The zeal these young men have for killing surprises me.
September 25, 2014 3:38 PM   Subscribe

"Many Marines I talk to are skeptical of the aims used to justify the war - fighting terrorism, getting weapons of mass destruction (which they never see). Quite a few accept that this war was probably fought for oil." 'The Killer Elite', Evan Wright's coverage of a US Marine Corps Battalion in the 2003 Iraq War (later developed into the book and TV series Generation Kill).

  • "We've been brainwashed and trained for combat. We must say 'Kill!' 3,000 times a day in boot camp. That's why it's easy."
  • "Deep down inside I want to know what it feels like to get shot."
  • "Combat is the supreme adrenaline rush. You take rounds. Shoot back, shit starts blowing up. It's sensory overload. It's the one thing that's not overrated in the military."
  • "Whatever last shred of humanity I had before I came here, it's gone."
  • "These people live like hell. The U.S. should just go into all these countries here and in Africa, and set up a U.S. government and infrastructure - with McDonald's, Starbucks, MTV - then just hand it over. If we have to kill 100,000 to save 20 million, it's worth it. Hell, the U.S. did it at home for 200 years - killed Indians, used slaves, exploited immigrant labor to build a system that's good for everybody today."
posted by paleyellowwithorange (69 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Hell, the U.S. did it at home ... to build a system that's good for everybody today.

Are you sure? Want a do-over?
posted by Artful Codger at 3:45 PM on September 25, 2014 [11 favorites]


> Hell, the U.S. did it at home for 200 years - killed Indians, used slaves, exploited immigrant labor to build a system that's good for everybody today."

I assume we're supposed to choke on that "everybody".
posted by benito.strauss at 3:46 PM on September 25, 2014 [6 favorites]


these are united states marines, not the berkeley peace and justice cooperative. c'mon.
posted by gorestainedrunes at 3:53 PM on September 25, 2014 [13 favorites]


DID I JUST HEAR SOME PUNK LITTLE VOICE SUGGEST THAT THESE YOUU-NIGHTED STATES OF AMERICA IS NOT THE GREATEST NATION TO EVER GRACE THE FACE OF GOD'S GREEN EARTH?

I DIDN'T THINK SO!

/drill-sergeant

IANADS
posted by anonymisc at 4:02 PM on September 25, 2014 [4 favorites]


My nephew served in the Navy aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. He once told me that the Marines stationed on-board regularly referred to themselves as "Bullet Sponges".
posted by Thorzdad at 4:06 PM on September 25, 2014 [7 favorites]


Hell, the U.S. did it at home for 200 years - killed Indians, used slaves, exploited immigrant labor to build a system that's good for everybody today."

I got stuck in that, too. I mean, where do even begin?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 4:13 PM on September 25, 2014


"I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir!"
"The what?"
"The duality of man! The Jungian thing, sir!"
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:30 PM on September 25, 2014 [30 favorites]




What I really want to know is where these veterans are now.
posted by Apocryphon at 4:34 PM on September 25, 2014 [4 favorites]


My dad was career army. My ex husband was as well. Whenever folks talk about how crappy women have it in life in a way that suggests that men just get all the good stuff with no downside, I often kind of bite my tongue on that whole dealie men get whereby their loving, devoted government takes advantage of their youth and excess of testosterone to get a lot of young men to raise their hand and pledge to die for their country. Some of them do just that. Others survive their time in service, but are maimed for life.

This isn't to say women have a wonderful deal in this world. We don't. But it's really blind to not notice the very real price some men do pay for having been born male. (Last I checked, women cannot serve in combat units. Yes, female nurses and pilots and what not do wind up in combat zones and do get combat experience, but volunteering to be shot at is still essentially reserved for Da Menz.)
posted by Michele in California at 4:35 PM on September 25, 2014 [9 favorites]


What I really want to know is where these veterans are now.

Just last night I watched one of the special features on the Generation Kill DVD. It has a bunch of the key veterans sitting in a semi-circle with Evan Wright, discussing the experience, the subsequent article, and their subsequent lives. An interesting half-hour. They came across well.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 4:44 PM on September 25, 2014 [3 favorites]


But it's really blind to not notice the very real price some men do pay for having been born male.

In the "volunteer" military, it would seem to have as much to do - or even primarily to do - with being born poor or working class. The males of the US elite aren't serving as bullet sponges these days.
posted by ryanshepard at 4:51 PM on September 25, 2014 [16 favorites]


I have some friends that were in the Marines. They are all, save certain streaks of intensity, gentle weirdos.
posted by louche mustachio at 4:55 PM on September 25, 2014 [6 favorites]


Last I checked, women cannot serve in combat units

You should check again.
posted by Justinian at 4:58 PM on September 25, 2014 [6 favorites]


I am honestly not quite sure what your point was ryanshephard. I am guessing it is something like "There are men for whom there is no downside -- as long as you are rich enough, you get out of this." But I really don't quite know.

A few thoughts:
There is a long history of US generals becoming President. Clinton's lack of military service was an issue in his campaign and some other presidential candidate in my lifetime had served in Viet Nam and tried to play that up in his campaign, which, iirc, kind of backfired because his position was to cushy. So there are reasons why some upper class men with ambition might choose to serve anyway -- granted, they are more likely to be officers (which basically requires a college degree). Officers still bleed red when shot.

And it remains "volunteer" only as long as there are enough volunteers. In the past, we have had a draft. That also skewed towards poor and working class men. Being in college was one way to evade the draft, at least at one time.

In my lifetime, there has been an unusually high number of blacks in the military because it was a less racist environment than a lot of civilian jobs. This became kind of a scandal during Desert Storm. What had been a good deal for blacks during peace time suddenly looked like yet another plot to kill off blacks in this country when war broke out. The very real downside of serving was suddenly a problem.


Justinian, it looks like it is sort of still up in the air. They have until 2016 to really sort it out. The most up to date thing I can find seems to be that Today, 78 percent of the positions in the Army are open to women, and women serve in 95 percent of all Army occupations (active duty and the reserve components), as of 2014. So, at the moment, it looks like men still mostly get dibs on that getting shot at thing. And certainly had dibs on it in 2003 (the time frame for this article).
posted by Michele in California at 5:10 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


Last I checked, women cannot serve in combat units. Yes, female nurses and pilots and what not do wind up in combat zones and do get combat experience, but volunteering to be shot at is still essentially reserved for Da Menz.

Even to the extent it's true, women can still volunteer to go get shot at or blown up. Lots of notionally noncombat units get in firefights or blown to bits.

The prohibition on combat units just meant that women couldn't get promotions associated with "combat" units and otherwise had their careers limited.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:12 PM on September 25, 2014 [4 favorites]


Michele: They have until 2016 to implement the repeal of the ban on women serving is front line combat positions. But the ban has been lifted as of January 24, 2013. You're right that this is significantly post-2003 though.

But it does mean that there is no longer any bar to women serving in those roles.
posted by Justinian at 5:15 PM on September 25, 2014


> ... and some other presidential candidate in my lifetime had served in Viet Nam and tried to play that up in his campaign, which, iirc, kind of backfired because his position was to cushy.

No, it didn't backfire. GW Bush did become president.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:15 PM on September 25, 2014 [5 favorites]


Mod note: Couple comments removed; please cool it and aim for at least a minimum of kindness.
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:16 PM on September 25, 2014 [2 favorites]


The males of the US elite aren't serving as bullet sponges these days.

"'I’d planned to go to Vanderbilt on a scholarship and study philosophy,' he said."

I noticed there was a game of chess going on in the picture as well. Clearly more complex people than given credit for.

Just sayin'.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:18 PM on September 25, 2014 [2 favorites]


Justinian, that is not how I am reading it. The piece indicates the military has until 2016 to make its case for continuing to exclude women from specific roles. Additionally, there are a lot of ways to de facto exclude a populace while claiming you are not. Maybe you have heard of Jim Crow laws? This recent change is probably not the end of excluding women from combat roles. It is likely the beginning of a long process.

As noted above, one problem for women being excluded is that it is a de facto glass ceiling in the military. As I understand it, you need some kind of combat experience to make general. On the other hand, I have met a whole lot more maimed former military men than I have met maimed former military women -- which is the essence of my point: This is a real cost for a lot of men and the price is very high.

benito.strauss, I meant his opponent, whose name escapes me.
posted by Michele in California at 5:20 PM on September 25, 2014


I don't know, in my experience the women upset about gender inequality are eager for full participation in the army. What they seem the angriest about is that they are not being given as many choices while being asked to take responsibility for the outcomes that are forced on them.
posted by IShouldBeStudyingRightNow at 5:22 PM on September 25, 2014 [2 favorites]


Michele: the recommendation to lift the ban was made unanimously by the Joint Chiefs. As far as I know there haven't been requests to exclude many (if any?) specialties. Hell, they're actively looking for women able to make it into things like the Rangers. They want it to happen.
posted by Justinian at 5:24 PM on September 25, 2014


I graduated from high school in 2000 and my two best friends both joined the Army in the summer of 2001 after a year of dicking around our hometown. Both served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and came home (seemingly) none the worse for wear. I didn't ask too much about what they did overseas but both described at different times enjoying sitting on top of a Humvee with a .50cal and kicking down doors and zipcuffing Iraqis. They didn't seem too affected by the experience and even talked about missing it when they got back. I think they were really, really lucky to have avoided bad situations and come home ok but I don't know if they did or didn't cause any bad situations for innocent people over there. I just didn't want to ask. They are both doing ok now going on 10 years later.
posted by fraxil at 5:31 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


IndigoJones, I think it's probably fair to say that a lot of people enlist because they don't have an awful lot of other options. I knew one such person (he's still alive and all, we're just not in touch). The fact that there are a lot of exceptions doesn't change the statistical truth of it. This may be a good thing in peacetime, but it means that when we go to war (or go to authorized-use-of-military-force), the well-to-do are out of touch with the real costs of it. And the well-to-do are the ones making such decisions.
posted by uosuaq at 5:33 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


I often kind of bite my tongue on that whole dealie men get whereby their loving, devoted government takes advantage of their youth and excess of testosterone to get a lot of young men to raise their hand and pledge to die for their country

I wouldn't worry about that for too nuch longer. Within 30 years from now, the vast majority of the military ground forces will consist of drones remotely operated by contract workers working only a couple miles from home..
posted by happyroach at 5:39 PM on September 25, 2014


There is a long history of US generals becoming President.

In fact, exactly as many generals have become President as have non-servicemembers: 12.
posted by Etrigan at 5:48 PM on September 25, 2014 [3 favorites]


Both the book and the HBO series that came out of this are pretty fascinating. I haven't seen the DVD extras, but I was under the impression that, while the unit came through the invasion remarkably unscathed (as in, no one died), once it turned into an occupation, things went downhill, and there were several casualties.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:50 PM on September 25, 2014


I meant his opponent, whose name escapes me.

Private Al Gore, information specialist / reporter.
posted by Etrigan at 5:51 PM on September 25, 2014


Last I checked, women cannot serve in combat units

This is not catagorically true.

However, women are immune from Selective Service requirements and, further, cannot be drafted.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:55 PM on September 25, 2014


once it turned into an occupation, things went downhill, and there were several casualties.

I think one of the engineers defusing? (de-whatevering idk) a minefield under the super incompetent captain (captain america) got blown up and another lost his sight permanently. You should read Nate Fick's book alongside the GenKill book itself for an interesting secondary perspective.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:55 PM on September 25, 2014 [5 favorites]


(it's called One Bullet Away iirc)
posted by poffin boffin at 5:59 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


I bet the ex-general presidents don't do latte salutes!
(Kidding. The president shouldn't salute to begin with.)
posted by uosuaq at 6:03 PM on September 25, 2014


Additionally, there are a lot of ways to de facto exclude a populace while claiming you are not. Maybe you have heard of Jim Crow laws?

I don't think Jim Crow laws were an attempt to de facto exclude a populace while claiming you are not. Jim Crow law were explicitly exclusive.
posted by layceepee at 6:05 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


Women are excluded from the draft due to patriarchy, not due to society not valuing men.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:12 PM on September 25, 2014 [9 favorites]


I was actually thinking of: John Kerry Military Service Controversy

And I am well aware that a lot of women would like to have the right to volunteer for combat. One of the reasons for that is the aforementioned glass ceiling in the military related to this detail. But I will note that women still have the option to "plead their belly," which is an old fashioned term referring to getting out of a death sentence (or, in this case, a combat zone) due to pregnancy. When the Gulf War broke out, a couple of guys who had volunteered for service attempted to get out of going to war by pleading conscientious objector status because they basically joined for the college fund and really did not want to get shot at. My recollection is this was thrown out and they were thrown in jail. In contrast, a fair number of women suddenly turned up pregnant and were sent home. In some cases, it was coincidence. In others, it was not. But there is no way to determine for certain which is which. Given that prime soldiering years and prime childbearing years are basically the same time frame, I do not see the new policy as being some slam dunk solution that will give the genders de facto parity in the military.

Upon preview: Yes, Jim Crow laws explicitly excluded people, but not for being black. It excluded people for other reasons that closely correlated to being black. I don't understand what the confusion is here. It was an attempt to exclude blacks while pretending to not exclude them. This kind of thing also happens to women: It's not that you are a woman, it's that (you fail to meet some other standard -- that we don't really hold the men to or that men have no problem meeting and/or that isn't actually salient). So I don't understand this seeming rebuttal at all.

Last, I will suggest that women have been excluded historically largely because one man for every ten women can go a long way towards repopulating a place, but one woman for every ten men cannot. Given our current concerns about overpopulation, that is perhaps less of an issue at the moment than it has been historically.
posted by Michele in California at 6:15 PM on September 25, 2014


Women are excluded from the draft due to patriarchy, not due to society not valuing men.

I think both of those things can be true. Women have historically been excluded for sexist reasons and society does not value the men who generally get drafted post WW2. The privileged men usually get deferments.

I think it obvious that selective service should either end or women should be included. Which of those two is my preferred policy choice should be easy to guess. But either is better than the current status quo.
posted by Justinian at 6:17 PM on September 25, 2014 [2 favorites]


Since we're talking about the subject: Fox News presenters mock female pilot who took part in campaign against Isis
posted by XMLicious at 6:19 PM on September 25, 2014 [4 favorites]


To get back to the article at hand, I think Sebastian Junger has some important thoughts about combat and the human story of soldiers who have served in it.
posted by poe at 6:27 PM on September 25, 2014


Here is some examples of a Jim Crow laws from a Smithsonian Institution website:


“It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers.”

"Marriages are void void when one party is a white person and the other is possessed of one-eighth or more negro, Japanese, or Chinese blood."

“Separate free schools shall be established for the education of children of African descent; and it shall be unlawful for any colored child to attend any white school, or any white child to attend a colored school.”

“All railroads carrying passengers in the state (other than street railroads) shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races, by providing two or more passenger cars for each passenger train, or by dividing the cars by a partition, so as to secure separate accommodations.”

I'm not familiar with the use of "Jim Crow laws" to refer to statutes that excluded blacks "but not for being black." I guess you could say that under the claim of separate but equal, suporters of Jim Crow would point out they weren't excluding blacks from riding trains entirely, but I do think they would acknowledge that the laws were explicitly race-based.
posted by layceepee at 6:31 PM on September 25, 2014 [3 favorites]


the vast majority of the military ground forces will consist of drones remotely operated by contract workers working only a couple miles from home...

Drone Pilots Are Found to Get Stress Disorders Much as Those in Combat Do.


these are united states marines, not the berkeley peace and justice cooperative. c'mon.
Whistler: I want peace on earth and goodwill toward man.
Abbott: Oh, this is ridiculous.
Bishop: He's serious.
Whistler: I want peace on earth and goodwill toward men.
Abbott: We are the United States Government! We don't do that sort of thing.
Bishop: You're just gonna have to try.
Abbott: All right, I'll see what I can do.
Whistler: Thank you very much. That's all I ask.
posted by weston at 6:34 PM on September 25, 2014 [5 favorites]


Okay, so it's more complicated than I knew.

But this is the one I am most familiar with: The Grandfather Clause was a statute enacted by many American southern states in the wake of Reconstruction (1865-1877) that allowed potential white voters to circumvent literacy tests, poll taxes, and other tactics designed to disfranchise southern blacks.

So, in short, they denied blacks the right to vote based on illiteracy and other things and then said "But if your grandfather could vote, you can still vote." Since blacks had been slaves until shortly before then, the grandfathers of that era had no right to vote, it was thus a means to say "YOU (black people) cannot vote (and we aren't basing it on skin color)." The battle for civil rights did not end with the outlawing of slavery. It began with it. I expect that the battle for actual gender parity in the military will also not end with the change in rules in 2013, but begin with it.
posted by Michele in California at 6:40 PM on September 25, 2014


As a programmer who is scared of bees, I'm glad some people who don't hate me are willing to take professional soldiering so seriously.
posted by michaelh at 7:53 PM on September 25, 2014 [3 favorites]


The males of the US elite aren't serving as bullet sponges these days.

I recall seeing links posted here during the last time this came up showing that it wasn't the case that the well off are underrepresented in the services. Maybe someone with google fu and time can dig them up.
posted by srboisvert at 8:00 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


I liked _Generation Kill_, the book, a great deal. It painted a picture of an interesting group of men who possessed a nuanced view of things. Nathaniel Fick, the commanding officer of the company, had his own book, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Corps Officer, which was also interesting to read. His was a more conservative read on events and a very gentlemanly bildungsroman. I recommend his C-Span interview for viewing. What really makes the book, Generation Kill, is the flow of conversation and the trenchant observations of the various soldiers in the book.
posted by jadepearl at 8:44 PM on September 25, 2014 [4 favorites]


I had no idea about Fick's book, though now that I do, I'll definitely check it out. The series itself is something I find myself rewatching from time to time. There's some amazing acting in those seven hours.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:31 PM on September 25, 2014 [4 favorites]


Missed this the first time around, idk how, but:

Hell, the U.S. did it at home for 200 years - killed Indians, used slaves, exploited immigrant labor to build a system that's good for everybody today."

The dude who said this is a half latino/half native american who is being incredibly sarcastic and tends to spend most of the time talking about the evils of the white man and how minorities are destroyed in order to make the american dream. Just to put this in some perspective for people who appear not to have read the source material.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:35 PM on September 25, 2014 [17 favorites]


Yes, I'm sorry; I shouldn't have included that quote following the others as if it was in the same tone.

A good example, though, why people should RTFA before commenting!
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 1:18 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Clearly more complex people than given credit for.

No - I never said that poor and working class people aren't intelligent or complex.
posted by ryanshepard at 3:45 AM on September 26, 2014


The males of the US elite aren't serving as bullet sponges these days.

I recall seeing links posted here during the last time this came up showing that it wasn't the case that the well off are underrepresented in the services. Maybe someone with google fu and time can dig them up.


I'm willing to bet that the well off are extremely underrepresented as privates in rifle companies.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 4:07 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


I was struck watching Generation Kill how off-handedly the Marines refer to "the bad guys" as in "this is our chance to get some bad guys." I mean, that makes total sense, you go in believing that if you shoot somebody, they're a bad guy, but I had never thought about that particular mind-set.

That, and strategic shitting while waiting for hours in a convoy and just sitting there with your shovel and your toilet paper trying to poop by the side of the road. I'd never thought about that, either, but makes total sense, war-wise.
posted by angrycat at 5:44 AM on September 26, 2014


Generation Kill was excellent.

I'm always tickled when people underestimate the intelligence and depth of members of the U.S. armed forces, particularly the Marine Corps. No doubt the services are stacked with specimens of the aggressive alpha variety, but these qualities are not mutually exclusive and can make for pretty fascinating individuals.

I'd bet that between being the gleaming metal head on a shit spear and having to find ways to cope with combat, loss, and mission creep, there's more ironic awareness in a single active Marine platoon than in all of Williamsburg.
posted by echocollate at 7:20 AM on September 26, 2014


A common science fiction trope is the warrior race that lives for battle. Turns out the Klingon homeworld is America.
posted by Legomancer at 7:30 AM on September 26, 2014


Another recommendation for both the book and the miniseries. Lest we forget, the miniseries was produced by David Simon and Ed Burns of The Wire, and features James Ransone (Ziggy Sobotka) as the perpetually-wired Josh Ray Person, along with a number of the Marines from the book (including Sgt. Rudy "Fruity Rudy" Reyes playing himself, which manages to be slightly surreal). The Wire sensibility is very much alive in Generation Kill.

For some reason, the singly most morbidly, horrifically funny line from the miniseries that sticks with me is "Look at this retard casevac'ing the lamb chops!" It makes (slightly) more sense in context, and captures as well as anything the bleak humor of the monstrously broken situation that they're in.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 7:34 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


>I think it's probably fair to say that a lot of people enlist because they don't have an awful lot of other options.

I don't disagree. I would also contend that even in war time (are we at war? Congress has said nothing....) it's not the worst option in the world. Even in WW2, only about ten percent were actually put in harm's way.

That said, even in war time the rich and connected and sharp tend not to find themselves in harm's way unless they want to. And as we are talking marines here, remember that even when there was a draft, the marines opted out. Only the willing need apply.

All of which get's us to the draft. I'm ambivalent on that score. On the one hand, personal freedom, on the other hand, get to know a wide range of social classes up close and personal. Another major plus would be the fact that the more families with sons in uniforms, the more caution on the part of government when it comes to throwing them into harm's way.

My original point, however, was that it's a bit simplistic to categorize all soldiers in one cliched vision. I also suspect that some of that "I wanna kill" talk was done to mess with the reporter.

Hell, it's what I would have done.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:54 AM on September 26, 2014


Another recommendation for the book, the miniseries, and Fick's book. All very well-done, and I think they all drive home the point that "Marines" are nearly as varied as the rest of the world, not one monolithic bunch of bullet sponges.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:19 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


that actor who plays Ziggy in The Wire is an interesting character in Generation Kill. Would totally recommend it if you were put off was, as was I, the whole duck-getting-drunk arc in Season Two. Also, it's interesting that guy who plays Vampire Eric, who plays a leading role, is basically as cool as fuck, much like Vampire Eric. Don't know if they were casting for type or what but it works.
posted by angrycat at 9:10 AM on September 26, 2014


Ah, thanks for pointing that out, poffin boffin.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:12 AM on September 26, 2014


I'm willing to bet that the well off are extremely underrepresented as privates in rifle companies.

Don't be hasty on that. There are so few people in the US who fall into the well off category, depending on how you define it, that it takes very few privates to represent their share of the population.
posted by srboisvert at 10:53 AM on September 26, 2014


srboisvert : Touché!
posted by Drexen at 11:20 AM on September 26, 2014


I would not suspect that the "I want to kill" talk was solely for the reporter. If anything, the one common thread I have known among infantry soldiers is the awkwardness of constantly holding back the statement that even though war is horrible, killing does not always produce the feelings that it is "supposed" to. Killing, for infantry soldiers, often feels good. From what I hear from them, at least - in their most vulnerable moments, so I don't think they're lying - one of the things that is missed is that killing, and more precisely, not-dying, is a more intense experience than almost any other in their lives.

Everyone hates the war, but only as much as they miss it.
posted by corb at 11:32 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I read Generation Kill and liked it, but I suspect that Force Recon is not particularly representative of the armed forces in general or even the Marines in particular. The general feeling I get from the Marines that I've talked to and reading things that other Marines have written online is that, in general, they're encouraged to believe that a) they're superior to the other branches of the armed services and b) that they are greatly underappreciated, especially by the other branches. It's like a really big frat.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:12 PM on September 26, 2014


Corb's remark makes me think of a scene in Lawrence of Arabia (based on the real life of the guy) where he explains that his disgust at killing the guy was that he enjoyed it.

Also, I will note that the comment There is a long history of US generals becoming President.

In fact, exactly as many generals have become President as have non-service members: 12.
is really misleading as a "rebuttal" of my point.

First, it comes across as dismissing the idea that serving your country plays any role in getting elected president. Given that we are currently on president number 44, that means that 32 out of 44 have served in the military, even if "only" 12 of them made general. So more than 70% of our presidents had some kind of military experience. But, secondly, a quick google suggests that a mere 9% of the American population has served in the military. And fewer still have made high rank. Thus, if you run some numbers, I think you will find a much, much higher percentage of people who were once general have been president than of people who never served in the military at all.

But the real reason it annoys me is because it is common knowledge that service in the military is an important detail in presidential campaigns and it is common knowledge that making general is one of the pathways to the presidency. So I kind of feel like I shouldn't have to back that up by arguing the statistics after someone has essentially spin-doctored them.
posted by Michele in California at 12:20 PM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


But the real reason it annoys me is because it is common knowledge that service in the military is an important detail in presidential campaigns...

The 2012 election featured four men (President and Vice President) with a grand total of zero days in uniform. The 2008 election had one former servicemember. The 2004 election had two, as did the 2000 election. There hasn't been an election featuring four former military officers since 1972. The current crop of contenders for 2016 includes exactly one former servicemember (Rick Perry was an Air Force pilot for five years after college).

Maybe we'll see an increase as Iraq and Afghanistan vets climb the ladder, but that will take another decade. Maybe the Millennials will care about military service in its politicians, but Generation X has decided that it's not as important as it used to be.

...and it is common knowledge that making general is one of the pathways to the presidency.

The last former general who became President was Dwight Eisenhower, who left the White House 53 years ago. The last one before him was Benjamin Harrison. Eisenhower was two years old when Harrison left the White House. For most of the history of the United States, it's not even a once-in-a-generation thing for a former general to become President -- it's barely a once-in-two-generations thing. There may be a few people these days who join the military because they think it will help their political careers, but no one actually thinks, "Okay, I'll put in the 25 years it'll take to become a general or an admiral -- a quarter of a century during which I must remain steadfastly out of politics, and then I can run for the White House."

There is a long history of US generals becoming President. That history is called "the 19th Century."
posted by Etrigan at 12:55 PM on September 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


Well, I will just say that trend is a big problem. There are some very good reasons why, historically, we valued military experience in our presidents. Namely that the president is the Commander in Chief. He is the top person whose picture is on the wall of every military unit, along with the rest of the pictures showing the chain of command for that unit.

So I hope we see a reversal of that trend in the not too distant future back towards placing some value on military experience in our highest political leaders.
posted by Michele in California at 1:45 PM on September 26, 2014


Right, but we also believe in civilian control of the military. The commander in chief sets broad strategic objectives, while the professional military officers below him translate those objectives into actionable plans.

Now, of course a former flag officer is going to have a better handle on how to set reasonable objectives than someone who's never served, but I rarely hear anyone saying the President should also have an expert knowledge of macroeconomics, diplomacy, environmental policy, transportation planning, or any of the other areas of policy that they ultimately set high level policy for. What makes military experience preferable to any of these other areas of governance?
posted by tonycpsu at 2:06 PM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


From what I hear from them, at least - in their most vulnerable moments, so I don't think they're lying - one of the things that is missed is that killing, and more precisely, not-dying, is a more intense experience than almost any other in their lives.

There's an apocryphal Churchill quote: The greatest thrill a man can experience, Winston Churchill was reported to have said, is to be shot at and missed.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:10 PM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm a generation separated from a family member who served in the military. When I think back to growing up in California Bay Area in the 70s and 80s and watching films like Stripes (1981) on the one hand and Platoon (1986) on the other, its no wonder I didn't once consider military service. Add to that the crazy talk about Iran Contra Affair (indictments, 1988) and CIA drug trafficking (report, 1989) to pay for it all.

This is a completely different picture.
posted by xtian at 5:08 PM on September 27, 2014


Thanks for posting this, paleyellowwithorange. Generation Kill was excellent and I've been meaning to read this one of these days.
posted by homunculus at 7:19 PM on October 12, 2014


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