Friday, August 19, 2005

Pavlovs Dogs of War: the Career Officers

One can't begin to understand the rise of militarism in America without examining the mindset of the career military officer.

To begin with, military officers, regardless of how they earned their commissions (service academy, ROTC, officer candidate school, etc.) comprise a "ruling class" within a specialized--and often isolated--world. Not every officer is alike in this regard. Fourth and fifth generation academy graduates, often sons of admirals and generals, often take to this privileged status more readily than do "ninety day wonders" who get through college on their own (or on their parents' bankroll) before deciding on pursuing military service.

A ninety day wonder myself, I thought I was one of the most "egalitarian" officers I knew. We're all the same under the rank insignia, I believed, even when I rose to command of a carrier aircraft squadron (which was the extent of my ambitions and expectations.) Only years after retiring from the Navy did I realize how much I'd come to take my "class" status for granted. I had entered a two-tiered societal structure, been placed--by virtue of possessing a bachelor's degree--in the top tier, and grown used to it over time. It might be more accurate to say that I had become addicted to it.

This is part of the reason so many senior officers retire to second careers in the defense-contracting sector. They step into a hierarchy, and a place in that hierarchy, that they've grown accustomed to (colonels and majors go back to work for their old boss, the retired general).


Taking a "lateral transfer" to the defense industry also keeps retired officers in the same cloistered society they've grown used to. Their colleagues are, by and large, registered Republicans, most of who identify themselves as "staunches" conservatives." National defense (i.e. "militarism") is a prized virtue. So called "liberal" or "progressive" values are regarded with mistrust, and often with disdain. Folks outside the military industrial sphere fall into a variety of scornful categories: fruits, tree-huggers, whale savers, peace-niks, pinkos, hand wringers, girls, and so on.

Working in the defense industry also tends to keep retired officers in the same sorts of communities they lived in while on active duty--military towns. For the most part, military towns have grown economically reliant on the military facilities they host. This economic dependence is not limited to industry that directly supports military weapons and infrastructure. Hardly a store, restaurant, nightclub, contractor, or real estate market could continue to thrive without the disposable incomes of the GI Joes and Janes who live in the community. AS a result, the civilian population becomes as supportive and appreciative of military values as their neighbors (and customers) who wear uniforms.

Moreover, living in a military town affords retired officers the privileges and amenities available on the local military installations. Food is cheaper at the commissary. Most clothing and household needs can be bought for discount prices (and exempt from state sales taxes) at the exchange. Gyms, swimming pools, picnic facilities, and other amenities can be enjoyed free of charge.

And one more thing. Retired lieutenant colonels and above receive a snappy salute from the guard as they drive through the front gate--even the ones who've grown their hair long and look like old hippies (like me).

And even I, the self-styled counter-culture iconoclast who likes to think he's shed his shell of martial superiority, can't deny that I still like getting a snappy salute from a young soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.


Tomorrow we'll delve into the professional mentality of military officers, and how their training as junior officers often hinders their effectiveness when they achieve high rank.


  1. Interesting; you should write a novel with these kinds of observations.

  2. Thanks for the nice words, Renata. I have, in fact, written a novel about a pair of career naval officers that I'm presently trying to market. (And the market is brutal, believe you me.)


  3. Did you ever post any of it over at the BBS, Jeff? I'm curious to learn more.

  4. I did some years ago, Doug. The novel changed a lot since that time. It's a sort of moral comedy. Two guys become naval officers. Over time, one sticks by some semblance of principles, the other enjoys the show and plays the game. At a crucial, the bad guy sabotages the good guy's career and goes on to become and admiral.

    Blah, blah, blah.

  5. You've made it sound like a simple morality play in your thumbnail, but I'd bet it's more complex than that. I wish you'd post some of your SF, too.

  6. Well, yeah, the Navy novel is more complex than that. I follow these two guys through twelve pages of front story and more like twenty in backstory. In the background we have the "bizarro" versions of actual historic events: the end of the Cold War, Desert Storm, Tailhook, Southern Watch, Kosovo, etc.

    At the end of the day, we realize, as the main protag does, how things are really working--the shadowy underground power structure that, in my novel, involves political, mafia, family, and church connections. Lots of references to Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five, which pretty much inspired most of my philosophy over the decades and my writing as well.

    The SF really isn't ready to show. And I'm having trouble staying motivated to follow up on it until I get the Navy novel sold. It essentially picks up the same thread in the year 2020. Different protag (I call him Tom Orwell), lots of 1984 parody. Little Brother (Jeb Bush) is president, but the real power is wielded by Porter Gross, who lives in a bunker buried miles beneath the white house. Through genetic medicine, Porter is turning himself into a giant lizard so he can live (and retain power) forever.

    Can't begin to tell you how many "heroes" I steal from in this one--much of Heller again, and Vonnegut. Orwell, of course.

    Boy. Sure seems like I've been working on this stuff a long time.