A week or so after I arrived at West Point, I opened my car door onto a naked corpse. For what seemed like minutes my senses shut down—I saw nothing but the pale flesh of the corpse, heard nothing, smelled nothing. And then I gradually grew conscious of a strange smell. It wasn’t the sort of nauseating stench I imagine corpses give off, but a smoky chemical scent—one I hadn’t experienced before. It was the strangeness of this smell that broke my gaze from the corpse and moved it a few feet to the right, where a canister the size of a Coke can sent plumes of bright green smoke into the air. A few feet further away crouched an alien creature in camouflage and a gas mask, holding a rifle and looking at me through thick goggles. At that moment, the corpse seemed more human to me than that creature. A black-gloved hand gestured at me to move from the car, away from the corpse. That gesture broke the spell.
Before I began teaching political theory at West Point a decade ago, it never occurred to me that I was a “civilian.” Since being here, and thanks to experiences like this one, I’ve thought a lot about what, precisely, distinguishes the “civilian” from the “soldier.” The term “civilian” can sometimes serve as a catch-all for non-military folk, in roughly the way “muggle” is used in Harry Potter to distinguish naturally different types. It can also be used to evoke a distinct culture with its own set of ideals and expectations. A colleague of mine will joke about “playing the civilian card” to excuse a task not done with an officer’s precision or promptness.
My first days at West Point offered many opportunities to play the civilian card. Acquiring a parking pass required more forms than it takes to acquire a weapon in most states, as well as a background check on the vehicle and the testimony of high-ranking officers to one’s pass-worthiness. Or that’s how I remember it, at any rate. The memory might be colored by the special paralysis that afflicts new entrants to a bureaucracy—the fear of being held strictly accountable to a rule when its intent is opaque and the judge applying it hidden.
In the matter of the parking pass, I overcame the paralysis but failed in some still-obscure detail; my “civilian card” was rejected, and I was left to park for the first few weeks of my new job at a safe distance from “post” (West Point for campus). The spot along the banks of the Hudson River was scenic enough, but it required me to climb a small mountain before reaching my office. It was on one of those first mornings driving down to my riverside parking spot, muttering to myself about the injustice of it all, fantasizing about the day when I could walk rather than hike to work, that I opened my door onto a battlefield. Or rather a simulation of one.
I had driven unawares into what I’ve since learned was an “extraction exercise.” The nude corpse—there were many of them, in fact—was a dummy, meant to simulate a dead civilian or perhaps a soldier killed in battle. The green smoke was meant to recreate the conditions of a chemical attack or perhaps to signal a helicopter. And the soldier—that creature of camouflage—was there to retrieve the corpses, cordon off the battlefield lest the enemy attack, and deal as humanely as possible with unwitting passersby. I suppose I knew, after the soldier’s familiar gesture dissipated my initial shock, that West Point was not under enemy attack, that the lot reserved for the passless was not actually strewn with corpses. Still, I could not quite shake the reality of my emotions—the fear and uncertainty, followed closely by gratitude for someone who knew better than I what to do under those conditions.
Having made the ascent to my office that morning, I applied the tools of my academic discipline to try to make sense of the experience. The roots of the divide between civilian and military, I reasoned, reached to the very foundations of American political thought, and indeed of modern liberalism. Our philosophy conceives of violent death as the worst evil a man can suffer, and death itself as an enemy to be conquered. Our government is intended to protect the individual’s right to life. While in some sense everyone knows that freedom isn’t free and the protection of life requires that certain individuals be ready to sacrifice their own lives, the orientation of our political philosophy toward the avoidance of violence and death makes the art of violence and the virtues associated with it unintelligible. Modern, liberal societies value peace so deeply as to deny the reality of war. They cover over death as it is known to the military—a constant possibility, and one to be risked for the sake of principles more valuable than life.
All of those abstractions spilled out effortlessly. But the truth of the matter is that the soldier was a “plebe” (West Point for freshman). He hadn’t been here much longer than I had. This soldier, whose gesture restored my sense of myself and extracted me from a battlefield I had mistaken for a parking lot—he was to be one of my students.
The military wears two masks for curious civilians. It can appear as an organization of professionals, since commissioned officers (which is what the West Point students I teach become), like doctors and lawyers, master an abstract body of knowledge and learn how to apply it to particular cases. The military can also appear as a bureaucratic agency. Employees of the state, officers are governed in many of their day-to-day actions by rules, and they communicate with one another in the officious genres of memos, forms and standard operating procedures. Samuel Huntington’s The Soldier and the State, which presents the military, particularly the officer corps, as a profession, concludes by calling West Point “a bit of Sparta in the midst of Babylon.” The military can also seem a bit of Byzantium in Babylon.
The trouble with both of these analogies, however, is that they describe only a superficial separation. The way in which professions and bureaucracies differ from the rest of life is familiar to us. We expect to encounter a highly educated expert at the doctor’s office and a rule-bound clerk at the DMV. While it is true enough to say that the military officer resembles the doctor and the DMV worker, the reassuring familiarity in these resemblances obscures as much as it reveals. In Huntington’s terms, the profession and the bureaucracy are masks the military wears for Babylonians.
Or so I began to think a few years into my time here. In my third fall, I offered an advanced seminar on Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. My intent was to work out some ideas for a book on Christianity’s rise and its role in Rome’s decline. My students, however, were drawn to Gibbon’s portrayal of a transformation in the Roman military that had nothing to do with Christianity. Under the Republic, says Gibbon, “the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest, as well as duty, to maintain.” Gibbon uses the word “patriotism” to express this motive for military service—a mixture of duty and interest, in which interest seems the more dominant part. In the Empire’s legions, he says, honor and religion take the place of patriotism. By religion, Gibbon means the soldier’s veneration for his unit’s “sacred ensign,” the abandonment of which was considered deeply impious; by honor, Gibbon evokes the social status that accrued to an individual as a soldier or officer. “The peasant, or mechanic, imbibed the useful prejudice that he was advanced to the more dignified profession of arms.” The lofty motives of honor and religion were reinforced by strict attention to financial incentives—regular pay, bonuses and veterans’ pensions—and demanding physical training. “Such were the arts of war,” Gibbon concludes, “by which the Roman emperors defended their extensive conquests, and preserved a military spirit, at a time when every other virtue was oppressed by luxury and despotism.”
What struck my students was Gibbon’s use of the word “profession.” For Gibbon, the “profession of arms” was not a mechanism by which a healthy republic sustained military expertise and insulated officers from political pressure, as Huntington suggested, but a way for a corrupt despotism to generate military force when nobler motives for service were no longer available. The talented peasant committed himself to mastering a challenging task on behalf of the Empire and benefited from the social status and pay that position conferred. The units made up of these professionals were undeniably impressive, but they were also undeniably imperial. As Gibbon’s story unfolded, my students and I watched Rome’s military, conceived as a profession, start to behave as a self-interested bureaucratic agency, seeking more autonomy, improved working conditions (in the form of relaxed discipline) and higher pay. A patina of public-spirited rhetoric sometimes covered these demands.
Gibbon suggested, in short, that the officer-as-professional was an intermediate stage on the descent from the officer-as-citizen to the officer-as-bureaucrat. This transformation was not a moral corruption, per se—it was not a story of citizens eager pro patria mori slouching towards selfishness. Gibbon tried instead to capture how the military became something different when it reflected the interests of the Empire’s subjects rather than the Republic’s citizens—those who had a country to love, property to defend and a share in enacting laws.
The challenge for myself and the students in that seminar became understanding why the masks at our disposal were those of the Empire rather than the Republic.
Is the idea of citizenship still relevant to understanding the military’s purpose? It seems somehow present in the practice of thanking soldiers for their service, as if they were specialists not in some branch of knowledge that demarcated a profession, but in citizenship itself—super-citizens whom other, lesser citizens could merely acknowledge and admire. The U.S. Army’s description of its own purpose, however, is more straightforward: to deploy, fight and win our nation’s wars.
That sort of answer—crisp, to the point, telling no more than the questioner needs to know in order to act in light of the truth as the speaker understands it—is characteristic of speech in the military. It’s just as characteristic as the arcane language that seals off experts from those outside their field, or the barbaric acronyms and abstractions of bureaucratese. Still, I prefer another way of putting the military’s purpose. At an officer’s commissioning and at every subsequent promotion, a senior officer administers an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The ritual proceeds with the senior officer saying a line and the junior officer repeating it, a call-and-response that easily takes on the cadence of a prayer.
I prefer this way of putting it because I believe the American military’s purpose is to serve not just a nation but the American republic, and I think the “Constitution of the United States” expresses the character of that regime better than any more neutral expression could. I think, too, that this expression elides the military and the non-military in a way that clarifies the military’s purpose. The military is distinct from most other walks of life in that it requires mastering the art of violence and acquiring the virtues that allow one to encounter violence without losing one’s head (or soul). But supporting and defending the Constitution is a task that officers share with many citizens outside of the military.
Professors here, both civilian and military, never tire of quoting George Washington’s words to our students: “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” The same can be said of other public servants. To serve as a teacher or policeman entails mastering a body of knowledge and applying it as an employee of the state. Like military officers, teachers and police can be viewed as professionals or bureaucrats. One does not necessarily “lay aside the citizen” in assuming these roles, any more than one lays aside the citizen in assuming the soldier. To view these roles as having to do with citizenship—with (in Gibbon’s words) having a country to love, a property to defend and a share in enacting laws—highlights the purpose they share with those who have not mastered the same body of knowledge or are not employed by the state.
This use of “citizen” is conceptually clarifying, and potentially edifying. It calls attention to the nobler motives for entering into what we still call “public service”: not the intellectual pleasure inherent in acquiring expertise, nor the worldly comfort of job security and a pension, but the civic satisfaction of serving one’s community. It can also be practically demanding. To serve the state as a citizen, rather than a professional or a bureaucrat, entails acting and speaking in a way that can be understood and evaluated by fellow citizens. In a crisis, it requires putting service to the common good ahead of one’s interests as an expert or employee.
I arrived at West Point at the midpoint of the conflict that began on September 11, 2001, and ended, in some sense, on August 30, 2021. I cannot honestly say that the idea of “serving” in that conflict had anything to do with my arrival. I was reluctant to think of myself as a citizen. The term “professor,” which evoked my academic pedigree and everything that set me apart from others, came more naturally, owing to pride or vanity. But my separation from the conflict also reflected the American military’s conception of its own relationship to the republic. Huntington taught military officers to claim the status of the “professional,” and, with it, a certain insulation from the judgment of those outside the profession. He worried that the United States could not win the Cold War unless the military’s realism was cordoned off from American liberalism. He wanted to save Sparta from Babylon in order to protect Babylon. The military became an all-volunteer force in 1973 in response to the disaster of Vietnam and widespread antagonism toward the military among the educated classes. The results were consistent with Huntington’s goals. By becoming an elite service of willing professionals, the military could command social respect and serve the nation more effectively than it had under conscription.
The attempt to raise the standards of the military has succeeded. The military has risen in respect as a result. For the past thirty years, no American institution has been more admired, according to polls that include the police and public schools. But the increase in respect has come at a cost. No institution is less personally known to the typical American. This separation allows members of the military to appear as a distinct and elevated caste; it also allows debates over defense budgets, emerging conflicts and long-term strategy to assume an immoderate and artificial cast. The obsequious praise, overconfident condemnation and stubborn indifference that have by turns characterized public discussion of our recent wars all reflect the military’s insulation from American society. But the most profound consequence of this separation has to do with our capacity to take an active part in the community we share. By relating to the military and other forms of public service as the preserve of professionals or bureaucrats, we lose sight of the fact that mere weeks can separate a soldier from a civilian, and that only a portion of public servants make their careers as government employees. There is an old vision of a good and flourishing life, still available to us, that reflects both the nobility of public service and the varied ways individuals weave together periods of service to their communities with other callings and commitments. We make it more difficult to see and articulate all of this by thinking in terms more fitting for imperial subjects.
I arrived at West Point with only a weak sense of the citizen’s life and its satisfactions. Despite having two grandfathers who served admirably in World War II and a father who served as a Navy doctor when I was young, I also arrived in near-perfect ignorance of the military. My ignorance ended when I opened my car door onto the essence of the thing—the corpse surrounded by violence that I had thankfully avoided to that point (even in simulation) and would now be preparing young men and women to confront. I have taught at West Point for a decade now, but I have not yet warmed to the word “civilian.” “Citizen” is more active and ennobling. It can be claimed by officers, and by policemen, teachers—even West Point professors. It should be.
This essay is part of our new issue 27 symposium, “What is the military for?” Click here to see the rest of the symposium.
Art credit: Daniel Donovan. The Boy Scouts; earned objects, sewn and altered fabric; 2016. All images courtesy of the artist.