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Officers and Gentlemen

The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle

by J. Glenn Gray
Harper Torchbook, 242 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Military Men

by Ward Just
Knopf, 252 pp., $6.95

The Years of MacArthur Volume I: 1880-1941

by D. Clayton James
Houghton Mifflin, 768 pp., $12.50

Dear General: Eisenhower’s Wartime Letters to Marshall

edited by Joseph Patrick Hobbs
Johns Hopkins, 255 pp., $10.00

The Supreme Commander: The War Years of General Dwight D. Eisenhower

by Stephen E. Ambrose
Doubleday, 732 pp., $10.00

At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends

by Dwight D. Eisenhower
Doubleday, 400 pp., $7.95

Pentagon Capitalism: The Political Economy of War

by Seymour Melman
McGraw-Hill, 288 pp., $8.50

The Military-Industrial Complex

by Sidney Lens
The Pilgrim Press and The National Catholic Reporter, 183 pp., $2.95 (paper)

You can work through these books (or any others on the military) as many times as you choose, but there remains only one place to begin any discussion—with the two challenges posed by J. Glenn Gray at the end of The Warriors.

First the one concerning war itself:

Nietzsche rightly sees that war-making must be overcome through strength and voluntary decision of a strong nation or group of nations; peace will never occur as a consequence of weaknesses, exhaustion, or fear…. Prepared for by a gradual change in the disposition of dominant groups, the final stroke will come in consequence of a daring, voluntary, and decisive act of breaking the sword.1

If you are ready for that bold move, then your problem is to build a social movement that can effect the required “change in the disposition of dominant groups.” Even so, what follows may be of some help to you. For, as Gray points out, “The vast majority of our people want our ‘armed peace’ no less than their representatives, or, more correctly, they see no alternative to a peace of armed might”; 2 and a careful look at the military may help generate among civilians a greater willingness to change their own outlook. That is necessary because the closer one looks at the military the more it becomes apparent that they have truly put their backs into giving us what we said we wanted. First the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and then victory in the Holy Cold War against Communism. If the second objective now appears implausible or quixotic, even a classic aberration, it is nevertheless our responsibility to change the policy if we want the military to behave differently.

I agree with Gray about the nature of the final blow against war, but I do not think it is very effective to concentrate on that last daring act before we have given new orders to the military. Indeed, we must gather ourselves for that effort as part of changing the outlook of dominant groups. Hence I think it is useful to review our traditions and history so that we can give ourselves over to a confrontation with the immediate issues: (1) how to define and control the force we consider necessary during an interim period, and (2) how to decide when we are justified in using that force.3

Those questions immediately involve us with Gray’s second challenge: the guilt incurred in doing one’s duty when the duty involves inhumane actions, and the more general (or social) guilt one shares as a “participant in a system and an enterprise whose very essence is violence and whose spirit is to win at whatever cost.” “If guilt is not experienced deeply enough to cut into us, our future may well be lost.”4

In view of My Lai, Cambodia, and Laos, that formulation may seem a bit abstract and not focused sharply enough on the specific problems of the military-industrial complex, the bizarre monstrosities and grotesque derangements of the military’s effort to accomplish our avowed objective, or the role of the military after Vietnam. If that is so, then I suggest the trouble lies in our growing propensity to abstract our civilian selves from the seat of responsibility and guilt while at the same time we increasingly unload the blame on the shoulders of the military. (Or, the mirror image, to defend the military whatever it does.) The danger in that approach is that it will deepen the pit we have already dug almost to the depth of a grave.

For one thing, as Ward Just explains in his useful book Military Men, the military is already working to cover itself on the guilt front. In three ways, that is. First, with its own Vietnam position papers on file in the White House. Second, by punishing some of its own, Lieutenant Calley being the most recent and dramatic case. Third, and most important, with plans for the future. “We are victimized. We are called upon to take abuse from the press and the public for decisions in which we have taken no part…. We want a voice in our own destiny. We want a reasonable concern that we will be used in a place where it is reasonable to use us, and not improvise policy as we go.”5 That tells us the military is after a formal and direct and explicit voice in policy-making—not just a major say in implementation. And that could mean, if it happens, a new centralization and consolidation of power far more portentous than are represented in the military-industrial complex.

It is possible, as Just allows, that such a change would prevent another Vietnam. There are a good many officers who want out of Vietnam at least as badly as the New Left. But it might also create four or five Vietnams. Even if the balance proved favorable, it would be the worst possible way to achieve such results. For it would erase forever the constitutional principle and the traditional practice of civilian control of the military. (And as Gray observes, even one more Vietnam would finish us as a society capable of restoring its health.)

We are at the same point in dealing with the military, that is to say, as we are in confronting poverty, racial antagonisms, urban decay, educational malaise, and environmental pollution. There is a great temptation to resort to a gimmick for a quick and painless solution: to resolve an excruciating dilemma the way Oppenheimer did when confronted with the question of the H-bomb—by surrendering to the seduction of the “technically sweet” answer. But the truth is this: while the military has many weaknesses and numerous faults, and has made countless mistakes and has often pocketed any authority lying around unattended, the civilians have so far had the final responsibility. Hence dealing with the military begins and ends in dealing with civilians. Meaning dealing with ourselves and our spokesmen.

It can be done, though it clearly is becoming ever more difficult because we have lost so much of our willingness to confront the irrelevance of old ideas and to acknowledge our mistakes. Our vaunted pragmatism has almost withered in the heat of our passion for dogma. But we can gain some insight (and perhaps encouragement) by reviewing the careers of Generals MacArthur and Eisenhower. They offer a preview of the two courses we have before us: the politicizing of the military or the recommitment of the military to the primacy of the civilians (through a renewed engagement of the civilians in governing themselves).

The vital point about MacArthur is that he wanted to be Emperor rather than General. His dream was an extreme and intensely personalized version of the approach advanced more cautiously to Ward Just: the President would consult himself as Chief of Staff on the military aspects of his foreign policy. (In the third person, of course.) Let Eisenhower tell it: MacArthur disconcerted everyone because “he talked of himself in the third person,” and if he “ever recognized the existence of that line [between the military and politics], he usually chose to ignore it.”6

MacArthur is a classic example of the danger inherent in giving middle-class sons the idea that they can and should become gentlemen aristocrats or patricians or lords of the manor by way of military service. One is tempted to conclude that the deadly fault of laissez-faire capitalism was its inherent propensity to distort honest ambition into a commitment to known delusion. All that said, MacArthur played it straight and came as close to truth as his particular delusion would permit: he preferred to fade away rather than to fail. No pretender worth his ego will ever allow himself to be voted down by the friends of a haberdasher. Particularly after he has sacked a real and reactionary Emperor and then made himself into an icon of reform.

No doubt of it, MacArthur had an instinct for the viscera. Dominate The Corps at West Point, polish your already intense personal style, push your way into action assignments, make connections with politically influential senior officers, get into combat and lead your men in firefights, be sure you never receive the orders you know will stop you from routing the Bonus Army, do not stick your career into the cockpit of a tank or an airplane when all your superiors honor the infantry and the artillery, resign just before you know you will be needed in a major war, destroy the motor centers of the Japanese Empire and ignore the secondary twitching, revitalize the enemy you have defeated, and if you go for broke (the Presidency) always have a pocketful of poise (a corporation).

An awesome and commanding figure—yet flawed. Everyone, I suppose, has the urge to explain it all as the effect of mother. She surely was there. Everywhere. Always. Even after she died. But I think not. She was just the symbol of the real force at work: the desperate effort of the class-conscious American middle class to put it all together. To get into the upper class as a wielder of power. Not prestige. Not money. Power: to act upon instead of being acted on. And values: to use the power for The Good. James presents much of this in a low key, but you feel it the way your lungs tell you—even before the barometer—about the coming of a storm at sea or on the prairie. Lovely work, even if he does not accept my reading of the evidence he offers.

MacArthur’s grandfather made it to the fringes of power through politics; he had a bit of early luck, a good mind, and great energy. But, as usual, there was no way to hand on what substance had been gained. The first son (MacArthur’s father) had to earn it all over again, driven forward by the family heritage—that burr under the psyche—created by the grandfather. It was “one of nobility: A MacArthur is a man of superior mind and talents, a potential master of sundry fields; a MacArthur commands the respect of important personages at the highest levels of government and society; a MacArthur, by virtue of his family’s high rank in the Scottish aristocracy of blood and the American aristocracy of success and wealth, is obligated to conduct himself with honor, gallantry, and magnanimity.”7

No way for MacArthur’s father to honor all that in 1861 except by going to war. He could not even wait for an appointment to The Point or Annapolis. A brave and able soldier, and a leader, he chose the regular army instead of the law. His ambition, patience, ability, and performance carried him onto that marshy land of imperial administration in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War and the suppression of the rebellion. But William Howard Taft found him “politely lacking in any great consideration for the view of anyone, as to the real situation, who is a civilian.” Elihu Root had to beat back his opposition to reform programs; and Theodore Roosevelt slapped him down for intruding into foreign policy matters.8 Finally, Taft called his bluff to retire and sent him home to Milwaukee without any duties.

  1. 1

    Gray, The Warriors, p. 226.

  2. 2

    Ibid., p. 227.

  3. 3

    I am not dealing with the current literature of exposé because the focus here is on how the military acquired the opportunity for such activities.

  4. 4

    Gray, The Warriors, pp. 182, 195, 212.

  5. 5

    Just, Military Men, p. 206.

  6. 6

    Eisenhower, At Ease, pp. 213-214.

  7. 7

    James, The Years of MacArthur, p. 11.

  8. 8

    Ibid., pp. 39-41.

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