President Obama’s Bizarre, Authoritarian Call for Americans to Behave More Like a Military Unit
As an individualist, I was pretty taken aback last night when President Obama said the citizenry should try to emulate the examples of the military in order to foster greater cooperation and trust. Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf captures my sentiments on this perfectly:
The State of the Union Address began and ended with President Obama extolling the U.S. military. Invoking all those who served in Iraq, and especially the American men and women who died there, he said that they “made the United States safer and more respected around the world,” a strange assertion coming from a man who himself insists fighting in Iraq made us less safe, campaigned on pulling out the troops, and knows the war made us less well respected. So he got off to a bad start, if we’re to judge him on the truth of his words.
Thereafter it just got worse.
It ought to be self-evident that a free country neither can be run nor should be run like an army or a navy. America encompasses hundreds of millions of people with diverse values, priorities, and talents, each free to pursue happiness as he or she sees fit. The modern military is a hierarchical organization made up of self-selecting people compelled to take orders from their superiors. They’re highly trained, expelled from the organization if they lack discipline, and expected to both risk their lives and kill other people to achieve the mission dictated to them.
Does Obama understand this about our warriors? “At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together,” he says. “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.”
Forget the fact that, along with all the tremendously brave and honorable veterans, our military has some bad apples; forget too that there are decent men and women who come home armless or uncharacteristically violent or suicidal; even accepting the rosy portrait Obama paints of the military, surely he must understand that it is in fact impossible for a free people to cooperate as efficiently as the armed forces; that there are deep disagreements among principled Americans about how best achieve the civilian goals Obama mentions; that it would be tyrannical for an authority to dictate a strategy; and that it would fail too, for at the height of America’s relative power, when it attracted the highest paying jobs and led the world in educating its people, the folks making it all happen weren’t cooperating like a military at all. They were marshaling the power of the market, running uncoordinated educational institutions (some private, some public), and taking orders from no one. In a free country, it is difficult to think of a less apt analogy than the one Obama offers.
The same goes for Cato’s Ben Friedman, who piles on as well:
One problem with this rhetoric is its militarism. Not content to thank the troops for serving, the president has adopted the notion that military culture is better than that of civilian society and ought to guide it. That idea, too often seen among service-members, is corrosive to civil-military relations. Troops should feel honored by their society, but not superior to it. We do not need to pretend they are superhuman to thank them.
There is an even bigger problem with this “be like the troops, put aside our differences, stop playing politics, salute and get things done for the common good”mentality. It is authoritarian. Sure, Americans share a government, much culture, and have mutual obligations. But that doesn’t make the United States anything like a military unit, which is designed for coordinated killing and destruction. Americans aren’t going to overcome their political differences by emulating commandos on a killing raid. And that’s a good thing. At least in times of peace, liberal countries should be free of a common purpose, which is anathema to freedom.
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