It would be hard to think of a more conservative culture than the military. There are strict rules, rigid protocols, and inflexible generic clothes. In addition, there is a prescribed, if unwritten, code for personal behavior that approaches the robotic, and is often a lampoon of conservative stereotypes: brusque, business-only, stoic, humorless, and unemotional.
Perhaps the best example of this highly conservative culture is presented by the police in the old TV classic Dragnet: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Johnny Carson and Jack Webb use the wooden personalities of Dragnet to great comedic effect in this skit:
This rigid, dispassionate, but all-knowing approach was also expected of doctors of the time, and in some quarters continues even today. Watch old episodes of Ben Casey. The show was a stinker, partly because the acting was a stiff cartoon of how we expected doctors – and other authority figures – to act. Consider that the word ‘clinical’ in some contexts means ‘unfeeling,’ or even ‘uncaring’.
Mechanical behavior was our idea of how authority and power were supposed to behave. I suspect this stony personal composure of the 1950’s and 1960’s was partly a reflection of the WWII military and intensely disciplined West Point graduates such as Ike Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and George Marshall.
Given the preceding, the title of this post should pique some curiosity. But it supports a recurring theme here, an attempt to understand the functional definitions of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. Because, despite all of the apparent inflexibility, at times the military has proven to be a highly liberal vehicle for progress, occasionally radical progress. Granted, political pressure has often forced the armed forces to change, but below I will explain why it is unimportant whether the decisions were external, or internal.
Consider the Tuskegee Airmen and other black WWI and WWII troops, how their combat superiority helped crack the door open for so many African Americans. Likewise, even as Japanese civilians were forced into internment camps in WWII, Japanese soldiers such as the late US Senator and Medal of Honor winner Daniel Inouye were proving their courage and patriotism on the battlefield. Way back in the Civil War, the Irish also proved themselves as courageous, disciplined soldiers, which slowly opened doors for them as well. So the armed forces are often social innovators.
The military is also an innovator in medicine, again including some of the social aspects. Despite a strictly moralistic, even prudish culture, the military was the trail-blazer in the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, which played a role in motivating civilians to consider antiquated ideas about disease.
Likewise, the military is a source of sweeping technological change and innovation. We can look at the siege engines of the Romans and the engineering foundations they laid, the introduction of ballistics by 13th century Europeans which paved the way for physics, or even the simple, but widely beneficial, invention of food preservation (canning)1)The first ‘canned’ foods weren’t stored in cans, but champagne bottles, which could withstand pressure cooking. Soldiers would chop of the neck of the bottle with their swords. under Napoleon. There are many other examples, but the greatest is NASA, a civilian research program enthusiastically endorsed by the military, which has spawned or rapidly advanced any number of military and peacetime technologies including computing, robotics, materials science, nutrition, medicine, chemistry, fuel science, lubricants, batteries, and a broad range of others. Continued below.
And I have repeatedly discussed international social change through the Petraeus/Nagl doctrine where the military radically reconsiders itself, and the nature of warfare.
Here is my point: the military, like business, medicine and engineering – which each typically represent highly conservative cultures – all must perform in the real world. They have to compete and produce results. In a modern, rapidly changing world, that means they must innovate.
Or at least they must if they wish to survive.
To remain competitive, we must try new ideas. The military is, of course, more accepting of new technology than social change, but even that is recent. Navy officers resisted on-board radios, because it meant that captains lost absolute autonomy. In WWI, cavalry officers resisted the advent of tanks, because it obviated horses. Medieval Europeans initially snubbed gunpowder, because warfare was an activity that required sword and lance, and of hacking people to death. And the 19th century samurai also rejected firearms, as seen in the above illustration, with predictable results.
Now we are seeing the acceptance of gays and women into the military, as well as the implementation of the above-mentioned Petraeus/Nagl Doctrine. Including women and other minorities may not immediately seem to be militarily advantageous, but the wider the net, the more bodies. And victory in war is ultimately a body count.
Because the military is in constant competition, despite its rigidly conservative culture, we repeatedly see the armed forces taking the lead in all sorts of liberal, even radical, ideas. Some of those radical ideas may fail. Even if they do, it is unimportant for the thesis here.
Because what will definitely fail is refusing to consider change and new ideas, to refuse to consider anything that is new, different, ‘liberal’.
We can disagree about ideology all we want, but sooner or later reality settles the argument. If we cannot objectively consider change, we will lose out to people who can, on the battlefield, in the marketplace, and in international leadership.
Battle at Kumamoto Castle by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, courtesy Wikipedia.
Vercingetorix jette ses armes aux pieds de Jules César (Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar) by Lionel Royer, courtesy Wikipedia.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||The first ‘canned’ foods weren’t stored in cans, but champagne bottles, which could withstand pressure cooking. Soldiers would chop of the neck of the bottle with their swords.|