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Love the Warrior, Hate the War

Why progressives have more in common with the military than they think

Lorelei Kelly

U.S. army 2nd armored Cavalry Regiment Spc. Stephen Johnson greets Iraqi children during a 2003 New Year's Eve party for children in Baghdad.

When Army Col. Ike Wilson returned home in March 2004 from a 12 month deployment in Iraq, one thought remained with him: Why such a deliberate plan to fight the war, but none to win the peace to follow?” 

Wilson, a West Point professor with years of military planning experience, knew that placing this question at the the center of national security policy discussions was the only way to truly learn from Iraq and Afghanistan. He soon founded the Beyond War Project as a hub to educate both the military and the public about a new vision for war, peace and America’s role in the world. Thus far, he’s signed up participants ranging from Cornell University’s Peace Studies Program to the U.S. Air Force.

Wilson’s approach typifies today’s professional military education, which includes a breadth of topics that might surprise those more familiar with the liberal arts. In contrast to linear Cold War themes like strategic nuclear deterrence, military schools emphasize humanities subjects such as language, international cooperation and world culture. Such lessons arrived in these academic settings in the early part of the decade – though it took the terror attacks of 9/11 and two offensive U.S. military actions before elected leaders really paid attention to the dramatic shift from Cold War thinking. 

Today, nearly every general that testifies before Congress claims that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan do not have purely military solutions. This sea change means that many members of the military and progressives are philosophically much closer than either believes and they are both hurt by the lack of meaningful interaction. Understanding and aligning with the military around shared concerns could be a crucial new strategy for the left.

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I taught peace studies at Stanford University in California before moving to Washington in 1997 to work on Capitol Hill for Rep. Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.). In 1995, Congress suffered a semi-lobotomy. The new conservative majority – under the guidance of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America – cut many specialist staff and dismantled bipartisan educational organizations such as the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus. My job was to establish an informal study group to educate staff on new national security issues.

As I set out to find important security initiatives to bring to Capitol Hill, I learned that most of the creative new government programs were in the military. I enrolled in classes – free to Hill staff – offered by the Air Command and Staff College and the National Defense University. I spent days at the Army War College, where the challenges of peace were on every conference agenda. While learning about topics ranging from peacekeeping to AIDS prevention, I came to know numerous military professionals eager to share knowledge about international problem solving – most based on recent experience.

Montgomery McFate is an anthropologist who advises the military on the value of cultural knowledge. She points out how warfighting now sits at the intersection of traditional military activity and what is known as human security.” 

Technology is not the key to victory in Iraq or Afghanistan, where so much of our effort is focused on building infrastructure, increasing their ability to build a government, establishing the rule of law and promoting civil society,” says McFate. U.S. forces need to understand the human terrain in which they are operating.” 

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, good government is our exit strategy. And if there is a good news story about Iraq, it is that U.S. soldiers have already applied lessons learned from the peace operations in the 90s. In Haiti, the Balkans and even in Somalia, the importance of culturally sensitive conflict resolution was learned.

Good government is also a preventive strategy. As a whole, post-9/11 security threats are broad and inclusive, and require a variety of approaches – military, political, social and economic. Because so much of the institutional memory of post-Cold War security policy resides in the Defense Department, whoever figures out a way to engage and to learn from our military’s experiences will have a wealth of policy ideas for moving forward. 

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Successful branding” by conservatives has made liberals seem weak on national security. It has also created a lowest common denominator political discourse – especially the defense budget. The vast majority of members vote for defense bills that continue to fund a Cold War national security apparatus. The absence of a loyal opposition and real debate about national security has led us to where we are today: The U.S. military finds itself in a situation that it would have never gotten into on its own.

November’s vote provides a timely opening to begin this conversation. With a new Democratic majority in Congress and the departure of Donald Rumsfeld, liberals must see past their anger over Iraq and grab the opportunity to learn from an unaccustomed source. Building relationships with military professionals will pay huge policy dividends when the time comes to pursue fundamental change on national security priorities. 

The cost of the war has now passed half a trillion dollars – on top of a $400 billion plus defense budget. A more rational budget will soon become imperative, and progressives can be in the vanguard instead of on the margin by including real military needs in their list of spending priorities before diverting the conversation back to domestic issues. They can also consistently de-link defense spending from war spending – after Iraq, the Army will need to be rebuilt after its experience in Iraq. The rise of a cohort of military advocates from the left would mark an important change: Confident progressive voices joining the debate over the appropriate mission of American armed forces.

Such allies are needed: Despite their ability to wield tremendous physical force, the military is vulnerable when it comes to protecting itself in the domestic policy process. The armed services’ professional ethic forbids interference in political decision-making. Hence their fate is often influenced most by those poised to gain in the short-term, either financially or politically, and who encounter no similar professional barriers –i.e., defense industry lobbyists, members of Congress and an executive branch obsessed by domestic politics. 

This strategy is not unrealistic. Today’s antiwar movement is leagues more sophisticated than the one that ended the Vietnam war. Today’s liberal activist has learned how to be anti-war without being anti-warrior. 

What’s more, liberal philosophy shares many values with the military: looking after the general welfare, shared risk, sacrifice for common goals and long-term planning. Liberals value public service, and the military is our largest public institution. We also share many other areas of concern:

  • International human rights law: U.S. military lawyers are human rights champions for Guantánamo prisoners and for the Geneva Conventions.
  • International treaties: The U.S. Navy is one of the strongest advocates for the Law of the Sea.
  • Nuclear arms control: The military generally finds nuclear weapons unusable.
  • Conflict resolution: The Air Force has a prize-winning office of dispute resolution.
  • Renewable energy: The U.S. military is the largest energy consumer in the country. 
  • AIDS prevention: The Defense Department has an extensive program to help foreign militaries.

Yet, Congress continues to drain billions from budget coffers to pay for Cold War programs like nuclear weapons and missile defense. The immediate military needs are more obvious: low-tech items like body armor, and human resource skills like language education. 

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The American military’s changing worldview has resulted in a sustained identity conflict within the institution. This tension will likely continue until younger generations move into leadership, entertaining very different notions of national security than those who came before them. 

For younger officers, the idea that power is not dominance, but the ability to influence change, is a lesson learned from recent experience. One Marine Corps friend recently told me that while on a mission in East Timor, his bag of MREs (meals ready to eat) was usually more helpful than his ammo belt, because he could make friends by handing them out to hungry locals. Contrast this experience with the linear, engineering mindset of the Cold War – where a rigid worldview fit nicely with hardware-heavy solutions. Low-tech is our future. 

Frank G. Hoffman, a strategist for the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Quantico, Va., organized a gathering on Irregular Warfare in the summer of 2005 to expose military thinkers to the theories of social science and a more comprehensive view of intervention. Without an appreciation for these skill sets and disciplines,” Hoffman says, future military operations are doomed to failure.”

In November 2005, the Office of the Secretary of Defense released Directive 3000.5 – an official document that elevated post-conflict reconstruction and support of civil society to a par with combat as a military priority. It remains to be seen whether or not this directive will be fully implemented. Yet it demonstrates that the institutional memory of the Defense Department is changing. Mid-level officers – whose formative military experiences were post-Cold War and whose assignments required a refresher of both counterinsurgency and sociology – are making their presence felt. 

Citizens’ legitimate fears about terrorism make security a gateway issue – a threshold that must be satisfied before any other priorities can be addressed. For liberals, appreciating the military and its evolving worldview just might provide the first step through this threshold. Hearing what the military has to say could give liberals a reality-tested idea around which to unify: that our left-over Cold War belief in dominance alone is obsolete and that we need new, far-reaching alternatives. The five military veterans joining the Democratic majority in the 110th Congress will facilitate this transition, as they speak with irreproachable first-hand knowledge. 

It’s time to be pro-military for all the right reasons. At dinner tables, public libraries, classrooms and city halls across America, let us listen to our warriors as they return. They will tell a story of change – one that Americans across the political spectrum need to hear. 

Lorelei Kelly is the director of the Real Security Initiative at the White House Project. She also blogs at The​Huff​in​g​ton​Post​.com.
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