The corrosive effects of “political correctness” in modern American society are unlikely to divide “traditionalists” from “accommodationists” among the ranks, but they are all but certain to widen the gap between soldiers and statesmen. And given the parlous state of Obama-era civil-military relations, that is indeed something to worry about.
There is no doubt that Americans—pardon me, I mean American elites—have been pulling pretty hard on the PC nitrous oxide of late. College campuses, with their in-class “trigger warnings” and lecture-room “safe spaces” are, as is now to be expected, leading the retreat from reality, particularly any kind of historical reality. In the Age of Call-Me-Caitlyn and Rachel Dolezal, notions of human “identity” have become so fungible and fragile as to be almost meaningless. And if the Supreme Court can find a vaporous right to “dignity” in the Constitution, it suggests that the rot has gone pretty far.
In contrast, military society has been and remains an island of social sanity. To be sure, there are occasional eruptions of PC madness, perhaps the most notable being former Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey declaring that, “as horrific as this tragedy”—meaning Maj. Nidal Hasan’s Allahu Akbar rampage at Fort Hood, Texas that killed 13 soldiers—“was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.1 There hasn’t been, to my knowledge, a wave of anti-Muslim violence or “hate speech” in the Army. Even the from-on-high ban on the term “hajji” as soldier-slang for Muslims is only loosely observed.
Moreover, the military has managed to accommodate the social changes of recent generations as well if not better than any other element or institution in America. This includes the incorporation of openly homosexual service members. The most recent survey of attitudes by the Military Times papers (full disclosure: I was once editor of Army Times) found 60 percent support for the new policy and just 19 percent disapproval.2 While the Times survey is not at all scientific, it is at least indicative. Interestingly, the same survey provided a harsh assessment of President Barack Obama as commander-in-chief: his approval rating was just 15 percent and the disapprove number 55 percent. My conclusion would be that soldiers can live with the change in social policy, but not Obama’s national security policies, especially the retreat from hard-won successes in Iraq.
Even on a topic central to the PC consciousness, sexual harassment and assault, people in uniform have kept their heads in ways that others—such as the University of Virginia—have not. There is very little support, even among women service members, for removing the investigation and prosecution of such cases from the chain of command; indeed, there’s something of a backlash. A female Air Force member had this to say about her annual Sexual Assault Response Coordinator Training: the sessions pushed her to think of herself as “a sensitive, defenseless woman who has no power to protect herself, who has nothing in common with the men she works with.”3Therein lies the rub. The underlying theme of modern “political correctness” is the virtue of victimhood. As a society, or at least in those parts of it most shaped by academic fads, media sensationalism and the struggle for political advantage, our worth is increasingly calculated by our ability to claim we are oppressed. To be oppressed is to deserve respect, not to mention special treatment.
This is, to put it mildly, antipathetic to the military professional ethos. And, as people in uniform endure not only the disappointments of recent battlefields, but the slings and arrows of budgetary and political neglect, they are more likely to cling tightly to one another and indeed to define themselves in distinction to self-obsessed, narcissistic civilians. The more the plague of political correctness divides the rest of us into ever-smaller tribes, the more the military tribe will see itself as unique and—dangerously—uniquely virtuous. An overheated debate about the “dangers of PC” in the military would exacerbate that danger.
That said, the widening gap in civil-military relations is almost entirely due to changes on the civilian side of the equation. The professional, “all-volunteer force” is a product of the post-Vietnam years, when American identity politics was still in its infancy. In the 1970s, it was “progressive” to assert that all lives mattered, not just the lives of those whose claims to victimization were strongest or most loudly asserted. People in uniform will cling to these antiquated notions—their lives in fact depend upon its truth.
1Tabassum Zakaria, “General Casey: diversity shouldn’t be casualty of Fort Hood,” Reuters (November 8, 2009).
2 Stephen Losey, Chapter 1: Obama’s mark on the military in “America’s Military: A conservative institution’s uneasy cultural evolution,” Military Times (January 9, 2015).
3 Whitney Kassel, “Stop Treating Female Service Members as Victims,” Foreign Policy (June 5, 2015).