America Is Not a Military Unit

America Is Not a Military Unit

Obama used his State of the Union address to suggest civilians emulate the military. Why this idea is a dangerous—and authoritarian—one.

At both the beginning and end of his State of the Union address last night, the president suggested that the country can solve its problems by modeling itself after the military. Near the start he said:

At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, [members of the military] exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.

He ended on the same note, comparing the unity of the Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden to the political cooperation between himself, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, and then suggested we all follow that example:

This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.

One problem with this rhetoric is its militarism. Not content to thank the troops for serving, the president has adopted the notion that military culture is better than that of civilian society and ought to guide it. That idea, too often seen among service members, is corrosive to civil-military relations. Troops should feel honored by their society but not superior to it. We do not need to pretend they are superhuman to thank them.

There is an even bigger problem with this “be like the troops, put aside our differences, stop playing politics, salute and get things done for the common good” mentality. It is authoritarian. Sure, Americans share a government, much culture and have mutual obligations. But that doesn’t make the United States anything like a military unit, which is designed for coordinated killing and destruction. Americans aren’t going to overcome their political differences by emulating commandos on a killing raid. And that’s a good thing. At least in times of peace, liberal countries should be free of a common purpose, which is anathema to freedom.

The more we get shoved together under a goal, the less free we are and the more we have to fight about. Differing conceptions of good and how to achieve it are the source of our political disagreements. Those competing ends are manifest in different parties, congressional committees, executive agencies and policy programs. Our government is designed for fighting itself, not others.

There’s no danger that this suggestion that we emulate military cooperation to make policy will actually succeed. Our politicians are hypocritical enough to rarely believe their own rhetoric about escaping politics, thankfully. But the happy talk is at least a distraction from useful thought about successful legislating. Productive deals get done by recognizing and accommodating competing ends, not by wishing them away. That means better politics, not none.