The Magazine

Soldier and Citizen

Thomas Rick's novel of civil-military relations

Jul 23, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 42 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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AMERICANS TAKE GOOD CIVIL-MILITARY relations for granted. The Constitution, military officers’ strongly ingrained acceptance of the principle of civilian control, and the fact that the services get their personnel from a broad range of the population have combined to give the United States a military stability most other countries can only envy.

But over the last few years, a number of commentators have suggested that relations between American society and the military are in serious disarray. Thomas Ricks, now the Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, contributed to that debate in his excellent 1997 book, Making the Corps, which argued that there was a growing gap between the military and the society it is sworn to protect.

Now, in A Soldier’s Duty, Ricks makes much the same point in a first-rate novel about the contemporary American military and its response to social, political, and technological change. Set in the year 2004, it tells the story of two young Army majors, Buddy Lewis and Cindy Sherman. Sherman works for the Army chief of staff, General John Shillingsworth, an old-school officer whose sense of duty was formed in the changes after Vietnam. Lewis serves as aide de camp to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General B.Z. Ames, who comes from the Army’s special forces and has an understanding of duty that differs considerably from Shillingsworth’s.

The officer corps holds the president of the United States in contempt. Despite being a Republican, he has committed two Clinton-like betrayals in the eyes of the officer corps: He has issued an executive order that permits anyone, including homosexuals and the disabled, to serve in the military; and he has stretched military commitments to the breaking point. Shortly after the two majors are posted to the Pentagon, the president commits the military to yet another peacekeeping operation, this time in Afghanistan. Critics in all ranks see this as a quagmire, and some engage in anonymous protest. At the beginning, the dissent is limited to anonymous e-mails sent to officers and civilians from a group calling itself the "Sons of Liberty." But as casualties mount among the ill-trained troops, the protest escalates, first as organized acts of disrespect against the president and senior officers, and finally as actual sabotage of military operations.

As the military confronts the threat within, Lewis and Sherman must answer the central question of military service: What is a soldier’s duty? Or, to put it a different way, to what does a soldier owe primary allegiance—to the Constitution, the military as an institution, one’s superiors, or one’s subordinates? And what happens if these loyalties come into conflict?

Lewis and Sherman belong to the post-Clinton military. During the years of the Clinton administration, many in uniform saw the military as an institution under siege by those who neither understood nor respected it. So widespread was their contempt for President Clinton that officers who once would have kept their negative opinion of the commander-in-chief to themselves now felt free to denounce him in front of their peers and often their subordinates as well.

But the reaction to Clinton was unorganized. The response of the military to President Jim Shick and his policies in A Soldier’s Duty is orchestrated—and made more dangerous by the Internet, a technology that already has begun to undermine the hierarchical structure of the military.

The novel A Soldier’s Duty is reminiscent of Seven Days in May, Fletcher Kneble’s 1962 tale of a military conspiracy to seize the government. In Seven Days in May, a cabal of high-ranking officers, led by Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, is enraged by a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union and plots a coup. They are stopped when a Marine colonel named Jiggs Casey stumbles onto some clues that alarm him enough to contact a friend who works for the president. Despite the fact that he, too, dislikes the treaty, Casey is firmly committed to civilian control of the military. Addressing the president, Casey says the treaty is "your business, yours and the Senate’s. You did it, and they agreed, so I don’t see how we in the military can question it. I mean we can question it, but we can’t fight it. Well, we shouldn’t anyway."

Seven Days in May was a product of the Cold War and raised the question of whether a liberal democracy can survive in the nuclear age. A Soldier’s Duty is more a product of our own time: It doesn’t claim we are close to a coup, but it does suggest that a restless military is close to repudiating civilian control because those in uniform think the policies of the civilian leaders are destroying the military as an institution.