The Big Flinch

Bones of a Blimp: How the loss of military virtues fosters a politics of militarism

Of course this distinction has been institutionalized by our so-called volunteer army. What the word voluntary means in the case of a poor kid from deep in clothesline country who decides to join the army is something akin to what the word choice means when his laid-off sister decides to get an abortion. It amounts to one of those heart-stirring underclass demonstrations of free will so memorably symbolized by the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire who "chose" to jump from the windows when all the exits had been locked from the outside. Let freedom ring; just don't ask for whom the bell tolls.

Perhaps the greatest consequence of our estrangement from military culture is that the instinct for mobilization, for organized resistance—including organized resistance to militarism—is simply not part of the bourgeois ethos. Is it only coincidence that the largest growth of union membership in our history coincided with the demobilization of our largest civilian army? We should not be sentimental. The maddening propensity of working-class voters to support reactionary candidates in opposition to their own class interests is also a striking if twisted example of a vestigial military virtue, namely suicidal sacrifice. I wonder, though, if we of the leftward tilt would be capable of the same if, say, a truly progressive income tax meant that our Chip would have to go off to Bates lacking a kayak. Or for that matter, if the Chipster had to play his part in one of those dirty little wars we are more or less willing to tolerate so long as the plebes can get their prosthetic devices at discount.

The degree to which the educated classes take their privileges for granted is thrown into even sharper relief by comparison to societies where class privilege is or was supposedly absolute. Of the 5,687 Eton graduates who fought on the English side in the First World War, 1,160 were killed and 1,467 wounded. First in everything, and thus trained to be officers, they were also expected to be first over the top.

In the same essay in which Orwell extolled the military virtues, he wrote: "It is exactly the people whose hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes." How better to describe the protest rally I attended than as an exercise in flinching. The selection of John Kerry and of every Democratic presidential candidate since George McGovern—and perhaps including George McGovern—has amounted to much the same thing. It is essentially a pacifistic reflex, a hope that the bullies will be nicer if you act silly or try to be more like them, that if somebody like Newt Gingrich throws you a punch, perhaps you can get some of his friends on your side by throwing masses of people off the dole.

In that regard, the homecoming of Lieutenant John Kerry, the part of his service record that a certain type of nervous Democrat wishes would simply go away, might prove especially helpful. No doubt it will want a new interpretation. The young veteran who "broke ranks" needs to be seen instead as one who donated his experience to a protest movement that was floundering because of its inability to form ranks. It may be that in our moment and place, marching to a truly different drummer means recovering some of the discipline required to march in step.

Garret Keizer's book Help: The Original Human Dilemma is out this month from HarperSanFrancisco.

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