Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Sacrifice of Individual Rights in the Military

Recently, I heard someone decry the "loss of freedom and basic human rights" a soldier suffers upon entering military service. While to some extent that may be true, there is a reason for what civilians may deem "madness".

I am a former Army officer, but before I earned my officer's commission after college, I was enlisted. As such, I went through basic training as a 17 year old. From the minute we entered the MEPS (military entrance processing station) through our graduation 13 weeks later from Basic Training, we were reminded innumerable times that we had no rights and were only government property with no wills of our own. (Hence the moniker GI: Government Issue.) GI is a more modern acronym for a concept that goes back to the beginning of standing armies: once a citizen enlists as a soldier, they are no longer an individual, but a tool of their government. The structure of a military hierarchy demands the subjugation of the individual to the greater power of the military machine. Historically, a soldier's life was forfeit to their command, even unto death. It's the nature of the beast.

People enlist in the military for myriads of reasons, some noble and others self-serving; but once in, they are rapidly disabused of any notion of individuality. It's not a secret ploy, and is so fundamental to the essence of military service as to be too moot to mention. It's a deliberate, methodical process of molding thousands of diverse individuals into an effective, unified, lethal fighting force - a tool for the government to wield at its will.

Some intensely independent people find this process unbearable, others find a way to work effectively within the system, and still others find a higher purpose and broader destiny as a true warrior. To each his own - there is honor to be had in all of the above. For me personally, I felt a supreme sense of "rightness" in the military. Even when I chafed at the random stupidities of the bureaucracy, or endured the strictures of my oath of office (my life not being my own), I found a fulfillment in my service that I've not experienced since. I felt I was part of something larger than myself - and that I rendered a valuable service to the country I loved. I carefully struck a balance between my fierce independence and the discipline required of a soldier. I miss it to this day...

Yes, the loss of individual rights is part and parcel of military service, and a sacrifice to be considered carefully before enlisting. Is the risk worth it? To someone whose eyes are fixed firmly on the Big Picture, it may well be deemed worth it. The Big Picture is this:

The most effective defense a society has is a standing army that is perceived by the enemy to be too powerful to overcome (the "peace-through-superior-firepower" effect). We in America have so long enjoyed that security that the few breaches we've suffered have shaken our national psyche to the core. The key to our peace and our power lies in the strength of our military. All other national issues (economic, social, political) are peripheral and subject to our military defense. Life as we know it today is a result of our military's prowess and is safeguarded only for as long as our military maintains that dominance. Our enemies incessantly probe for weaknesses all the while we citizens blissfully enjoy the fruits of our military's strength and vigilance.
Here’s the downside: our national sense of security comes at an individual cost. Individual privileges and rights are sacrificed in the hierarchy of military command. Ideally, a benign government doesn't abuse its soldiers who are stripped of the protection of their individual rights, and a strict Code of Honor safeguards the vulnerability of the individual. That is the IDEAL. In reality, the flaw in the system is the human. In the vast numbers of a standing army, there will ALWAYS be those for whom the Code of Honor means nothing. And soldiers who adhere to the Code of Honor are vulnerable to those who have no compunction in violating that Code. Unfortunately, when that happens, the inexorable grind of military justice begins, itself flawed by the vagaries of the human condition. Left alone, a military committed to excellence would police itself, and the Code of Honor could be expected to right the injustice somewhere along the line. Yet, when outside [civilian] forces - usually political or social – interject themselves, the Code of Honor is marginalized by those civilians not bound by it. The unfortunate result is that the soldier becomes a scapegoat. LT Ilario Pantano's situation is a textbook example ( he’s been charged with 2 counts of premeditated murder and destroying private property when he killed two enemy insurgents in a combat zone in Iraq.

As a man who appears to have his eyes firmly fixed on the Big Picture, LT Pantano has asked his supporters to NOT denigrate his beloved Marine Corp because of the flawed actions of a few. He has publicly placed his trust in the Code of Honor to prevail in his favor. I fervently hope his trust is well-placed, and that he is vindicated, because I would truly hate to see the Marines fail one of their own. Yet…as appalled as I am by LT Pantano’s situation, my gut instinct says that, at the end of the day the legendary honor of the Marines WILL prevail.