That was a very curious State of the Union address President Obama delivered, at least as it relates to our armed forces. Instead of beginning, as one would expect, with domestic issues, he began with a tribute to the armed forces and used that to segue to his domestic agenda. His words of praise for the armed forces were obviously heartfelt and eloquent: He cited “the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.” To which, one can only say: Amen.
But then his remarks took a curious turn. He said: “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.” In other words, the civilian population should emulate the military. There is something seductive in this appeal, which is why even many on the right (perhaps especially on the right) favor some form of “national service” requirement. And there is virtually universal nostalgia for the days of the Greatest Generation which won World War II and returned to build postwar America. Obama himself tapped into this nostalgic vein when he said: “We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.”
But nostalgia should not mask the fact that the “Mad Men” world is not one most of us would like to live in today. It was, after all, a world where big institutions–whether big government, big media, big business or big unions–had far more power than they do today. The downside of this arrangement was captured in numerous contemporary critiques such as “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” and “The Organization Man” and “The Lonely Crowd” that were a touchstone for Baby Boomers rebelling against the conformism of the 1950s.
From our standpoint today, there are some good aspects of the 1950s–the hard work, the sense of common purpose–but also much that we would reject, especially the pervasive racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other social attitudes–not to mention the pervasive drinking, smoking, and other bad habits. America today is far more individualistic and far more meritocratic with far less tolerance for rank prejudice and far less willingness to blindly follow the orders of rigid bureaucracies.
On the whole this is a positive development–it is what has made possible the dynamism of an information age economy symbolized by Apple’s staggering earnings. We would all be poorer–literally–if we went back to more of a top-down command economy, which is what Obama seems to be pining for. Indeed per capita income in 1950 was $1,500 (which, adjusted for inflation, works out to around $10,000 today) compared with almost $40,000 today.
Make no mistake: the military works well. But that’s because it’s comprised of volunteers with a mission–defending America. Members of the armed forces are willing to accept privations and hardships, and respond unquestioningly to orders, in a way that civilians will not and should not. Let’s temper our admiration of the military: For all its virtues, it is not a model for the rest of society.