MATTHEW BOGDANOS

Duties That Are Best Shared

Marine Corps recruits in close combat training during boot camp in Parris Island, S.C.
Marine Corps recruits in close combat training during boot camp in Parris Island, S.C. (By Scott Olson -- Getty Images)

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By Matthew Bogdanos
Sunday, March 1, 2009

"Send in the Marines" has been uttered by every president since Thomas Jefferson sent a detachment of leathernecks to the shores of Tripoli in 1801. These words are likely to be uttered in the next four years -- of special interest to me as a Marine who has served multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Veteran status is no guarantor of a leader's successful use of the military, of course; nor is its absence necessarily a harbinger of misuse. But in the 1970s, 74 percent of Congress had prior military service. Today: 23 percent. Barack Obama, though clearly respectful of the military, has never served in the military and has only two veterans in his Cabinet -- the fewest since Herbert Hoover. By contrast, John Kennedy, decorated for heroism in World War II, had only two Cabinet members who were not veterans.

These figures reflect a disturbing trend. A nation largely founded on the citizen-soldier ideal finds itself, following Vietnam and the expulsion of recruiters from campuses, with the military and civilian worlds warily eyeing each other across a cultural no man's land. As budgets shrink future forces, veterans will be fewer and the chasm wider -- to our peril.

No one wants everyone to think and act alike. Diversity is a major source of our nation's strength. But this diminishing shared experience leaves us ill-prepared against global terrorism. As the British general Sir William Butler warned a century ago, "A nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards."

It was not always so. We praise classical Greece for philosophy, art and democracy. Yet Athenians knew Socrates, the father of philosophy, for his bravery on the battlefield and Xenophon, author of the epic "Anabasis," for his generalship. Aeschylus, antiquity's greatest tragedian, wrote his own epitaph: "This gravestone covers Aeschylus . . . The field of Marathon will speak of his bravery."

In our time, a steady aggrandizement of self at the expense of society has forced the warrior culture and its ideals to the margins as antique refinements, like knowing classical languages. Yet the most cherished ideal -- arĂȘte, the classical Greek concept of honor -- is anything but passe. Just as "Semper Fidelis" (always faithful) is not merely the Marine Corps motto but a way of life, so is honor a form of mental conditioning -- a force-multiplier: Decide in advance to act honorably, and you know without hesitation what to do in a crisis. Codes of conduct are society's version of the same conditioning.

The demographics of today's military -- strained as we are -- offer hope. In 2007, 99 percent of recruits were high school graduates (vs. 82 percent of men and women ages 18 to 24 nationally), and 95 percent of officers had bachelor's degrees (vs. 27 percent of men and women ages 22 to 27 nationally). Exploding the myth that enlistees have no other options, 50 percent of recruits came from the wealthiest two-fifths of neighborhoods, but only 29 percent from the poorest two-fifths. We also mirror the country's rich diversity: 34.5 percent of recruits belong to a racial or ethnic minority (vs. 34.2 percent nationally).

For me as a Marine, the physical excitement of combat isn't the attraction. It's the opportunity to make a difference. We don't leave our families for the paycheck, we don't deploy into a combat zone for the living conditions and we don't ensure that there is a round in the chamber because we want to shoot someone. Our motives, like war itself, are complex, layered and visceral.

During the darkest days of World War II, George Orwell allowed that "we sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence to those who would harm us." That is what we do -- but only when we do it right. Service members, like police officers, have clearly defined codes of conduct, the strength of which leads to outrage when they are violated, whether by a police officer abusing suspects or a soldier abusing prisoners. The outrage is particularly acute among those who share the code: No one hates a bad cop more than a good one.

But if we limit the warrior ideal's physical courage to an isolated subculture of military, police and firefighters, focusing them solely on this virtue, we risk cultivating doers less tolerant of different lifestyles or ways of thinking. And if we limit aesthetic appreciation to the world of academics and economic elites, never encouraging them to roll up their own sleeves, we risk fostering gifted thinkers great on nuance but subject to paralysis by analysis.

Or worse. This artificial separation forces us to confront global terrorism with either the compassionate consensus of the whole-food collective or the indiscriminate anger of the lynch mob -- failures both. "War is an ugly thing," British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote about the American Civil War, "but not the ugliest of things: the decayed . . . feeling which thinks nothing worth war is worse." We must, instead, face terrorism's cult of death with hard steel, informed strategies and a rock-solid code of shared societal behavior to defeat those whose defining feature is the absence of honor.

Without greater understanding between the military and civilian worlds or, better, a return to a synthesis of the two, we risk a future without all of us working toward the same ends -- whatever society decides those ends should be. And we risk misusing military force because of misunderstandings about what it can and can't do or, once used, its being prematurely withdrawn because of unrealistic expectations. The solution is an educated citizenry that understands its soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines -- understands that we are you.

Matthew Bogdanos, the author of "Thieves of Baghdad," is a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and an assistant district attorney for New York City.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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