Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014

I have a tradition here on the blog of grappling with holidays that don՚t really work for me the way they are supposed to. It՚s not celebrating them exactly, but it is doing them a bit more honor than just going shopping or firing up the grill.

On Memorial Day, where we are supposed to be thinking of those who gave their lives for their country, I tend to think of those whose lives were impacted by war in all the other possible ways besides being a soldier – being a victim, for instance, or refusing to participate, or finding a larger cause to dedicate themselves to. I guess there is an element of snobbery there, for which I apologize. But it՚s also a function of my background – my father was a Czech Jew who served in the British Army during WWII, and I came of age during the Vietnam era, which did not inspire much patriotic war fever. So like many vaguely leftish people, I am in the position of trying to love my country while hating the larger part of what it does.

But the day is about the people who sacrificed, not the cause they sacrificed for. I think of them enlisting, with enthusiasm or trepidation or a simple sense of duty. It՚s an alien experience for me, and I admit to a surprising touch of envy: to immerse yourself so totally in a collective cause must be liberating in a way. We all must serve something greater than ourselves; how convenient to have that need packaged up in an institution for you. Us draft-dodger types have to work hard to figure out what we are fighting for and how to fight for it, and most of our efforts are dissipated by lack of effective institutions. The war against war involved some real risk too, and I՚m glad those who died in that struggle have a memorial. But on this holiday, let us forget the sides, the countries, the causes, the enmities, and think about what binds together all those who have risked themselves to fight for something they believed in.

Some of those beliefs may have been wrong, stupid, or evil, but I give the grunts the benefit of the doubt: they may have enlisted in a bad cause for good reasons. Finding yourself betrayed by your own bad judgement is one of the risks of war.

Here's a veteran describing with controlled anger his treatment at the hands of the VA. This issue has gotten plenty of airing lately; I don't have much to add. But it occurs to me that this country no longer has a functioning upper class. If I was a member of the aristocracy (say, a scion of an old WASP family like the Bushes) I think I'd take some pains to take care of veterans, given that I expect further generations of the working class to go risk their lives for my interests. Given that we treat them like dirt, I can only assume that either nobody is running the country, or the people who do feel that they don't have much need for soldiers. Or, and I think this is the most probable and most terrifying, there are people running the country but they have not got a clue about how to protect either their own or their country's real long-term interests.


fsascott said...

You wrote: " But it occurs to me that this country no longer has a functioning upper class. If I was a member of the aristocracy (say, a scion of an old WASP family like the Bushes) I think I'd take some pains to take care of veterans, given that I expect further generations of the working class to go risk their lives for my interests."

Perhaps every country gets the upper class it deserves. There will always be an elite - even the Soviet Union, founded on the egalitarian tenets of Marxism, ended up with a nomenklatura. Milovan Djilas commented on this phenomenon in his book "The New Class" as long ago as 1957. As Horace long ago observed, "naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret" - though ideologues may try to drive the results of innate human inequality out of society with violent force, they will always come back to manifest themselves again in defiance of all ideology.

Just how they manifest themselves, though, depends on circumstances. The old aristocratic qualities of ἀρετή (goodness, excellence, of any kind; but like Latin virtus, originally manliness, valour) and ϕῐλτῑμία (love of honour or distinction; generosity) were (and had to be) carefully cultivated in the societies that prized them. A faint echo of this is seen in the continuing sense that to characterize an action as "noble," "chivalrous," or "gentlemanly" - i.e., to associate it with the old upper classes - is still to praise it.

However, egalitarians in this country and other western societies have done their damnedest to destroy those old upper classes, and we have reaped the fruits of their efforts. The modern economic upper class is not made up of WASP patricians (look at the Forbes 400), and it does not reflect the same principles that they once did. It feels entitled to leadership, but has no willingness to accept the sacrifices that leadership historically demanded.

I have read the claim that, in both World Wars, the casualty rate amongst titled Britons serving in the armed forces was, in proportion to their number, higher than that of the untitled. It seems completely plausible, given that a young man of the nobility or gentry was typically commissioned as a junior officer, and when the time came, was expected to lead his platoon or company 'over the top' armed with nothing but a swagger stick.

Something very similar can be seen in the chapel of every first-tier American university - a plaque or stone will be found set in a wall somewhere, listing the names of its alumni who perished in the two World Wars. The listings are always extensive. Young men of the American patriciate, like John F. Kennedy or George H.W. Bush, answered the call to the colors in droves. Many did not come back.

Nothing like such a monument will be found for subsequent wars. Those who fought in Vietnam and later conflicts were not drawn from the class of people that attended Ivy League universities.

Those that did attend the Ivies at that time are now the core of the American nomenklatura. They populate the tenured faculties of the country's universities, run its news media, and make up the leadership of its permanent government - in short, they constitute what Mencius Moldbug has called "The Cathedral." And the strange irony of it all is that they prate a party-line of fashionable politically-correct leftism even as they conduct themselves with all the extravagant narcissism and decadence of the courtiers of Louis XIV.

Jlredfored said...

There are actually some notable vets in office, including three current Cabinet Secretaries from Vietnam: Kerry (State), Hagel (Defense), and Shinseki (Veteran's Affairs). McCain and Gore were also there, although Bush and Clinton weren't.

2012 was the first Presidential election without a vet since Franklin-Dewey in 1944. Military service seems to still have political glamor, whether it deserves it or not.

fsascott said...

Kerry threw his medals over the White House fence, and with them, whatever respect he may have been due as a veteran - having symbolically rejected it in such a conspicuous way.

Gore ended up serving because not to have done so might have harmed the political chances of his father,the senior Senator from Tennessee, who had to stand for election in 1970. Gore senior lost that election anyway. Gore junior never served in combat; it is claimed that his orders were "held up" at the instance of the Nixon administration, which feared that should something happen to him, his father would get sympathy votes. My impression is that, one way or another, he got a soft billet based on political influence, much like Goerge W. Bush's National Guard service.

McCain came from a Navy family - both his father and grandfather were full admirals - and is an Annapolis graduate, class of 1958. Such a family background was already an anomaly in mid-20th century America, and in any event, McCain is a child of an earlier generation than either the junior Gore or the junior Bush. He saw combat and was famously held prisoner of war in Hanoi.

Shinseki is a West Point man (class of 1965) and a career officer; it is hard to take exception to his pre-VA career; one doesn't reach flag rank by screwing up. However, his service at the VA seems to be an illustration of the Peter Principle.

Hagel is really the odd man out here - his family was not part of the national or even the provincial elite (unlike Kerry, Gore, and McCain), while his service was as an enlisted man (unlike Shinseki).

I do not think any of these people is a particularly good example on which to base the claim that "military service seems to still have political glamor, whether it deserves it or not." They are all in one way or another atypical of the present political class.