|07-19-2006, 11:26 AM||#1 (permalink)|
MSgt USMC Ret
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: San Diego
Who Would You Trust?
Bruce Fleming | July 18, 2006
Recently I was on an NPR show in Baltimore with two other guests. The topic was the ongoing rape trial of the Navy quarterback. Both he and the woman who alleges he raped her were heavily under the influence of alcohol (by her own admission she has been engaging in underage drinking for many years); sex on the Naval Academy grounds (this was Bancroft Hall) is forbidden. By anyone's standards it's a mess, though the man stands to be put in jail for life if convicted, and the woman has been given immunity from prosecution. What impressed me most, however, was the content of the call-ins. It was that old thing again: people in the military in general, and midshipmen in particular, are supposed to be more moral than the rest of us. They're held to a higher standard. One caller simply asserted that if the students couldn't stop drinking and having sex, they should be expelled. No excuse sir/ma'am.
I'd say I wonder where people get the strange notion that midshipmen, or for that matter, people in the military, are better human beings than the rest of us. Only, I know where: the military itself, and certainly USNA, promulgates this nonsense. Do Marine leaders want good human beings or Marines who are fearless, willing to follow orders, and devoted heart and soul to the Corps?
We disseminate this fiction because it makes people look up to us (here us is the Naval Academy, but also by extension the military). When people discover it's a load of hooey they always feel betrayed, as in this case of two drunken rutting midshipmen.
Are midshipmen more moral? I sometimes consider this very issue with midshipmen. One of them last semester tried to convince me they were more moral. This midshipman posed this question as part of the following situation. If you were at, say, the Annapolis Mall, and had to leave a package -- or your baby -- with somebody in a dire emergency, would you leave it with a group of midshipmen (the Annapolis Mall is full of mids on the weekends), or with the long-haired (this detail always amuses me) scruffy looking people also standing nearby?
I don't hesitate with this one. If it's the package, I say, clearly the mids.
Aha! they say. You've just acknowledged that midshipmen (and by extension members of the military: the example also works with a group of young lance corporals) are more moral. You'd trust them more.
Well, I say. Let's go slowly. I'd trust them more with the package, I say, because I know where they live. Even if I didn't live there too from 0800 to 1600, I'd know where they live. I'd know whom to contact for restitution; I'd be confident their chops (and perhaps other things) would be royally busted if they did anything with my package.
This, I submit, is not higher morality. It's just knowing that the consequences for these people of stealing my package are such that it's unlikely they'd steal it. The philosopher Immanuel Kant, in fact, would say they're not acting morally at all, but for self-advantage, which has nothing to do with morality, something based more on principles. Besides, I wouldn't trust enemy soldiers with my package, only the ones I had some vicarious control over. And they presumably too are told they're more moral.
And the baby? Here I think my criterion would be whether any of the military members, or long-hairs, was a woman. I think a woman would know instinctively not to hurt him (my babies are boys, though come to think of it one isn't even much of a baby any more). Midshipmen or lance corporals -- there I'm not so sure.
So here I actually think young men in the military, trained not to think about the consequences on the more vulnerable of their actions, would be less moral. My students by this time are jumping up and down. Midshipmen do not lie, cheat, or steal! they tell me. They expose themselves to bodily harm! They are more moral!
Do people in the military abstain from lying, cheating, or stealing more than civilians? I ask. Anyway, I thought that notion came from the (civilian) Boy Scouts. Sure, in tight quarters with a mission that takes precedence over all else, each Sailor (Soldier, Marine) has to know where his/her gear is: stealing is moved pretty close to the top of the list of military sins. Lying is probably at the very top: for mission effectiveness the C.O. has to be dealing with correct information. A machine made out of human beings only works with trust. (It doesn't necessarily work in the opposite direction: you can lie for the good of the mission down the chain, if not up.) Do soldiers and sailors cheat on their wives/husbands less than other people? Do they all pay their taxes? Are they nice to old people, frail people, the marginalized in society?
Making a short list of things necessary for the smooth working of an organization and hammering them does not make the people in that organization more moral. It just means they spend all their time worrying about that short list. Usually that means, they can do what they want with the rest.
How about that bodily harm military people expose themselves to? Surely that gives them the moral high ground? I live across from a young man who flips motorcycles in the air for a living. He's only 22, and he's broken every bone in his body, many times. He totaled an expensive car recently on the country road nearby. Is he more moral than others who live more circumspectly? For that matter, we all reckon with the statistical possibility of maiming or violent death every time we get behind the wheel of a car.
My students are disgusted by now. They are talking about virtues like bravery under fire, willingness to sacrifice personal comfort for the mission, loyalty to superior officers. (The motorcycle boy isn't brave, he's just foolhardy. And what does he sacrifice? He makes millions.)
Of course the military is more virtuous than the rest of the world, so long as you limit your view to the military virtues. These are virtues. But they're only a small very precise group. The others either go fish, or are overtly flouted.
I love my students, but it seems bizarre to me that apparently much of the world thinks they're better human beings than the rest of us. And that's why they're so outraged to learn they aren't.
Bruce Fleming is a professor of English at the US Naval Academy and the author of Annapolis Autumn: Life, Death, and Literature at the U.S. Naval Academy,and Why Liberals and Conservatives Clash.
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