The Magazine

SEMPER FI?

Nov 24, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 11 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Of course, some have contended that the Marine warrior ethos so well described by Ricks has become anachronistic. Ricks disagrees, but he is disturbed by some of the tendencies he observes in today's corps, and it is when he writes provocatively about the military's relation to civilian society that his book is especially important. In pursuit of their own culture of military excellence, Ricks believes, the Marines have become increasingly alienated from civilians, moving "from thinking of themselves as a better version of American society to a kind of dissenting critique of it." And while the Marines remain distinct from the other services, they also, says Ricks, represent what the military as a whole will look like in the future as defense budgets decline and the other services become smaller and more isolated.


Several years ago, there was a spate of articles -- by Richard Kohn, Edward Luttwak, Russell Weigley, and others -- suggesting that relations between the military and civilians in America were decaying. Their thrust was that the military had become too politically powerful, and the villain was frequently declared to be General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, they claimed, was using his expanded powers under the Goldwater- Nichols Act of 1986 to influence national policy far beyond the bounds of national security.


Making the Corps, however, argues that at the present moment the more worrisome problem is the general attitude of the military toward civilians. Ricks is struck by the fact that after boot camp, most of the newly minted Marines whose odyssey he has recorded are disdainful of the life and friends they left behind. Indeed, those who succeed in the Marines are the ones who cut their ties to their old lives, while those who fail are the ones unwilling or unable to make the transition.


While Ricks admires Marine culture and the way in which recruits imbibe that culture, he is concerned that the resulting alienation of the Marines, and ultimately of the entire military, is dangerous in the long run -- specially when combined with what he believes is an unprecedented politicizing of the officer corps. For Ricks, the potential danger to America is the emergence of a large, estranged, and semiautonomous military. The United States may be "drifting into a situation in which the military is neither well understood nor well used, yet -- unlike in previous eras of military estrangement -- is large, politically active, and employed frequently on a large scale in executing American foreign policy."


This estrangement of the military from civilian society, together with a military disdain for civilians, is particularly dangerous in situations where American troops are used to quell disorder on American soil. "When the military is politically active," Ricks writes, "when it believes it is uniquely aware of certain dangers, when it discusses responding to domestic threats to cherished values, then it edges toward becoming an independent actor in domestic politics."


Ricks himself admits that he might be making too much of this -- that the military might merely be reverting to its pre-World War II status: "socially isolated, politically conservative, and geographically located on bases in the South and West." Although he calls this view complacent, his concern about the dangers of a semiautonomous military discounts the degree to which the military profession in this country is committed without reservation to the principle that the military is absolutely subordinate to civilian authority.


Indeed, despite Ricks's analysis, the real threat to balanced relations between the military and civilians is not increasing military insularity but the dilution of the virtues necessary for victory on the battlefield. The great value of the Marine Corps is that it is the only service that has so far resisted the crowding out of traditional military virtues by practices and values more appropriate to civilian life. Only the Marines still emphasize preparation for combat as the justification for recruit training, and only the Marines maintain singlesex basic training.