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Obama's SOTU, authoritarian followership, and civil society: Part I

I make no apology for a late post on the SOTU; the SOTU, as Charles Pierce points out, was a campaign speech, so those of us who still listen to the teebee or the radio are going to be hearing the talking points and tropes deployed by Obama last Tuesday drone out over and over and over the airwaves at least until November 6.

Let me be clear: I did listen to the speech, and all the way through, too. One can hardly blame Obama for leading with his strongest card: He transmogrified killing the unarmed Osama Bin Laden, then dumping his corpse into the sea, into a surefire applause line. We've been here before; after all, Obama's "Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country" isn't all that different from Bush's "Let's put it this way: they are no longer a problem to the United States and our allies", and really, who over the age of six ever expected anything else? After that first fine, careless rapture, at least.

No man, no problem! True, Obama doesn't swagger, but that's just a cultural marker, and one of the techniques Ds use to fool themselves into thinking they're still the good guys.

No, it wasn't Obama glorifying a not-especially-clean hit that bugged me; what bugged me is what follows. Obama segued into a paean to teamwork as exemplified in the military:

These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down [note lack of agency], they 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.

And Obama circles back to the same point and expands on it toward the end of the speech:

Which brings me back to where I began. Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve [mankind?] can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.

One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get [kill] bin Laden. On it are each of their names.

All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job — the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs.* [Decorously, Obama fades out before the money shot.] More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other -- because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back.

So it is with America.

Well, not entirely "so." Personally, I find the willingness of people to come together voluntarily, even anonymously, to feed the hungry, clean their space, or provide those thirsting for knowledge with books, equally admirable, if not more admirable. Certainly, for those who do more than profess Christianity for political gain (cf. Matthew 6:2-6), the communism of everyday life [PDF] (cf. Matthew 25:35-36) must be preferable to militarism, however idealistically conceived.

And not entirely "so" for soldiers, either. (Here I'm following a train of though initiated on George Washington's blog.) When soldiers enlist, they take this oath (10 U.S.C. § 502):

“I, XXXXXXXXXX, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

See the word "mission" there anywhere in the Oath? Thought not. So where does it come from? Not from Jon Favreau, actually, but from the 2003 version of"The Soldier's Creed", a deliverable of the Warrior Ethos program authorized by Army Chief of Staff Eric K. Shinseki.** Here's are the first lines. (The reference numbers are mine.) You'll notice how Obama's rhetoric builds on this:

[1] I am an American Soldier.

[2] I am a warrior and a member of a team.

[3] I serve the people [not the Constitution] of the United States, and live the Army Values.

[4] I will always place the mission [not the Constitution, or the regulations, or the UCMJ] first

The Army, in "What do the words really mean?" offers the following gloss:

.... [2] I am a Warrior and a member of a team. Being a warrior, you will be trained to fight and defend yourself. As a team member, you live to serve the team. To maximize the team’s capability, all team members must work toward a common goal - mission accomplishment; if one member fails the team, the mission could fail.***

[4] I will always place the mission first. The mission always comes first [not the Oath] – even if it means you must sacrifice something – even if that something is your life.

Well, what could go wrong? Clearly the Warrior Ethos is completely at odds with the Oath; one might view Bradley Manning as living out that contradiction.

What then is a "mission"? To find out, I consulted Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms [PDF]:

mission — 1. The task, together with the purpose, that clearly indicates the action to be taken and the reason therefore. (JP 3-0) 2. In common usage, especially when applied to lower military units, a duty assigned to an individual or unit; a task. (JP 3-0) 3. The dispatching of one or more aircraft to accomplish one particular task. (JP 3-30)

"... A duty assigned." Note (again) lack of agency. Who's doing the assigning? A position (General) or a person (General XXXXXXXXXX)? Hard to say, isn't it? However, I'd come down on the side of a person. After all, football teams are composed of players, and not positions.**** So, the Creed looks like an embryonic system of personal fealty, to me. History shows that militaries -- and societys -- that are organized on such a basis are not without their disadvantages.

Now, I grant that I'm working only from texts: The SOTU, the Oath, the Creed, and a Pentagon Glossary. I'm not working from the ground, and I don't have one-degree-of-separation relations with anyone in the military. (Readers?) That said, surely I am not the only person who finds Obama's invocation of The Warrior Ethos as a model, not only for institutions that exceed expectations, but for individuals in civil society, more than a little disturbing?

End of Part I.

NOTE * Fine use of anaphora ("the.... the... the..."), one of Obama's favorite rhetorical devices. Occasionally, Favreau rivals Nooners.

NOTE ** Here are the pre- and post-2003 versions. The differences are instructive. Pre-2003:

I am an American Soldier.
I am a member of the United States Army – a protector of the greatest nation on earth.
Because I am proud of the uniform I wear, I will always act in ways creditable to the military service and the nation it is sworn to guard.

I am proud of my own organization. I will do all I can to make it the finest unit in the Army.
I will be loyal to those under whom I serve. I will do my full part to carry out orders and instructions given to me or my unit.

As a soldier, I realize that I am a member of a time-honored profession—that I am doing my share to keep alive the principles of freedom for which my country stands.
No matter what the situation I am in, I will never do anything, for pleasure, profit, or personal safety, which will disgrace my uniform, my unit, or my country.
I will use every means I have, even beyond the line of duty, to restrain my Army comrades from actions disgraceful to themselves and to the uniform.

I am proud of my country and its flag.
I will try to make the people of this nation proud of the service I represent, for I am an American Soldier.

Post-2003, as above:

I am an American Soldier.
I am a Warrior and a member of a team.
I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army Values.
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.
I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.
I am an expert and I am a professional.
I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy, the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.
I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.
I am an American Soldier.

At least in ROTC, Warrior Ethos is included in performance reviews; see page 38 [PDF].

NOTE *** Do horizontally scaling organizations face this issue?

NOTE **** Note also that warriors unlikely to be hedged round with the careful institutional safeguards so evident in the Oath that soldiers take (see Federalist #26 generally and at "the scheme of disciplining the whole nation must be abandoned...").

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Submitted by Alcuin on

You're a better man than I, Lambert. I can't stand the sound of Obama's voice. I see no point in listening to anything that he says. And, as I've written before, I'm not buying anything he is selling. Like DCblogger, I don't have the time to engage with Democrats or Republicans any longer. Emergent movements and Occupy are worthy endeavors; listening to the SOTU is a waste of my time. The SOTU is for sappy patriots and believers in military solutions to every problem. I don't have time for such nonsense any longer.