Op/Ed Fridays: military leadership and conscientious objection

I read this commencement speech on leadership given by a military man at the University of Texas at Austin. As much as I found the speech inspiring, I couldn’t help but think the following and post it at Hacker News. Here is the full discussion there on the speech, which, as you’ll see, contained some controversy.

It sounds like an impressive speech. I understand people share his values.

The bravest and most meaningful action I saw from a military person was a college roommate who had returned from active duty as a Marine in the Gulf War. I don’t know if his training was as intense as a SEAL’s but he saw active duty and looked long and hard at his actions and those of this country and applied to become a conscientious objector.

I think he valued and lived all the things the UT guy talked about, but to me it seemed he did one thing further. After all, when a country goes to war, the other side has soldiers who share all those values too. What makes one side better than the other? I doubt many would say might should make right. I don’t know if anyone can answer that question better than any other, but I believe he concluded that you have to examine your conscience and the conscience of the military for which you work and the civilians for whom it works. He told me that when he enlisted his intent was to defend his country but that his experience and thoughtful consideration showed him the U.S. military today wasn’t about defense. What it was about he couldn’t say for sure, but it had more to do with corporate control than defense. He felt lied to by a system that was designed to lie to him and everyone else and he couldn’t see changing in his lifetime. That his participation in the military would force him to support with his actions things he could not support. This is an Ivy League guy who was decorated and nearly made the NFL and Olympics.

The UT guy talked about very important things. I agree we would all benefit from them. All his underlined parts were about changing the world. He didn’t say only the military provided those things, but I think it’s worth calling out that you can get them elsewhere, as well as other things you can’t get from the military. I’m sure he knows plenty more than I do, but I think my friend had one extra step that I didn’t see in that speech about changing the world, something about thinking deeply and considering a bigger picture about the consequences of your actions.

I’m sure he thought these things through himself, and I’m sure many soldiers do. Maybe all of them do. If they concluded they were doing right, they have the right to their conclusions. I’m not trying to say he was wrong or that the military is wrong. Everyone has their values. I just didn’t see the call to examine your values in the speech. I suspect more people would become conscientious objectors if that message was stronger. Or rather, the government would have to make different decisions if potential soldiers considered bigger pictures than what he talked about.

EDIT: A couple days after writing the above, I learned of a Marine named Smedley Butler, “a United States Marine Corps major general, the highest rank authorized at that time, and at the time of his death the most decorated Marine in U.S. history… By the end of his career, Butler had received 16├é┬ámedals, five for heroism. He is one of 19 men to receive the Medal of Honor twice, one of three to be awarded both the Marine Corps Brevet Medal and the Medal of Honor, and the only Marine to be awarded the Brevet Medal and two Medals of Honor, all for separate actions,” according to Wikipedia.
He said the following, which seems relevant to my friend’s perspective and, perhaps, mine:

War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.

I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.

I wouldn’t go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

There isn’t a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its “finger men” to point out enemies, its “muscle men” to destroy enemies, its “brain men” to plan war preparations, and a “Big Boss” Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.

It may seem odd for me, a military man, to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

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