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Why Silence is Golden


When a young man or woman enlists in the armed forces of the United States, they willingly agree to subjugate themselves to an authoritarian system that relies on strict discipline and, at times, blind obedience in order to function effectively. Sign on with Uncle Sam and, as soon as you step foot inside the gate of a recruit training center, more commonly known as boot camp, the process of learning that subjugation begins.

Any individuality brought in by the new recruit is checked at the door. Everyone starts at the same rank. Clothes and hair are shed and replaced with standard issue uniforms and a quick buzz to the scalp. It doesn’t matter where you lived, how well you did in school, how much money you made, or what color you skin happens to be, a well-trained drill instructor will be shouting insults before too long, looking for those who bristle at authority. Woes betide those who fail to conform.

I went through it 25 years ago when I joined the Navy. I was young, naïve, and raised with a healthy respect for authority, so the transition was a smooth one for me. And I saw enough guys who struggled with the notion of subjugation and observed how military life became exponentially unpleasant for them that I kept my own mouth shut most of the time, even after I concluded that I could never be happy with a military career.

After all, I was man enough to sign four years of my life away at 17; I would be man enough to serve my obligation with honor. That same sense of duty seems to be lacking in many of today’s men and women in service. In fact, we’re being treated to a very public display of their opinions about the Iraq War. And while I don’t necessarily disagree with what’s being said, I do disagree with the people who are saying it.

The first story that came to my attention told of two Iraq War vets, still members of drilling reserve units, who have become leaders for political action committees actively involved in the public debate over foreign policy and, specifically, the ongoing war in Iraq.

When I read the article, my first reaction was to question how members of the armed forces could be so open in their war activism and avoid disciplinary action. But apparently there is a gray area for reservists allowing them to, when not actually wearing the uniform of their chosen service, engage in this sort of behavior. Even so, it’s a dangerous precedent, especially for an officer (as one of the story’s subjects, Captain Jon Soltz of the US Army Reserves, is) who may be called up to serve in a combat theater. How will his ability to lead be affected when those serving under him know he is an outspoken critic of the war? How will his actions affect the confidence senior officers have in him to carry out their orders?

Soltz is quoted in the story as saying, “I think you’re seeing a paradigm shift in the military, from those who served being fairly passive Republicans to being more active and opposed to what the current leadership is doing.” Active opposition to current leadership? That strikes me as a tacit admission of insubordination. After all, the President of the United States is also Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Complicating matters for Soltz’s organization,, is the group’s association with the right’s favorite liberal punching bag, was only founded in January of 2006, yet according to it has already raised enough money for the group’s political action committee to spend $850,000 this year on advertising and campaign donations. Did VoteVets catch political lightning in a bottle, or is the group being bankrolled by MoveOn? If so, how much influence is MoveOn’s financial support exerting on Soltz and his group?

The question of influence was raised again in my mind when I read an opinion piece in the August 19 edition of the New York Times. Ostensibly written by five US Army sergeants, the article takes a hard stand against current military policy in Iraq, questioning the ability of the United States to successfully achieve its mission in Iraq.

Once again, I find it to be a very dangerous precedent, if not actionable behavior, for enlisted military personnel in the service of their country to so openly question the policy dictating their service. I’ll even go so far as to say the article itself gives me plenty of reason to suspect outside influence in its construction. I’m a public relations guy, after all, and I know how the game is played. I’m pretty good (but not infallible) at spotting flackery.

The language and progression of logic used in the Times editorial reads more like a well-thought-out policy statement than the collaborative work of five sergeants. That’s not to suggest that enlisted personnel are incapable of strong, intelligent writing, but rather that another hand, perhaps a journalist embedded with the authors’ unit or a spin-meister who reworked the manuscript before it landed on the Times’ editorial desk, may have been involved in the creation of that article.

Outsiders may cheer these and other examples as free speech; I don’t. Integrity is an essential element to effective duty. Putting personal feelings ahead of orders introduces an unacceptable level of risk, and may compromise a unit’s mission, putting lives in jeopardy. That’s why subjugation is critical. The United States relies on a highly skilled volunteer military to defend its borders and Constitution. Those who choose service do so to carry out their given orders, not to serve as a springboard to advance any particular personal agenda.

A commitment to military service comes with the voluntary suspension of the usual exercise of Constitutional rights, a cultural nuance that is difficult for some civilian observers to grasp. Servicemen do not forfeit their right to free speech, but they do agree to follow the military’s provision for being heard.

Share  Posted by Mike Spinney at 8:40 PM | Permalink

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