On the Unravelling of Our Military Culture

I’ve always hesitated to comment on the state of our military culture.  I’ve never served and, for a variety of reasons, seriously doubt I ever will be (or ever would have been) called upon to enter combat.  But over the years I’ve come to know a number of military families reasonably well, and to respect them a great deal.  The sense of duty and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good are impressive and even humbling to witness.  What’s more, as citizens of a republic, it is our duty to work for the health of our military, to keep it as the guardian of our nation and our liberty.  And it seems clear to me that the essential, unspoken agreement between our republic and its military—that the nation would ask its soldiers to fight and die only when and where both necessary and meaningful, that we would do our best to support them in their cause by giving them the tools, including morale and esprit de corps, they need to do their job as effectively as possible, and that we would respect their values and culture—has unraveled.

The consequences of this unraveling, the result of bad faith on the part of the republic, are severe for those in uniform, and for all of us.  Military virtue is a great and good thing in and of itself.  But it requires the proper cultural context if it is to serve its highest ends, for members of the military, and for their country.  And I am beginning to wonder how much longer caring parents can continue to recommend their children choose the military life.  Like the rest of our republican institutions and norms, military culture has been under attack for decades, and has reached the point where it is time to question its long term viability.

The latest news blip regarding military culture was the fight over military “chaplains” for atheists.  Certain members of Congress had taken up the cause of military atheists, but so far have been unsuccessful in getting officially atheist chaplains on the payroll—though I’ve met many men of the cloth whose idea of God is no far stretch from unbelief.

What is most interesting about the call for atheist chaplains is how uninteresting it seems.  Given the open hostility of so many in the courts, the media, and the Executive Branch for religion, and given recent moves against religious expression by members of the military, it is little wonder that atheists would feel comfortable pushing for official “religious” recognition.  Recent Pentagon scandals, with brass soliciting the advice of anti-religious activist Mikey Weinstein, punishing evangelization, taking down Christian art, discouraging prayers at military funerals, hiring instructional contractors who include Christian groups on lists of possible terrorists groups, and so on, show where this Administration stands on respect for Christianity in particular.  Most recently, a military chaplain in Alaska was censored, and faces possible disciplinary action, for daring to repeat the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. Everything vaguely military is to be deemed the property of the government, such that the government will be justified in enforcing the kind of “strict neutrality” that places majority religions at a distinct operational disadvantage, in effect becoming a suspect set of beliefs and practices.

The problem goes beyond expressions of faith.  The integration of practicing homosexuals and women into all aspects of military life, including combat, was imposed seemingly with little opposition.  But one need have little direct contact with military personnel to know how deep and widespread runs opposition to, and damage from, these assaults on traditional values and the requirements for esprit de corps.  Yet no one who wishes any kind of career in the military would openly oppose the new policies.

Of course, it is an essential part of military culture that subordinates accept their orders without complaint—how else could a military unit survive, let alone accomplish its missions?  But the Administration has taken serious advantage of this virtue, abusing it and those who have a right to expect better treatment.  Any who do complain are labeled bad soldiers and washed out, while the lack of complaint is taken as agreement.  Meanwhile, the Administration undermines unit cohesion by heightening inevitable sexual tensions within the ranks.  We hear that there is no reason for opposition to these moves because they vindicate civil rights.  Yet such a vision rests on the conviction that the right of an individual to military service and advancement trumps that of soldiers and their units to maximum ability to carry out their missions with maximum effectiveness and minimum loss of life.  Whatever one wishes to make of claims that particular women and/or practicing homosexuals can “do the job” in combat, this simply is not the question.  And the view that somehow soldiers should set aside their biological drives as well as their common traditional values in the name of particular social experiments is itself the root of the problem, for it shows a determination to use the military as a laboratory for social experimentation rather than to uphold the republic’s duty to repay soldiers for their sacrifices by placing their wellbeing above all else in military matters.

As with most of our deeper cultural crises, that of the military is not purely the result of one political party’s ideological drives.  I still remember the first time I began to question the viability of our republic’s agreement with its military.  In the early days of the occupation of Iraq, I was sitting at a table with our departed friend, political scientist George Carey, and a neoconservative former student of his.  George was decrying the waste of young men’s lives to terrorists in a country in which the nation had no clear interest.  The neoconservative’s response?  “We pay them good money to do what we tell them to do” and “soldiers get killed every day, just like other people in other jobs;” in effect, such concerns were, in his view, beside the point.

Perhaps the all-volunteer military was a mistake—it having allowed too many people, whose children need not serve, to treat military service as just another job, hence available for whatever tasks and experiments the government might see as in its own interest.  Certainly this attitude lends itself to the view that one must “open up” positions in combat, or wherever, to particular groups as a matter of fairness.  And even that is part of an overall change in attitude over the last several decades that belies contempt for what makes military virtue a good—namely attachment, not only to country, but to the traditions and norms of that country, as well as a reciprocal valuation that says “we will do everything we can to help you protect us effectively, to send you on no stupid missions, and to respect your way of life.”

All of this shows the new danger of military life for the values, self-respect, and lives of military personnel.  But we should not forget the greater danger to our republic.  For we are turning our soldiers into just another set of employees.  And that is extremely dangerous for us.  By sapping soldiers of their faith, by telling them that they are to do what they are told, and that they will be told to do whatever we find it in our interest to tell them to do—even if it is senseless or even base—we are breaking the back of real military virtue.  By teaching soldiers that they must obey whatever their superiors tell them and at the same time dismissing the faith and tradition that lend legitimacy to the fact of high office, we are stripping them of their republican values.  A soldier who will do whatever his commander tells him, no matter what, is a dangerous soldier.  To a great extent that danger is a necessary cost of battle effectiveness.  But the breaking of the trust between soldier and society, in particular by undermining shared faith in God, family, and traditional values, leaves only the state as the object of loyalty.  And even the state will be personified only in the commander.  In such a way the military may become the tool of tyranny.

Our nation, from its very inception, has been blessed with a military that is loyal, not just to its commanders, but to the nation and to the Constitution.  This has been possible because our soldiers share the people’s sense of duty to the traditions that hold us together.  Can we expect the same in the future?  Unless we walk back from the precipice of social experimentation—of reduction of the soldier from a man of virtue to an employee—any confidence in the loyalty of our military to our way of life, rather than simply our government, will be ill-placed and dangerous to whatever freedoms may remain.

This column first appeared July 29, 2013 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.

Bruce Frohnen


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

  • don

    A very good article. My son attended West Point for 2 years before he came to the conclusion that military culture had developed deep and disturbing cracks. As a father, I was proud when he entered West Point but also happy when he left. I support those who serve although I fear the military has become a tool to advance a political agenda that has little to do with providing security to the nation.

    • Mark

      Until Russia and China attack us, be sure (and grateful) that our military is providing security. For now, everyone who cares about anything of value should stop voting Democrat.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Rousseau observed, “As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home: when it is necessary to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it.”

  • publiusnj

    If the combat arms are no more “manly” than “womanly,” then why is it any more manly to fight and die for one’s country than it is to be a very talented hairdresser or a particularly effective lobbyist? If men have been “tricked” into all that fighting and dying in the past by propaganda about standing up for their wives and families and American values, maybe it is time for those excluded from service in the past (women and gays) to do the fighting and dying next time.

  • Ralphster

    Bruce Frohnen apparently doesn’t like social experimentation, but he seems disregardful of the fact that the United States itself is a grand, liberal, secular, free masonic-flavored social experiment in its own right. I suspect that Bruce Frohnen has little to no regard for the classical teachings of our popes in this area, as exemplified by Pope Leo XIII’s condemnation of the Americanist heresy.
    Why pagans and humanists should not have recourse to their own military chaplains is not cogently explained here, though it would seem to be a perfectly reasonable policy based on Americanist indifferentist understandings and assumptions.
    And, interesting enough, if we take some of this material here to its logical conclusion, one can image what a Bruce Frohnen of the 1940s would have had to say about President Truman’s experiment to racially integrate the U.S. military.

    • TomATK

      Declaration of Independence: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

      Constitution: Article VI ” …no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

      First Amendment “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

      God is in the declaration of independence. However there is no test that is to be used for or against the practice of religion in Government. Also no one in the military, government, etc.. can prohibit the practice of a specific religion or to actively promote a practice such as atheism. In other words, the constitution establishes a free market of ideas.

      It’s up to us Catholics to show that our ideas count, and to fight, using tools
      put into place by founding fathers, when these ideas are prohibited.

      When the military is used by politicians that have no clue, to promote their free for all “adult pelvic rights” or other agendas that have nothing to do with the goals of the services, when flunkies that suck up to these politicians are promoted, and destroy military morale in the process, these people go against founding principals. But if people abdicate to these forces and do nothing, they can only blame them selves. In Foreign Policy there was a good debate by military on this subject.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        The Declaration is law from the Articles of Confederation. That government failed in 1796 and was replaced by the Constitution.

        • TomATK

          I am no legal expert, but it seems that this point is disputed. The Declaration is Law according to Congress, see: “Organic Laws
          (Complete) – U.S. Code – House of Representatives”
          but not recognized as such by the Supreme Court (especially rebellion).

          • TheodoreSeeber

            That reference says that the declaration was written by THE UNANIMOUS DECLARATION OF THE THIRTEEN UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

            That’s the previous government, not the current one.

      • Ralphster

        Catholic truth doesn’t call for civil authority to establish a free-ranging, souk-like bazaar of varying ideas entailing what is ugly and pernicious. It calls for civil authority to pursue the common good, to help inculcate virtue in its citizenry, and to work in tandem with the Church and one true faith to foster holiness and assist its subjects toward their supernatural end.
        Americanism is condemned.

  • JERD

    We are replacing citizenship with ideology.

    Citizenship is a commitment to the general good of the community. To be a citizen is to share in a common experience; to share in a hope for the future; despite differences that would otherwise divide a population. The draft, despite all of its deferments and segregation, tended to cause a mixing of income class, social strata, and ethnicity. Military service was an exercise of citizenship – a manifestation of a diverse people’s common commitment to the nation.

    With the end of compulsory military service, and the end of its call to citizenship, the void has been filled by the dominant ideology of our day. The military is now an instrument of the left to further its social agenda.

    • WRBaker

      During the draft, it was acknowledged by most of us that it was an obligation we all had to our country. The fact that many of us served in Vietnam did not discount this fact (despite the movies and professors in their ivory towers stating otherwise) – most had the feeling that it was best to fulfill this obligation first and then get on with things.
      For many, Vietnam was also a time of a deepening of the Faith and one which prevailed through the years.
      Far and away, the bulk of these politicians have no idea what any of this means.

  • Nasicacato

    I served in the Marine infantry for four years. While I was in, there seemed to be 3 reasons for service: Pay (which included training that could be translated into a civilian jobs), machismo and patriotism. The pay wasn’t that great and the skills learned in the infantry and other combat arms don’t translate well into civilian life. So most of us were motivated by a mixture of patriotism and machismo. Both of these are being destroyed. Those seeking machismo will join gangs. Patriotism usually correlated fairly highly with religious devotion which is truly under attack now.
    When my sons were younger, I used to try to steer them towards serving in the military. I haven’t done that for a few years now.

  • cestusdei

    Eventually Christians will be subject too a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and then excluded from service entirely.

  • NavyBlues05

    Having served for 20 years, before Tail Hook and after the unnecessary loss of lives in Iraq, I’ve seen and experienced a great deal of marginalization of sailors/service members with documented declarations of “No Religious Affiliation.” I’m at a loss as to why it has become mandatory to sport some degree of acceptable brand of “Christianity”… visible or vocal. This is the very thing addressed in the Gospel Of Matthew, grandstanding your piety will not gain you anything. Unless you have served in the military and been subjected to unwanted, unwelcome advances by some lay person to inflict their interpretation of any religion upon you, stay out of the argument. I had the uncomfortable experience of keeping a Catholic Army Chaplain OUT of my room while undergoing treatment at Walter Reed. I told him TWICE that I wasn’t in any need of anything he had to offer(sell). NOT ONCE did he bother to approach me as a patient dealing with a crippling condition, I was just another mark for this man of the cloth on the make for another soul. It’s as if he read the “NONE” on my record as a personal challenge. So what some person had to take their bible of their office desk, if it didn’t have anything to do with the job, it’s gear adrift. Yeah, that makes for sterile offices but it’s not like the military is a high rise full of office cubicles. My immediate family represents three branches of the armed forces. One sibling was an ordained minister while commissioned but the last thing he wished was to have that cloud his first goal as a Signal Corps officer. Even he mentioned the difficulties that non-believers, agnostics, and atheists experience when they wish to receive counseling. They were subjected to military behavioral health professionals because they/we had no where else to turn. Now we were burdened with “behavioral health entries” in our medical records when we had NO medical/mental issues. Now, how fair was that? The dead beats that were making regular trips to see chaplains got a way with shirking their responsibilities until the chaplains got tired of seeing them. As supervisors, our hands were tied, we had to drop everything to accommodate their demand for religious attention. Pandering to the politics of religion has gotten old and it’s become a cop out on every duty station and military base I’ve been assigned to for any length of time. I won’t even go into the comments I’ve endured from chaplains who treated me and other female services members with disdain because we were worked in male dominated fields… where our skills were best applied.

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