Recent events have reminded me of America’s unusual advantage on the world stage. We have a highly professional and uncorrupt military: a blessing enjoyed by few nations today or at any time in history.
The Russian kleptocracy goes to war
Today, the Russian army is bogged down in Ukraine — apparently due to its corruption and low competence. Putin’s Russia is a kleptocracy: a state ruled by theft. In other words, the Russian government regularly diverts public resources into private pockets, particularly Putin’s pockets and those of other Russian oligarchs, as well as their supporters’ pockets. Military experts think that corruption has played a central roll in stalling the invasion. Those diversions of vital resources create inefficiencies. That’s why a forty-mile-long convoy, bound for Kyiv, sits idle and vulnerable, stretched out across the northern part of Ukraine. The soldiers lack fuel, replacement parts for “lemon” equipment, and even food. (Reports say they’re robbing supermarkets and begging Ukrainian civilians for food.)
The Russian army also seems to suffer from low morale. Reports from Ukraine have soldiers surrendering to civilians, crying on camera, and saying “this is not our war.” Lacking supplies and a clear sense of why they’re killing their neighbors, Russian soldiers lack esprit de corps.
The Russian army is also careless. Yesterday, their missiles struck the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. They could easily have triggered a meltdown and spread deadly radiation across Europe, including Russia itself.
The professionalism of U.S. armed forces
Contrast that with the last several decades of American campaigns, in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Panama. U.S. armed forces consistently move fast and yet still deliver mountains of weapons, equipment, food, and other supplies where they’re needed. That’s thanks to low corruption. The American military system can give our fighters the resources they need because almost no one has a hand in the Pentagon’s pocket.
At the same time, American forces enjoy a rare esprit de corps. Surrenders like those we’re seeing in Ukraine are unheard of. And the soldiers know the logic behind each campaign. Not all agree with it, of course, but we don’t hear America’s fighters saying they don’t know their mission or “this is not our war.”
Our military enjoys these advantages because it operates under a culture of low corruption and high efficiency, as well as reverence for democracy. We saw that culture on display in the campaigns above and many more.
We also saw the advantages of America’s military culture in late 2020 and early 2021, though few noticed. Our generals feared President Trump would use the armed forces to overturn the 2020 presidential election, during the last two months of his term. So they planned to resist. But they did not arrange an assassination or military coup, as generals have done around the world and across history. They didn’t even plan to disobey orders. Rather, facing anti-democratic orders from the President, our chief generals and admirals planned to resign one by one (a military “Saturday night massacre”). They hoped the president could find no commander to help him overcome the vote. That is the essence of professionalism, honesty, and duty.
The dark history of military corruption
Skeptics will point to the scandals that have rocked America’s armed forces: accusations of graft, waste, abuse of prisoners (in Iraq), sexual harassment, and more. Many of those accusations are true. But if you jump from there to claims of broad corruption, you’re wearing historical blinders. Corruption burdens nearly all organizations that manage great power or wealth. The question is: how corrupt is our military compared to those of past ages — or compared to the armed forces of other modern nations? The comparisons leave our soldiers looking like Jedi knights.
Ancient and medieval armies raped and plundered as a matter of course, and so do many modern ones. And military corruption has been the norm throughout history. One of the best ways to get rich in any society has been to buy or sell supplies for the army: an opportunity for bribes and other graft on an epic scale.
At the same time, few armies have ever deferred to civilian authority, much less adopted civilian rule as their guiding ethos. Most of history’s kings were essentially generals, ruling because they commanded the armed forces. And leaders who created new regimes seized power at the head of armies. Julius and Augustus Caesar took over the Roman state, for instance, because the legions followed them, not because of any right to rule. The same goes for countless other ancient leaders — as well as modern ones, like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, as well as Myanmar’s current leader, Min Aung Hlaingand, and Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Even where they haven’t installed their rulers, modern armies have regularly bolstered executive power, without regard for constitutions or laws. Those include the armies supporting today’s authoritarian regimes in countries like Cambodia, Nicaragua, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.
The military’s enlightenment
The turnaround began with the Enlightenment: the surge in rationality and democracy that started in the 1600s, in Europe and the Americas. The Enlightenment defined the values of driving the American Revolution — and the values driving its army. Few have done more to professionalize and civilize Western militaries than George Washington, America’s first commander-in-chief. He repeatedly limited his own power, including by refusing to rule America as king or military protector, though some of his officers hoped he would — and by refusing a third term as President. Washington’s restraint and integrity created a new military ethos. And surprisingly, that ethos of integrity has grown alongside America’s military power (though not without some missteps along the way).
The Enlightenment professionalized and civilized militaries in other countries too. So we see professional and uncorrupt armed forces today in countries like the U.K., France, Germany, Japan, and Israel. But no other nation combines the American military’s might and scale — its power to break the law — with its professional restraint.
As we enter a new cold war with Russia, the free world will need American soldiers even more. Thank you for your service.
© 2022 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.
- Captured Russian soldier, Security Service of Ukraine, 2022
- Sergeant Chris Soldano mans his post in Iraq, USMC-90208-M-0045F-004.jpg, 2005
- Pinochet and his generals, licensed through Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Chile (CC BY 2.0 CL)
- George Washington, by Edward Savage, 1790