Monday, October 23, 2017

The Myth of Uniform Virtue

Americans believe the great myth that a uniform confers virtue on the wearer.

If you believe The Myth, you won’t like what I’m about to say: Those who serve or have served in the American military are no better than anyone else. General John Kelly tried to perpetuate The Myth last week when he claimed in a public appearance that those who wear or have worn a uniform in the service of the U.S. military are “the best one percent of us.” Sadly, General Kelly has bought The Myth and, like most generals, is trying to get the rest of us to buy it, too. (It is understandable that General Kelly, whose son was killed in combat in Afghanistan, would want to believe The Myth. He deserves our deepest sympathy.)

Americans love uniforms. They revere—some even worship—anyone who wears or has worn a uniform of the U.S. military. There are reasons for this. For one thing, those who wear the uniform look so good: They stand up straight. Their hair is cut. In public they are usually wearing clean, well-fitted, well-ironed clothes. They are often young and (usually) healthy and strong. We also like the way those in uniform act: They say, “Yes, ma’am.” and “No, sir.” They have firm handshakes. They accept authority and do what they are told. They are like the perfect children we never had.

Yes, they look and act just fine, but those who wear or have worn the uniform are not better than any other ordinary U.S. citizens. They are no kinder, no more generous, no smarter, no wiser, no more tolerant, no more competent, no more self-sacrificing, no more humble, no more ethical, and no more moral than anyone else. The Myth says otherwise, but it is just a myth. In terms of virtue, the mechanic who serves on a naval destroyer is likely to be no different from—and certainly no “better” than—the mechanic at your local car dealership.

The Myth says that those who join the military do so because they are “self-sacrificing” and “patriotic.” There are no statistics to decide the question one way or another, but reality tells us that a large portion of those who volunteer for the military do so for one simple reason: The military offers them a good job. It’s a job that comes with room and board, decent pay, excellent benefits, early retirement, a nice pension, decent workmates, and, thanks to The Myth and people like General Kelly, instant respect. Some enlistees even get a free or near-free education out of it. Those are things very difficult for an 18-year-old—or a 35-year-old—to find in the civilian world.

Of course, some join the military for other reasons. In a world full of difficult decisions, for example, they like the idea of being told what to do. Or they like being part of a “team.” Or they expect to see the world. Or they’re pugnacious and need a meaningful outlet for their pugnacity. Or, very often, they have no other meaningful choice. There’s nothing wrong with any of those reasons, but they are not the products of virtue.

Finally, yes, some enter the military because they are “patriotic”—they love the U.S.A. and want to help protect it. But patriotism is not a virtue. It is simply an attitude, a state of mind—a state of mind fertilized and cultivated by other myths we needn’t go into here. Patriotism doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else, much less make them “the best of us.”

The Myth is further perpetuated by the images we see from Hollywood and on our TVs: brave heroes running into battle and defying death to save their comrades, protect innocent civilians, and defend our country. But in fact, except in times of more general warfare (WWII, Vietnam), very few of those in the military ever experience combat. By most estimates, only about one percent of those in the U.S. military ever directly face the bullets and bombs of our enemies.

That one percent does deserve our special attention, however. If, whether in combat or otherwise, they are violated in mind or spirit or body, we owe them as much care as we can give in order to heal them, if they can be healed. If they are killed in battle, we owe their families the same attention and care. (Do we owe those in uniform our “thanks”? It depends on the cause they fought for. If the cause was honorable and necessary, as in WW II, then yes. If it was not, as in Vietnam and Iraq, then, sadly, no. Gratitude is not the proper response to those who helped, however unwittingly, to perpetrate a massively mortal mistake. Respect and care, yes. Gratitude, no.)

Again, those in the military who ever face death and injury are few. And yet we are expected to revere—indeed, nearly to worship—ALL those who wear and have worn the uniform. We are, that is, expected to believe The Myth. But life gives the lie to The Myth. I taught for eleven years at a university with a large corps of cadets, most of whom were soon to enter the military. The cadets were, for the most part, wonderful, disciplined students . . . and so were their non-cadet classmates. And I have known scores, probably hundreds, of veterans in my lifetime. In my generation, most of them are Vietnam veterans. In my experience, the following is true: Veterans are kind and unkind, humble and arrogant, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, tolerant and intolerant, competent and incompetent, wise and foolish, generous and ungenerous—and they are all those things in exactly the same proportions as the rest of the country’s population.

The Myth says that those who serve in the U.S. military are, as General Kelly claimed, “the best of us.” But The Myth is simply a convenient recruitment device.

If, then, you see someone in uniform, show them the same respect you would show any other citizens—neither more nor less—because they are not “the best of us,” they are simply some of the same of us.


  1. Ed, it is such a joy to read your writing

    1. Thanks, Manisha. That means a lot coming from a fine writer like yourself.