War Is Not the Soldiers’ Fault
June 21, 2010
This article is a response to the anti-military protest staged by two teachers at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School, during a commemorative assembly on June 11, 2010. It argues that the demonstration of Marybeth Verani and Adeline Koscher was (1) misguided on the basis of a naive understanding of the function of a national military, and (2) simply disrespectful towards the students being honored.
Forgive me if this one seems a little more “political” than “educational,” but then again, what is education if not political? Last Friday, June 11, two teachers, Marybeth Verani and Adeline Koscher, of Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School in Massachusetts, decided that a high school assembly honoring graduates entering the military would be the best place to stage an anti-military protest. Needless to say, backlash has already hit the media, and factions are demanding the teachers be terminated. I won’t spend much energy on what should or should not happen to these teachers in terms of discipline. Termination may or may not be the appropriate response; certainly they should be reprimanded at the very least. From the standpoint of public education, the legality of their actions may be questionable, on the basis that theirs was what is called a “captive audience,” on which they are not permitted to impose ideas that are outside the curriculum or involve touchy issues of free speech, expression, and religion. There are plenty of other cases just like this one that have climbed all the way to the Supreme Court, and this case may or may not follow suit. Almost invariably in these cases, the teachers lose, and well they should, for public schooling is already too much in danger of becoming an institute of indoctrination and acculturation rather than responsible inquiry. However, the real problem here is not the legality of their actions. The real problem is with the unrealistic pacifist naivety on which their actions were based, and with the blatant disrespect they showed their students.
To start with the naivety: U.S. citizens seem to have trouble differentiating between certain things when it comes to politics. I blame England – particularly King George III and friends. Those guys made the so-called Founding Fathers so absolutely paranoid of centralized power that the very thought of any system even remotely resembling a monarchy – even a constitutionally limited monarchy – was absolutely verboten to them. So the Founding Fathers went ahead and fused the head of state with the head of government, and since that day, we haven’t been able to figure out the difference. If you don’t know the difference, you should learn it. Let a few things be made perfectly clear: First, the President of the United States is not the entire United States government and armed forces. The War in Iraq is not the War in Vietnam. A quarterback is not a football team, and being “anti-war” does not mean one must be “anti-military.” War is not the soldiers’ fault.
One could fall back on the old chicken-and-egg argument that without the soldiers to wage a war, war couldn’t be possible, and therefore it is indeed the soldiers’ fault. And perhaps in some kind of Greco-Buddhist semantic fantasy world, this would be true, but in reality, it isn’t. War and violence are intrinsic to our nature. Human beings are not the only animals that wage war; we’re just the best at it. And no matter how many people go around touting pacifist ideas and singing Hare Krishna to their neighbors, someone, somewhere, will want war, and he will find others who want it, too.
In justifying her behavior, Mrs. Verani claims that she and her confederate were trying to address the expansion of military recruitment in schools. Sadly, Verani also claims to be a history teacher. Though she may be credentialed to regurgitate historical facts, her behavior reveals she is a poor history student, else she would have known the simple truth that a nation needs a standing army. It has nothing to do with patriotism, nationalism, glory, freedom, democracy, imperialism, consumerism, love, hate, or any number of other dubious abstract ideas that have been thrown into the meat grinder and processed as jus ad bellum. Of course these ideas have muddled things, and of course standing armies have been used for unscrupulous acts against unsuspecting and helpless populations. But at the heart of it all, a nation needs a standing army for one reason and one reason alone: order. We needn’t pull at people’s heart strings with appeals to “the memory of our fallen soldiers” or “their great sacrifice” or anything like that. While those ideas should not be overlooked, the fact of the matter is: we don’t need pathos to justify militarism; we have logos.
Standing armies provide hegemony. Some call it “empire,” which is fine, if we remember to divorce ourselves from much of the negative connotation associated with that word. Hegemony creates stability and relative peace in the world order. Not “world peace,” mind, but relative peace as compared to a world order without a hegemon, which is probably about as close to “world peace” as we’re ever going to get. Consider the Pax Sinica, the Pax Romana, the Pax Britannica, and the current Pax Americana, not to mention dozens of others. It’s no coincidence that scholars decided to go with the Latin pax (peace) when labeling these empires. Standing armies provide hegemony, and hegemony provides relative peace.
Standing armies also provide protection. Readers need hardly be reminded of the Nazi menace that ravaged the world in the first half of the 20th Century – arguably the most formidable enemy in the history of mankind. What hope would there have been for society had there not been the tremendous military strength of the Allied Powers to stop it? A nation does not simply rally an ad hoc militia at a moment’s notice with the kind of training and sophistication needed to stop a sudden global threat like the Nazis. This kind of readiness can only come from a regular standing army, particularly one in which the government has invested billions of dollars. A nation needs a standing army.
Verani and Koscher sat while the rest of the audience respectfully stood for the introduction of six students entering various branches of the armed services. According to Verani, “standing and applauding is a sign of support for the decision these people have made.” Again, bear in mind that their display and their comments are not “anti-war” (which might even have been somewhat more acceptable), but they are in fact “anti-military.” These two believe that people should not join the military; ergo there should not be a military. That stated, it is the humble opinion of this author that since Verani and Koscher do not support the existence of an armed service, it would be appreciated if they surrendered or abandoned all the advantages they enjoy as a result of that service. Perhaps the government could set up a fascist reservation where these objectors could live out their lives in a little colony where Nazism is alive and kicking (and by the way, isn’t Koscher a Jewish name…?). Perhaps these objectors wouldn’t mind surrendering their fuel-combustion engines and everything they own that is made of plastic, since at least some percentage of the petroleum required for these products was gotten by such militaristic belligerence.
Enough with the rant. On to the point of respect. Constant readers will already know the highest esteem in which this author holds respect for the students. Let us examine how Verani and Koscher failed their students. As explained in Not Everyone Is an Alpha, not all students are going to leave high school to become Rhodes scholars. Thankfully, many of them will go on to provide useful services to our society, including agriculture, plumbing, engineering, and waste management. On this list of useful services should also be included defense. Every year, thousands of young men and women decide that they are going to serve our society by joining the standing army. They see that they will contribute to a stable world order, and they will be ready to defend that world order should there ever arise some madman at the head of a sociopathic Armageddon. Might they be mistreated by their government? Yes, maybe. Might they be sent to fight some unpopular, political cesspool of a war? Perhaps. Nevertheless, these citizens believe more in the ideals on which this nation and its armed forces were founded than they do in the political nonsense that is part and parcel to it. For lack of a better term, they have faith in their nation. And when their teachers – people who were supposed to have been role models and supporting adult figures during the formative years of their lives – insult the integrity of a ceremony that commemorates the armed forces they are proudly joining, these teachers might as well be telling the students their religion is stupid and their cultural traditions are foolish. In this way, Verani and Koscher showed tremendous disrespect for their students.
So teachers, do right by your students: debate the pros and cons of militarism to your heart’s content, but do it in the classroom, where it belongs. Give them everything you can: all of your guidance, all of yourself, for as long as they are with you. And then, like any good mentor, shut up. Let them take what you have taught them and become independent thinkers. After all, isn’t that the very point of education? Most of all, when it comes time to honor your students, by all means, honor them, and keep your opinions to yourself.