In a recent essay Prole Models: America's Elites Take Their Cues From the Underclass, Charles Murray bemoans the obvious decline in the moral standards of American culture. He cites Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Arnold Toynbee in his search for explanations for this phenomenon. Still, Murray seems to be at a loss to give us the central reason for this slide into decadence. After thinking over his article, I can give him some pointers.
When did I start my own moral decline? When did I start using foul and offensive language, act irresponsibly, drink too much, and consort with women of easy or negligible virtue? Fortunately for this inquiry, I can pinpoint the exact date. It was 26 June, 1968. How can I be so precise as to when I started to tumble into the ethical abyss? That is when I lost my status as a free lower middle class young guy, and was put in thralldom to the U.S. military. I soon found that the military puts little or no value on civilized ethics, and in order to foster the success of their missions, does all that it can to destroy them. The basics of military actions are killing people and destroying property. You might note that this is exactly the opposite of what is required to maintain civil society. We wind up, then, with the strange paradox that we seem to need to destroy virtue in order to defend it. Some people have thought it ridiculous when a hapless military information officer told the world that we had to destroy a Vietnamese village to save it. Yet, this is what we are told to believe about our own military and its mission.
So, in the process of transforming a conscript into a proper soldier, we tend to weaken, if not eliminate those characteristics that Murray, and other civilized people hold dear. Take language, for example. While there have been a few saintly military leaders such as George Washington or Robert E. Lee who were well spoken, they are few and far between. The more dominant strain is in the tradition of von Steuben and Patton. Foul and abusive language is considered a part of macho manhood, and is fostered in the military forces. Another area of concern is sexual morality. The greater probability of violent death gives combat military personnel a long standing tendency towards sexual promiscuity. The fact that you are far away from home also gives those so inclined a license to engage in behaviors that their mothers warned them about. Mom is not likely to find out about her offspring's rash indiscretions if he, or she, is thousands of miles away. Then, too, there is good sportsmanship, which quickly falls by the wayside in combat. Furthermore, as Lew Rockwell has noted in the past, the areas surrounding military bases tend to cater to base desires, and irresponsible people. These offerings would not be there if there were not an immoral customer base resident there. Multiplying the moral degradation visited on each member of the military forces by the millions who have been through them gives a plausible cause for the moral decline posited by Mr. Murray.
This is not to say that all veterans are moral degenerates. Some are. Some were tainted before their military experience. My own experience is that the intense nature of military duty tends to create bad habits, such as foul language, that are very hard to break later. Several years after discharge, I went in for oral surgery, where I was put under with an anesthetic. When I came back to get the stitches removed, no one there would talk to me. It must have been something I said. Most of us have been able to regain most of our former morals, but not, alas, completely.
With the moral corrosiveness inherent in military service, it would make sense to limit it as much as possible. Ideally, we would have local military units who would train together for defense of home and hearth. What with these military units being local, and not transported far away for training or fighting, there would not be the anonymity required for most of the moral decrepitude to flourish. Local standards would most likely prevail, and the activities of the units would be well known throughout the area. This is what we had until about 1861. What has happened since then is that the Republic wilted, and an empire took its place. The culture was increasingly militarized, and locality was largely demolished. The increasingly martial demands of the empire have uprooted literally millions of Americans, damaged their morals, and permanently planted many of them at an early age in foreign places.
The elites mentioned by Mr. Murray were generally able to shield their sons from these damaging circumstances by the aptly named Selective Service System. Still, many others were not so fortunate. The survivors, discovered that they could now go through school on the GI Bill. The more capable, though still no longer morally pristine graduates, have been able to climb to high levels in the civilian hierarchy, and could often challenge the more cowardly non-veteran elites. Combining this with the increasingly nihilistic and relativistic worldviews of the elites, it is not surprising that the codes of the gentleman and lady have fallen into disuse. Nice guys finish last, you know. One thing I have not figured out is why Murray expects republican virtues to flourish in an empire. Why should our empire be any less decadent than any of the others?
Readers can relax. I have largely repaired the moral and ethical damage I suffered. Except for the blue language, that is. Fighting with recalcitrant software or poor mechanical design can still elicit some loud and nasty phrases from me. Sadly, many of my compatriots have not been so fortunate. Our culture and civilization has correspondingly suffered.
February 14, 2001
Steve Berg is a doctoral student in political science and public administration in DeKalb, Illinois.