Military as Seminal Agent: Violence as a Vehicle for Destruction and Creation

Is the “management of violence” the defining characteristic of the military profession, or is violence the prominent artifact of a less obvious skill-set?

The modern U.S. military has struggled to create the terms of reference to justify itself to society. This articulation is vital in a time where the military is isolated physically and culturally as the result of becoming an all volunteer force; where the military demands a vast stream of National treasure; and when the Nation sees little existential threat the justify the outlay. It has also not helped that the military’s record for delivering results – measured in operational successes – is wanting. The context of the Military’s need to explain itself sets the terms of reference used herewith.

General Dempsey has recently said that the military must “renew [its] commitment to the Profession of Arms” (emphasis and capitalization, in original).[1] The most important characteristic of a “profession” is that it is entrusted with a modicum of self-regulation that other occupations do not enjoy. This relates to both the weight of the profession’s expertise and the independent conditions in which a professional is expected to operate. Where professions do implement oversight, those who sit in judgment are selected from internal stock, tend to focus on curating the self-selected professional standards, and tend to internally censure deviations–often with penalties that are far less severe than would have been otherwise issued.

For the military, the desire for recognition as a profession relates to the fact that the military man or woman chafes at the notion of double-jeopardy; being first exposed to the danger of combat and next to scrutiny by the uninitiated. A telling example of this is the military’s reaction to the rise of MacNamara’s “whiz-kids,” all notably bedecked with degrees. In response to the threat to military autonomy posed by academicians and technocrats, the military redoubled its efforts to ensure officers (particularly those destined for staff roles) were also men of letters.

While technocrats and civilian experts continue taking an ad hominem pot-shots at the quality of the military’s cognition, the military responds in kind with appeals to their unique authority. That unique authority is the military’s special dispensation for violence. Violence then becomes a distinguishing characteristic in which the military enjoys normative defilade.

Unfortunately, “violence” has become a somewhat passé topic. American society has developed an analgesia to the shock of violence, adroitly perpetrated by shock capitalists (a whole other topic, but one which Naomi Klein handles will in Shock Doctrine). It is worth taking a refresher course in the social crisis proposed by giving a group, in this case the military, control over violence.

Sustainable societies are necessarily constructive in-groups, but violence is the ultimate anti-social activity.[2] The crisis of permitting potentially violent individuals to dwell in an elective society demands special constraints and rituals.[3] Violence is strictly kept outside of the society. Violence occurs against a deviant out-group. In garrison, the soldier is either “ready,” implying future conflict; or a veteran, implying past conflict. The military’s violence is strictly kept out of the domestic “here and now.”

In strict real politik, the military has the guns and can thus make the rules, but our society has transcended that approach. This is because it is not consistent with our current, chosen, socio-political construction. The military is expected to embody, on the battlefield in bloody strife, a literal extension of our society. The military man or woman is a seminal agent who plunges into a reality that the political in-group wishes to keep out, and establishes a more desirable reality in the face of either enemy or anomie.

Violence is the context of the military’s activity, but it is not the end, and certainly not the only way or means. The military must be able to bear violence in all four domains, physical, cognitive, moral, and existential. Physical violence is self-evident, but cognitive violence means we must be able to out-think a competitive mind and accommodate disruptive ideas. Moral violence means we must be able to endure “normless” conditions without ourselves becoming normless. Susceptibility to moral violence is why torture, urinating on dead bodies, and Abu Ghraib are indicators of moral weakness – our value system broke down in those instances. Finally, existential violence means our military, in defining the edge of the in-group and modalities against the out-group, resets the composition of our society.

One of the best military produced tracts on the fundamental effects of military violence has been the work of John Boyd in “Creation and Destruction.” The military creates wherever it destroys. Nature abhors a vacuum and where the military breaks up a present reality, in any or all of the domains, new patterns will emerge. The reason the military must be in possession of certain physical, moral, cognitive and existential qualities is because destruction begets creation. The implicit reason for the destructive act is to create the creative space. This is again why the military member must be seen as a seminal agent, literally issuing the seeds of a new, more desirable, reality.

The substance of what a military truly is finds few touch points with modern American socio-political discourse. Being unable to address the substance of the question, we tend to discuss either the politics or packaging of the question. Violence, and the authority to control it, is a useful cognitive handle on this challenging topic; so it tends to be the one most often grasped. The politics of appealing to authority over violence is the essence of the military’s attempt to self-regulate. This then sets conditions in which we prefer to describe ourselves as a profession. None of that is wrong in the least, but it is incomplete.

A different metaphor would be to say that the military are the missionaries of society – replicating the “mother church” of state among the “heathens.” The missionary does not come just to break up old belief structures. That cognitive and moral violence is only the pre-requisite to establishing a new belief structure. In the same way that the missionary must be a resilient individual possessed with drive and impeccable self-control, the military must be equipped with similar characteristics. I don’t want to underplay the unique utility of 18-25 year old men in generating destructive force, but they are only half the story. The point was to use violence to create the space for a much older person, likely armed differently, to produce a better peace among the newly converted.

Ultimately, management of violence is an instrumentality for the military. The end sought is a new reality. The military destroys to create. No serious student of military history misses this point, but too often the focus on destruction blinds us to our responsibility for acts of creation that inevitably ensue.

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[2] It is worth distinguishing sustainable societies, meaning ones that can replicate and produce positive social entropy, with unsustainable societies. An example of an unsustainable society would be one that requires violence as its instrument of ethno-genesis, such as the Huns, Al Qaeda, Lebanese Hezbolla before ensconcing themselves in the constitution, etc.

[3] Some societies are not elective. Where Theda Skocpol’s “forces of control” are a requisite for perpetuating a political body that would otherwise likely reorganize itself, the perpetrators of violence are more likely to resemble an ominous Stasi rather than the image of a noble veteran.