I couldn’t believe my ears. Instead of getting his ass reamed out for recklessly endangering his own life and the lives of the men he led, the SEAL lieutenant got a little trinket to wear and the promise of more if he only kept on acting like a bloody fool. Which he predictably did. Early in January of 1971, the SEAL lieutenant led his squad up a canal in a canoe straight into an ambush, getting himself killed and several of his men wounded. For years I refused to visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., because I didn’t want to face the fact that more than a few names on that wall no doubt represented reckless, foolhardy men who got themselves and others killed or maimed just so that they could “punch their tickets” and earn some medals for “combat.” Nonetheless, I did go to visit the Wall a few years back, but it just made me angry at the monumental waste and stupidity of not just that misbegotten debacle, but the several others that continue in their bloody courses today.

    So these strutting, preening shave-tail cadets presume a personal entitlement to a career spent ravaging foreign countries in service to corporate stock speculators and bible-thumping preachers? Well, piss on their careers, I say. Let them try to find honest employment in the real working world. I have seen the results of their mindless, medal-coveting recklessness. A promised “flowing” stream of decorations for such needless conduct does no one any credit whatsoever.

    • BRAVO, Mike!!! One must always be suspicious of the claims made in these commendations. Perhaps we should put in an award request for Bombardier Yossarian for blowing up all those fish in the Italian harbors!

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