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Hope for Veterans Day

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It goes without saying that I hope for world peace. It also goes without saying that that hope will be unfulfilled.

We are a violent race, riven by faction, by sect, by nation, by special interest, by inherent greed and ever unfulfilled need. Conflict and the potential for conflict are eternal verities of the human condition. When can we afford to study war no more? I would say, approximately never.

So my hope for this Veterans Day is understandably more modest, yet more pressing since it is based on reality rather than wishful thinking.

My hope is twofold. That on the one hand we develop a greater sense of coherence about the military actions we undertake. And that on the other, we develop a greater sense of community with the armed forces.

Gallup Polls in recent years have shown the U.S. Armed Forces to be the most admired institution in America. Which for some of us, at least, is heartening. Until you consider how glib and easy that call can be in a nation which for decades has had an all-volunteer force.

Unexamined and unconsidered support for the military can be worse than shallow lip service; it can lead to unexamined and unconsidered support for military action which in the end is in the interest neither of the institution nor the nation.

This year has seen a series of lurching moves, most notably the near-miss military intervention in Syria by President Obama, which look quite incoherent.

I think that the increasing lack of familiarity with the military in this country, ironically at a time of near constant warfare of one sort or another, is very bad. While military experience was widespread among our forebears -- in one of my early memories as a boy I remember my father and uncles, combat veterans all, forcefully hashing out the security issues and personalities of the moment as the cigarette smoke formed cumulus clouds in a San Francisco hotel room after MacArthur died -- today it's not. That's especially so in my fields, those of politics and media.

When I took the Navy oath of office on the field at Annapolis on a balmy 4th of July, the vow -- "I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same" -- did not contain a sunset clause. It did contain an entree to experiences and insights I'm glad to have.

But most civilians making decisions about the military today, and most who judge those decisions, have no such experience. And so they are prone to demonizing the military or, more frequently in this political environment, to ascribing a shallow sort of glory to it without understanding the limits of power or the experience of those directed to carry out the missions. In the end, it comes down to some poor souls heading into harm's way, not infrequently these days humping a rifle and a pack and hoping that the training is enough to get through. In coming years, it will involve some poor souls on patrol boats peering into the fog, wondering what the technologically detected shapes really mean.

If you haven't worn the uniform, you don't know what that's like. You're also prone to underestimate what can go wrong as well as what can be achieved, to make blithe assumptions based on unfounded notions and no experience at all.

And you probably don't have the necessary grain of salt, which in some cases should be a salt shaker, to apply in contemplation of military proposals, whether they come from impressive-looking and sounding brass hats or credentialed civilian fantasists.

I came to my limited experience of military service when I accepted a nationally competitive appointment from the executive branch to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. (I turned down a senatorial appointment to the Air Force Academy and the appointment of my local congressman to West Point.) But after my freshman year, having chosen to resign, my involvement came as a naval reservist.

Actually, looking back, resigning from Annapolis may have been a mistake. Most of the folks there were more conservative than me, of course. Which wasn't the issue. As the only representative of my class -- elected by my classmates following the rigors of Plebe Summer -- on the Brigade Honor Board, which oversees the Naval Academy's honor code, it occurred to me that the institution had an unacceptable level of hypocrisy in dealing with questions of who was or was not expelled for lying, cheating, or stealing. Having since had a lot more experience of American institutions than was available to my very idealistic teenaged self, I think my judgment was hasty. Not about individual outcomes at the time, but about the overall.

Yet I digress. Or do I?

The military has always been a flawed institution in America. How could it be otherwise? We're a flawed nation of flawed people.

They represent the best in us, when they win the medals for valor and achievement. And they represent the worst in us, when they commit heinous crimes. They are us, or at least that segment of us that chooses to mount the watchtowers and think the unthinkable.

It has ever been so.

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