The American Officer Corps

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Frederick the Great was once asked why it was that he chose his officer corps only from the Junkers of Prussia, rather than other groups. Why not a clever baker’s son from Dresden? What’s wrong with a solid farmer from Pomerania?

“Nein,” he replied, explaining his preference for the Junkers, “Because they will not lie and cannot be bought.”

Great empires depend on a reliable professional class of military officers, administrators and businessmen. Britain had them when it ruled the waves. They came out of the public (we would call them private) school of “Tom Brown’s School-days,” and were packed off into the Her Majesty’s civil service. Many were incompetent. But few were dishonest.

America never really had a specific class of civil servants; the place was always too big and too mobile. As good a military man might spring from the coalmines of West Virginia as from the citadels of the East Coast elites. So might a good businessman arise from the cattle ranches of Texas as from the counting houses of San Francisco. The history of World War II, for example, is the tale of how they came together and got the job done. They too were often hopelessly nave and incompetent — compared, say, to the more experienced Germans. But very few stole. Very few lied. Very few shirked, ducked, or jived.

But now, more than half a century later, they have all got the scent of the dollar floating in their nostrils. The fumes of it seem to intoxicate them; they’ll say anything to catch the smell of the green. A heavy whiff…and they’re ready for an offer. There are so many dollars around; the odor of money is overpowering.

Thus, we hear the stories of outrageous executive compensation in America. They are no Junkers. Instead, they pack “compensation committees" with cronies and crooks who throw them juicy contracts. They juggle quarterly earnings and pull out bigger bonuses from the hat. They twist the numbers so much you’d think they worked for the U.S. Labor Department — where, in the throes of what once was quaintly called “public service,” we find other figure-benders at work, bamboozling the public.

And even out on the periphery of empire, where U.S. soldiers risk their lives, the incorruptible Junkers have died out. According to the press reports, the lure of money is irresistible. Billions of dollars are being squandered. Sweetheart contracts with Bush supporters, bids that are rigged or jigged, products never delivered, jobs never completed…or even begun. It is as if the money-grubbers realize that the war were not real, and use it only another chance to get something for nothing.

Back in the homeland, the common man has picked up the scent, too. He has sniffed his way to Wealth Without Work in the form of housing price increases. He does not have to build a better mousetrap. He no longer needs to work harder or save more. Honesty doesn’t seem to help him. Can he be bought? Are you kidding? It is just a question of price. As long as house prices keep rising 10% per year, anyone can have his vote. And so, house prices rise, and he takes the money and binds himself — like slave to master, like knave to lord — to mortgage payments, Social Security and federal handouts. He is no sturdy, independent Junker. He cannot afford to be. Instead, he too has become a Fed-watcher, for he knows that another couple of rate-rises will wipe him out.

But every bad thing finally comes to an end. That this too will pass we don’t doubt. How it will pass and what will pass with it, we wait to find out.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.

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