TCS Daily


Military Identity in the Age of Empire

By Michael Vlahos - June 19, 2003 12:00 AM

What do you say to a navy that will never see another fleet action, but rather a future searching dhows and rust-buckets for terror contraband? What about an army whose most dangerous enemy is the suicide-bomber - where "combat" is an unending series of SWAT "events?" How do you tell air forces to forget the Red Baron and Blue Max and reincorporate as a trucking service for smart weapons?

The transformation of America's military societies is not, as assumed, about technology. Indeed, technology is merely an agent or enabler of change. The real military transformation is about identity.

Here is how the very culture of American military societies is changing:

America's Legions

The United States is gathering the world together. September 11, 2001 showed Americans that the only true safety was no enemies anywhere - total world security management. We are told the positive side of American world management will be a democratic, free-market and a secure world environment. Yet this has been America's goal since World War II. The 9/11 attacks only accelerated the course of empire, they did not create it. American Empire is some sixty years old. This is an important benchmark for military identity, because it tells us that the American Military has had sixty years to get used to an identity not part of its original job description as "Shield of the Republic." Now it has a world empire to run.

How will an American world empire change military identities? The deepest shift has already happened: going from citizen-soldier to professional military. Back when it happened it seemed like a natural and normal response to the debacle of Vietnam and the Draft. But calling today's military a "Volunteer Force," and the Guard and Reserve a legacy of our original militia ethos, cannot hide the bigger change. Although its ranks are volunteers in the narrowest sense, and most are citizens, it has slowly assumed the character of all great professional militaries.

This profession means a way of life increasingly separate from the society it defends, whose agenda flows from its Commander-in-Chief, and whose needs must be defended and fulfilled within the politics of the "imperial court." Administrations have become imperial courts with quadrennial tenure - whose politics is the internal jostling between executive agencies, party apparatus, rank and file members of Congress, and loyal media organs that all compete for the attention of the Commander-in-Chief.

Each of these elements is part of the U.S. Military today, though still at an early stage of development. What can we expect for the future? The current trend toward a military caste or guild-consciousness will continue, encouraged by a social structure where both parents are often soldiers, with the profession passed down within the family. The full participation of women thus paradoxically cements the Military's cultural internalization.

Also, more and more non-citizens will participate, for like ancient Rome this is a certain path to citizenship. World security will surely require more forces than national recruitment can supply, so today's 2% could be tomorrow's 20%.

Finally the pretense that the Guard and Reserve are still "citizen-soldiers" tied to the Minuteman Ethos of yore will be ditched at last. The need for them is so great that they will likely be integrated into the active force through a flexible, on-call status.

The Military's role and stake in court politics will become more visible. Inasmuch as the Commander-in-Chief directs everything they do, their relationship with the executive is paramount to the livelihood and identity of military societies. This process of representation is truly court politics, because the roles of the people and Congress are more distant, and mediated through the person of the President.

Already this relationship is openly celebrated. Before the Iraq War, servicemen asked by the media about impending war invariably replied: "We're good to go when our Commander-in-Chief gives the word." The intimacy of the Commander's relationship with his military has become a casual part of presidential presentation. Often he prefers to address the people from afar, surrounded by his troops. Front-page pictures show the Commander, almost like pater familias, surrounded by rapt young soldiers reaching out to touch him.

The Bridge of Jointness

Jointness was a 1980s idea to improve military efficiency by breaking down barriers between the armed services so they could work better together. It's done that. But by breaking down the lock each service had on its own people, Jointness also has opened a bridge to cultural migration within the Military. Thus Jointness has become a path for sub-cultures inside of traditional military institutions to leave old identities behind and invent new identities better suited to new military conditions.

The most visible example of this migration is SOCOM (Special Operations' Command). Its elements once inhabited little niches in Army (Rangers, "Green Berets"), Navy (SEALs), and Air Force (Spectre Gunships) culture. They are now free to come together and create a new military society. They keep individual origins as legacy - meaning that a SEAL, say, may still graduate from Annapolis and bear the badge of Navy rank - but their true identity is simply SOCOM, and a whole new military institution is emerging around it.

This process, however, is even more significant in larger terms. It permits a fundamental resorting of major military identities - and their powerful institutions - to better fit the needs of American world security management. Security management is not necessarily war, and so may require different organizational models, command relationships, and operational practices from those of "Old War." For Old War, check out the History Channel - it is the remembered footage of actual battles with guys in uniform, where tanks and planes and ships fight tanks and planes and ships. Thus the Coast Guard can be seamlessly integrated into Homeland Security where, given the needs of the day, it will lose both of its twin former identities: as the "boater's friend" in peace and a junior navy in war, and gain a new, and less benign, one - coastal law enforcement.

This is a portent for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Not only are old notions of "ownership" according to milieu (ground-sea-air) outdated, but there is no pure domain any longer even for war itself. In the Network World, the Military is no longer master even of its most intimate domain of "battle." Military societies will be forced to compete for their own jobs, while their own opportunistic sub-cultures look for bigger outside careers.

The imperatives of American world security management could lead to new hybrid or even mutant organizations, task groups, and permanent institutions whose ties to "parent" cultures, like SOCOM today, are at best nostalgia. Eventually the new institutions will become their own cultures with their own unique societies.

Old War's High Ritual

American "know-how" - technology - has not transformed war; rather it has made its future classic practice impossible. Classical, or Old War, has become a US enterprise only. Others of course continue to maintain "showcase" militaries, but they are more and more for show and less and less to challenge the United States. More demonstrations like the Iraq War mean even less motivation to compete on classic military terms. Thus the technology dimension of Military Transformation has served to turn Old War into High Ritual. Only Americans want to practice it, and they do it to make it always unappetizing for others.

But to keep things this way the US Military must forever worship at Old War's altar. The paradox is that by becoming the god of one kind of war Americans create unwanted consequences for their military selves. On one hand, in order to stay "gods" they must keep doing Old War. But by continually parading the worthlessness of Old War to others, the US Military encourages, even teaches, its enemies to fight a different kind of war. But this means that the US will be putting enormous energy and resources into war that will not be fought. This will only further encourage enemies to fight what we might call "new war." New war will be seen as a more equal struggle, not only because the balance of forces should be more equivalent, but also because the United States is less inclined to fight such a war, and certainly may fight it less well than Old War.

The Work of New War

This presumes that the ways of Old War will not be transferable to New War, and also that by continuing to focus on Old War, that Americans will have less to invest in the new. New War by its very logic presumes that America's enemies can fabricate a paradigm of war that engages the US where it is weak.

Weaker, perhaps, in comparison to America's immortal strength in Old War; but it can be argued that almost nowhere will the US be weak. What is likely is that dissuading others to compete in Old War will always consume 80% or more of American military energy and resources. But the remaining 20%, honed on tracking down and killing the fighters of New War, will challenge even the toughest new wave insurgency. Arguably also much of the Old War 80% will be transferable to New War application - like the global military network infrastructure, for example.

The problem of New War is not its potential to defeat the United States. The challenge it presents is cultural in the sense that it may force American legionnaires into contexts that are both alien and distasteful. American military effectiveness arguably is weakest in alien places, doing alien things. And of course we cannot precisely describe those things, because New War is still a paradigm in the making (although the French experience in Algeria is a sufficient nightmare to contemplate!). What looks today like a different way of war - say, suicide bombing - is perhaps just a "battlefield" precursor, with al Qaeda but a prefiguration of real enemies yet unannounced.

So what does this changing landscape of the culture of war tell us about changing American military identity?

  • Loyalty is moving from national society to its own military society, allegiance from the nation to the commander-in-chief. There is no sharp break implied here, or sudden shift in attitude or behavior. That is after all what a transformation suggests: the profoundest change imperceptibly achieved. The new ethos of the American soldier can be glimpsed in games like "Ghost Recon" or "Halo," the farthest cries from the GI's of yesteryear, almost like comparing a veteran centurion in the movie Gladiator to a Minuteman at Lexington Green.

  • Membership and affiliation are migrating even now from traditional communities to very new ones. Thus what you belong to and what you call yourself is also being transformed. Think of its potential significance almost as if the British Army was to begin disbanding its regimental system - the essence of its identity - without saying what would replace it. For us old names and traditions will linger, but it is the new ones that everyone will scramble for and compete to join. Even today, who in SOCOM ever first answers to "army" or "navy"?

  • The divide between the Old War and New War becomes like the divide between religion and life. Old War enshrined will increasingly serve a theological and liturgical role, with its priesthood preserving the sacred links that permit the past to bless the future. The New War in contrast will be the rollicking place where the work is, and where reputations and new myth are made.

  • It is important to stress here that New War thus becomes integrated into the continuum of military identity - but over time it seizes primacy as the emergent narrative of identity. The more arduous the battle experiences, the richer the mythic stories; and these mythic stories, remember, will come to form a new literary canon that in itself represents the passage to a new American military identity - its own journey of becoming.

America itself is in an imperial mid-passage. So it is not surprising in the least that the army and navy of the old Republic - designed to defend American interests in peace and then to mobilize and lead the nation in war - is gone. In its place is a superb military institution now charged with securing world peace for all time. The Roman metaphor is thus not entirely out of place. Like Rome's legions in the first century AD, our military still retains traditional institutions and forms. But the legions were increasingly removed from the life of society and no longer served the Republic, but the Emperor. Over time, of course, Rome's legions became less and less Italian. Those permanently stationed along the Rhine frontier, for example, took on a distinctly Germanic character, and began to identify themselves not with the core of Mediterranean civilization, but with the rough agenda of the world periphery.

All comparisons to Rome, of course, are mere metaphor. But the transformation the American Military needs to think about has three passages: from serving a republic to serving an empire, from a national-tribal identity to a world-cosmopolitan identity, from being a defender to being an enforcer.

Together these passages are not necessarily bad. There is no reason America should not be - and every promise that it will be - an empire unlike any other. But for military societies the road there will bring many changes. Some, like those suggested at the beginning, will involve doing things that may seem out of character or inglorious. But others will involve doing things that are hard to do - even unbearable to do - and doing them may not lead initially to success.

Yet out of these experiences will emerge an American Military that would astonish our ancient founders. But what will set these legionnaires apart will not be fancy weapons but attitude, thinking, and identity. It is not too early for the American Military to begin to ponder the myth and the honors that will attend its new destiny.
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