Friday, December 18, 2009



Last summer, I wrote an essay arguing that the United States military is essentially a socialistic institution. I made that conclusion because American military authorities "care about men under their command" both in war and peace. I pointed out that soldiers live a "rarefied" existence insulated from harsh commercial reality. That insulation allows them to focus on larger ideals, like "honor" and "political missions." Soldiers also receive free medical care, housing and living necessities from the government. As a whole, these characteristics led me to conclude that the military is "socialistic," even if its armed service protects a capitalistic society that condemns "socialism."

I continue to believe that the American military is a socialistic institution. In fact, I believe it more now than I ever did. When I wrote my previous essay, I focused primarily on larger themes to identify socialistic currents in American military life. But the military is not just abstractly socialistic; it is socialistic right down to the men themselves. It is socialistic in spirit as well as action.

To be clear, when I say "socialistic," I mean that the military provides a comprehensive security net for everyone under its control. But this means far more than merely providing tangible benefits. It also means that people in the military regard their fellow man differently than the way comparable civilians regard others. In commercial American civilian life, other human beings represent potential profits. Civilians have to think this way. Unlike soldiers, they do not get free rent, free health insurance or free child care. They have to fend for themselves. They cannot worry about their fellows too much or they will lose their own commercial struggle.

In the military, however, soldiers must care about each other. In combat, men treasure each other. They do not simply abandon their buddies when they get hurt. They are never indifferent. They put themselves in harm's way to ensure that their comrades survive. They even risk death to retrieve the bodies of friends killed in action.

I find this especially socialistic. Care for one's fellow man is a bedrock in socialist philosophy. In the military, individual soldiers practice that care every day. It is not obligatory care: Soldiers are not related by blood or even bound to each other by contract. No, they are simply comrades in arms. They refuse to allow ill to befall their fellows and they risk all to save them from it. The emphasis lies on one's fellow man, not on oneself. That marks a key distinction between both the military and civilian life, as well as between socialism and capitalism.

Karl Marx criticized capitalism because it tended to separate human beings from one another. When every man must selfishly pursue his own economic fortune in a free market system, he naturally begins to regard his fellow man as a commercial instrument, not as a human being with equal dignity. Although Marx wrote at length about economic esoterica, his main criticism was humanitarian: Capitalism distances human beings from one another and leads to human exploitation.

But in the military, soldiers learn to live with each other and depend on each other to an extent almost unrecognizable in civilian life. They do not distance themselves from each other; they come closer together. While such tight cooperation might reflect the most effective way to accomplish military missions, it also reflects a fundamentally humanitarian outlook. In the movie Black Hawk Down, for instance, one character echoes many "real" American soldiers when he explains why men serve in the military: "We're in this for the guy next to us." In other words, military life leads to a deep care for one's fellow man, no matter what the ultimate political objective may be. In fact, for individual soldiers in combat, "the guy next to us" is everything.

This is no Hollywood sentiment. This is really how soldiers think. They always have, and not just in the United States. Soldiers sign up for additional tours not because they care about the geopolitical ramifications of their deployment, but because they do not want to abandon their friends. They care that much. They care so much that they willingly face death in order to make sure their friends will not face death alone. "We're in this for the guy next to us."

That is a noble motivation. And that is why it is distinctly un-American. In American civilian life, no one really lives "for the guy next to us." No, most people live for "me." Think about catchphrases that encapsulate success in American civilian life: "It's all about me;" "I'm gonna do what I gotta do to make it;" "I need to think about Number One." These phrases might describe effective ways to achieve success in a capitalistic society. They might even yield riches and fame. But there is nothing noble about them. "The guy next to you" is irrelevant to the man who says "It's all about me." Yet that's what it takes to succeed in a society committed to individual profit. And that's the attitude people must take toward their fellows in order to survive. In the end, the motivation necessary for success in American civilian life leads precisely to the danger that concerned Marx: Human alienation and exploitation.

There is a strange irony in all this. Americans praise the military all the time. They thank soldiers for their service. They ascribe immensely positive results to their work. But military life could not be more different from the civilian society soldiers protect. It takes a fundamentally different outlook to be a soldier than it does to be an entrepreneur. What motivates a soldier does not motivate an entrepreneur. What matters to a civilian does not matter to a soldier. Strangely enough, conservatives are the first ones to talk about a "strong military," yet reject socialism across the board. If they just looked at the way military personnel think about their fellow men, they would see the foolishness in that position. The military does not just practice "economic socialism" by ensuring material welfare for its men. It also practices "individual socialism" by inculcating a spirit of concern in every man for the well-being of his fellows. Those sentiments should enrage an American conservative. Yet they keep on saying: "God bless our troops."

God bless those socialists? What a laugh.

In sum, there is more to socialism than tangible social welfare programs. Socialism means true respect for one's fellow man. A socialist does not just concern himself with spending money on people who ostensibly "don't deserve it." A socialist also thinks a certain way about other human beings. He refuses to leave anyone behind or let his neighbor suffer. He does not view him as a potential profit, but rather as a friend who needs help. There is a motivational element to socialism that is--in essence--very noble. There is nothing "evil" about it, no matter how much we learn that "socialism" is a "dirty word." After all, how could something be "un-American" if our own soldiers practice it?

Socialism is about caring for others. Capitalism is about caring for oneself. There are essential motivational differences. When a soldier says: "I'm in this for the guy next to me," his motivation is clear: It's not about him. It's about the other guy.

Why is this a bad sentiment? It might be socialistic. But it's also Christian. And noble, too.


Sarah said...

that's a very interesting view, and it completely makes sense.

angelshair said...

This is something that has really surprised me since I came to the US: How the word socialism is seen as something evil.
And as you said, socialism is just about carying for others.
You are so right to say that the military is socialistic, and if they deserve a "security net", why not the rest of the population?

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thanks for your comments. I actually addressed exactly the issue you mentioned in your note: The fact that Americans equate the word "socialism" with "evil." If you enjoyed this article, you'll probably like this one, too:

Cyrus said...

Capitalists believe in man. Socialists believe in mankind.