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Profile: Thomas Ricks
Thomas Ricks was a participant or observer in the following events:
Thomas Ricks. [Source: Alex Wong / Getty Images]Author and military expert Thomas Ricks writes a detailed examination of what he calls the widening gap between members of the US military and the rest of American society. Ricks portrays a platoon of Marine recruits who, after returning home from boot camp, were largely alienated from their old lives. “They were repulsed by the physical unfitness of civilians, by the uncouth behavior they witnessed, and by what they saw as pervasive selfishness and consumerism,” he writes. “Many found themselves avoiding old friends, and some experienced difficulty even in communicating with their families.” Many recruits were offended by the overt racism and class segregation they experienced in their old neighborhoods, in sharp contrast to what Ricks calls “the relative racial harmony of Parris Island.” Several commented on how aimless and nihilistic their former friends seemed. Ricks writes that the Marines “were experiencing in a very personal way the widening gap between today’s military and civilian America.” Retired Sergeant Major James Moore tells Ricks: “It is difficult to go back into a society of ‘What’s in it for me?’ when a Marine has been taught the opposite for so long. When I look at society today, I see a group of young people without direction because of the lack of teaching of moral values at home and in school. We see that when we get them in recruit training. The recruits are smarter today—they run rings around what we were able to do, on average. Their problems are moral problems: lying, cheating, and stealing, and the very fact of being committed. We find that to get young people to dedicate themselves to a cause is difficult sometimes.” Retired Admiral Stanley Arthur adds: “Today, the armed forces are no longer representative of the people they serve. More and more, enlisted [men and women] as well as officers are beginning to feel that they are special, better than the society they serve. This is not healthy in an armed force serving a democracy.”
Voluntary Segregation - Ricks notes that after over twenty years without a draft, the US military has become a more professional and disparate societal group. Many military personnel live their lives in and among the military, taking their children to military doctors and sending them to military or base schools, living on or around military bases, socializing with other military families. Former Air Force historian Richard Kohn says, “I sense an ethos that is different. They talk about themselves as ‘we,’ separate from society. They see themselves as different, morally and culturally. It isn’t the military of the fifties and sixties, which was a large, semi-mobilized citizen military establishment, with a lot of younger officers who were there temporarily, and a base of draftees.” The closing of many military bases has contributed to what Ricks calls “the geographical and political isolation of the military…,” as has the privatization of many of the military’s logistical and supply functions. “[M]ilitary personnel today are less likely to be serving in occupations that have civilian equivalents, and are more likely to specialize in military skills that are neither transferable to the civilian sector nor well understood by civilians,” he writes.
Deepening Politicization of the Military - Ricks writes that many military personnel, especially officers, are becoming more politicized, and particularly more conservative. “Of course, military culture has always had a conservative streak,” he writes. “I suspect, however, that today’s officers are both more conservative and more politically active than their predecessors.” He continues, “The military appears to be becoming politically less representative of society, with a long-term downward trend in the number of officers willing to identify themselves as liberals. Open identification with the Republican Party is becoming the norm. And the few remaining liberals in uniform tend to be colonels and generals, perhaps because they began their careers in the draft-era military. The junior officer corps, apart from its female and minority members, appears to be overwhelmingly hard-right Republican and largely comfortable with the views of Rush Limbaugh.” He quotes Air Force Colonel Charles Dunlap as writing, “Many officers privately expressed delight that” as a result of the controversy over gays in the military, the Reserve Officers Training Corps program is producing “fewer officers from the more liberal campuses to challenge [the Air Force officers’] increasingly right-wing philosophy.” Surveys conducted of midshipmen at Annapolis and cadets at West Point support this conclusion. Retired Army Major Dana Isaacoff, a former West Point instructor, says that West Point cadets generally believe that being a Republican is becoming part of the definition of being a military officer. “Students overwhelmingly identified themselves as conservatives,” she says. And, she notes, the cadets tend to favor more radical conservatism as opposed to what Ricks calls “the compromising, solution-oriented politics of, say, Bob Dole.” Isaacoff says, “There is a tendency among the cadets to adopt the mainstream conservative attitudes and push them to extremes. The Democratic-controlled Congress was Public Enemy Number One. Number Two was the liberal media.” Studies of Marine officers at Quantico, Virginia produced similar results.
Changes in Society - American society has become more fragmented, Ricks writes, and steadily less emphasis is being put on what he calls “the classic military values of sacrifice, unity, self-discipline, and considering the interests of the group before those of the individual.” Ricks writes that while the military has largely come to grips with two of the most intractable problems American society faces—drug abuse and racism—society as a whole has not. And young military personnel display a competence and level of education that many non-military youth do not, Ricks asserts. And military personnel are increasingly better educated than their civilian counterparts: some military recruiters say that they have more trouble than ever before in finding recruits who can pass the military entrance exams.
Lack of a Focused Threat - The end of the Cold War and the loss of the Soviet Union as a hard-and-fast enemy has made many Americans wonder why the nation needs such a large standing army any longer. “For the first time in its history (with the possible exception of the two decades preceding the Spanish-American War) the US Army must justify its existence to the American people,” Ricks writes. Military budgets are continually under attack in Congress and from the White House, and many predict huge, potentially crippling funding cuts in the near future. Low-intensity, localized problems such as the fighting in Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti do not capture the public imagination—or create fear among the citizenry—in the same way that the daily threat of nuclear annihilation and Soviet hegemony kept the support for the military high among American priorities.
Enemies Within - Ricks is troubled by the increasing use of military forces against US citizens. It wasn’t long ago that Marines descended into the streets of Los Angeles to impose order among rioters, and the Marines used similar strategies to contain the fractious populace as they used in Somalia. One Marine, Captain Guy Miner, wrote in 1992 of the initial concerns among Marine intelligence units over orders to collect intelligence on US citizens, but their concerns over legality and morality quickly evaporated once, Miner wrote, “intelligence personnel sought any way possible to support the operation with which the regiment had been tasked.” Many military officers are calling for the military to be granted wide-ranging powers to be used against civilians, including the right to detain, search, and arrest civilians, and to seize property. In 1994, influential military analyst William Lind blamed what he called “cultural radicals [and] people who hate our Judeo-Christian culture” for what he saw as the accelerating breakdown of society, and went on to discuss the predominant “agenda of moral relativism, militant secularism, and sexual and social ‘liberation.’” Ricks notes that Lind’s words are fairly standard complaints which are often echoed daily on conservative talk radio and television broadcasts. However, he writes, Lind’s words take on a new significance in light of his conclusion: “The next real war we fight is likely to be on American soil.”
Military's Impact on Civilian Society Likely to Increase - Ricks does not believe a military coup is likely at any point in the foreseeable future. While the equilibrium between civilians and the military is shifting, he writes, it is unlikely to shift that far. What is likely is a new awareness among members of the military culture of their impact and influence on civilian society, and their willingness to use that influence to shape the social and political fabric of their country. [Atlantic Monthly, 7/1997]
Washington Post syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, speaking on “Inside Washington” in a discussion with fellow Post columnist Charlie King and Post military reporter Thomas Ricks, argues in favor of the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq. At one point, moderator Gordan Petersons asks what the US should do after deposing Saddam Hussein. Krauthammer responds: “We don’t speak about exit strategies; this is not Bosnia, or Haiti, or the Balkans. This is very important, everybody understands it, we are not going to run away. We are going to get there, and we are going to stay. We are going to try to make a reasonably civil society, reasonably pro-American, a good influence on the neighbors, and disarmed. That’s a large undertaking, and I think we are absolutely [unintelligible] everybody who is supporting the war or the invasion is in favor of staying and doing the job.” When Thomas Ricks notes that Krauthammer’s proposal would involve nine of the US Army’s ten active-duty divisions, he counters, “That assumption is entirely unwarranted. I think we will be accepted as liberators, as we were in Afghanistan.” He also shoots down a comment from Peterson referring to the cost of invading Iraq. “If we win the war, we are in control of Iraq, it is the single largest source of oil in the world, it’s got huge reserves, which have been suppressed because of Iraq’s actions, and Saddam’s. We will have a bonanza, a financial one, at the other end, if the war is successful,” Krauthammer explains. [WUSATV, 8/3/2002; Unger, 2007, pp. 289]
Washington Post journalist Thomas Ricks turns in a story he calls “Doubts.” It says that senior Pentagon officials are resigned to the fact that the US is going to invade Iraq, but are reluctant and worried that the risks are being underestimated. Most sources in the article are retired military officers or outside experts. Ricks has been reporting on national security issues for fifteen years, and used to be an editor on the topic for the Wall Street Journal. However, Post editor Matthew Vita kills the story and the newspaper never runs it. During this time, the vast majority of the newspaper’s coverage supports the push to war (see August 2002-March 19, 2003). [Washington Post, 8/12/2004]
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