2016 Birthday Lecture: Merit and Lethality

There exist any number of outlets of varying formats, qualities, and positions for those who want contemporary writing or film on the War on Terror, from blogs to TV shows. But much of the most popular and definitive retelling of the War on Terror falls into a category that itself can only be described as being something between an artistic sensibility and an organized body of work. I’m talking about the cultural phenomenon of special forces memoirs, at least a dozen of which have become bestsellers in the years since 9/11 and which have made at least a few noncommissioned officers household names in this country. These include Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor, Mark Owens’ No Easy Day, Jack Coughlin’s Shooter, the most successful of them all Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, dozens more- there’s short descriptions of a few in the handout. There’s enough of them that military brass – especially those connected with the Navy SEALs, whose memoirs seem to the most in demand among all the various special forces units – have registered concern over the sheer number of memoirs being published by men who are meant to be undertaking secret missions, to say nothing of how many of these memoirists have had their accounts disputed by fellow soldiers.


Along with the memoirs there a number of other kinds of books that deserve to be considered part of the same phenomenon. There are journalistic accounts of specific careers or actions of special forces soldiers, which often blur the line with memoirs, especially given that a lot of the memoirists work alongside journalists. Inspired by the runaway success of these books, there’s been a rash of stuff published where special forces veterans – usually SEALs, who can be said to be in possession of a “brand” that the other special forces can’t quite boast of – instruct their pedestrian readership on this or that area of life. There’s multiple Navy SEAL fitness guides, a Navy SEAL business advice book (written by two SEAL veterans who will apparently come inspire your workplace with a presentation, for a consideration), and my personal favorite, a book on how to “train your dog the Navy SEAL way.” Along with books, special forces accounts – either by the soldiers themselves or by usually-gushing journalists – are commonplace in magazines, numerous blogs are dedicated to following their exploits and parsing their ways, and of course, many of the books have been made into movies, including some big hits- alas, the Navy SEAL dog training book is not among their number. Between them, the memoirs of special forces soldiers, the journalistic accounts of their deeds, and the books they’ve written using their authority about assorted topics form a body of work with a shared (and extensive) fan base. For many Americans, the literature surrounding “operators” – to use a particularly potent term for special forces soldiers – defines their understanding of the War on Terror, and as we’ll see is influential on the way they see many other subjects besides.

For those of us who remember the lead-up to the Iraq War, the phrase “support the troops” is like a madeleine cookie for that whole period, summoning up the whole feeling of the time around 2003 when the US embarked on the fateful course to forcibly rebuild the Middle East. The special forces genre partakes in support-the-troops rhetoric, naturally enough, but it’s clear there’s a hierarchy that wasn’t there in the early propaganda for the Iraq War. On top are the special forces operators, the elite men who’ve been through the harshest training and who are closely familiar with death- and at a more intimate range than, say, a drone operator or artillerist. In the middle are other combat troops- often this role is played by Marines, who SEALs like Chris Kyle treat in a friendly but patronizing manner. They’re not on the operator level but they’re honorable, they belong in the conversation. At the low end of the totem pole are noncombat troops, which as many of you will know are the majority of people serving in the American armed forces. Attitudes towards them will vary, from vague contempt on the part of Chris Kyle to dutiful judicious appreciation from Marcus Luttrell, but it’s clear that they’re basically extras. Civilians might need to support all troops – it’s clear, in any of these hierarchies, that civilians of all kinds are at the bottom of the respect pile – but troop-ness, the quality which demands respect from civilians, is not solely a property of putting on the uniform, but includes other elements which are not equally distributed among troops. More than any direct denigration of non-elite units on the part of the special forces genre, the fascination with special forces operators in this cultural movement – the fact that the publishing industry, Hollywood, blogs etc. focus on special forces stories, with little in the way of the sort of GI narratives (even heroic ones, like that of Audie Murphy, say) one sees from Vietnam or WWII books or movies – distinguishes the operator from the mere troop.

Unlike other subgenres of military memoir, the hit operator memoirs of the War on Terror put not just serving or fighting, but the specific act of killing, a central place. The operators who have been most successful as public figures, most notably Chris Kyle before his death, emphasized not just that they were brave or skilled, but that they were individually, personally lethal. This helps explain the prominence of sniper narratives among the special forces bestsellers – not just the megahit American Sniper, but Coughlin’s Shooter, Nicholas Irving’s The Reaper, Jack Webb’s The Red Circle. Many of the other memoirists make sure to point out that they were sniper-trained, even if that’s not their main job in their units. Kyle, Luttrell and the others often talk about what they do as saving lives- protecting American troops on patrol by providing overwatch and eliminating threats. This is a major part of the image of the operator presented in these books and movies, though given the lack of, say, medic narratives, we can fairly conclude that ending lives is what distinguishes these stories and not saving them. Saving lives – which snipers do by picking off potential threats when other soldiers are on the job – isn’t a pretense in the sense of not being an actual concern for the writers, but it is a pretense in literary terms. That’s not why the reader reads and it’s unlikely why the writer writes these works. The pretense of saving American lives is what justifies the killing, what separates it from someone sniping people at random, and what allows the books to be read within commonly-held ethical strictures, but certainly in the case of American Sniper, the runaway hit that set the tone for much of the special forces worship to come, killing is the point. Killing is what distinguishes the elite from the common, the operator from the mere troop (especially given how few troops play direct combat roles in insurgency war), and the troop from the civilian, including the one reading or watching the work in question.

For that matter, killing is the point more than excitement or action is. American Sniper is not a notably exciting book. It’s breezily-written and Kyle (and his ghostwriters) have an easy conversational style, so it’s not a slog. But the action in the book does not approach the pace or excitement that one might read in some thrillers or even in literary works about war like Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel or Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. There’s little suspense- Kyle is often in danger, but if he’s going to be killed it’s likely by what amounts to accident, a lucky hit from an RPG or something. Clint Eastwood had to take a rumor of an enemy sniper Kyle refers to off-handedly in the book to give Bradley Cooper an actual antagonist, which is largely absent in the book. There, Kyle has plenty of people he could characterize as enemies, but aside from pretty much the entire population of Iraq, his real bile is reserved for fellow-soldiers who do their jobs poorly, senior brass who don’t give him the orders he wants, and even the faintest whiff of opposition to the war on the homefront. But Kyle’s descriptions of action in Fallujah and Ramadi remind me of nothing so much as a construction contractor describing a difficult time putting up a building. There’s the endless niggling frustrations of getting a complex task right, there’s the appraisal of crew members and employees of varying qualities, there’s a lot of work and a certain amount of danger but little in the way of real tension. Even the descriptions of the actual shots he takes aren’t especially vivid or bloody. What is vivid in American Sniper is Kyle’s voice, his endless unabashed braggadocio, his joy in his job and disinclination to lachrymose maundering on the horror of war, and his association of these qualities with the best America has to offer i.e. he, himself, Chris Kyle. American Sniper is an extreme in pretty much every respect (and that’s leaving aside Kyle’s unpublished tall tales, like his oft-reported bragging about sniping “looters” at the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, which is as revealing as it is likely untrue). But it is not unique in terms of the role that the act of killing plays in the text, as far as operator memoirs go. As one would gather from the title, survival plays a strong role in Lone Survivor, written by Kyle’s friend and fellow star-operator Marcus Luttrell, and there are other important elements in these stories we’ll get into in a bit, but at bottom, killing is what distinguishes them.

Killing – especially killing in an intimate way, whether through a magnified scope after watching their mark’s every move for hours or killing close up by ambush, not by drone or by artillery or from a tank – is what individualizes the operator, makes him a character with authority, as opposed to a troop, part of an undifferentiated body which commands respect but not the same sort of hearing. Their killing not only authorizes them to speak to their own stories, but also to the right way to run a business or to run the state of Missouri (where SEAL team member Eric Greitens recently won the Republican nomination for governor), etc. Operators may be experts in any number of things, but it’s a mistake to say that they are treated like “experts” in the same sense we might treat a forensic specialist or epidemiologist. It’s not their expertise that matters but their authority. Expertise can be quantified, credentialed, objectively appraised or challenged. Authority can’t- it can be imbued or endowed or simply refused and defied, but it resides in the subject, not in some granting body or within a body of knowledge, though mastering certain bodies of knowledge is a part of some types of authority. Still, it’s not the expertise but the authority of the operator that draws readers not just to their stories (we’re all authorities in our own experiences, after all), but to their ideas about running a business or governing the state of Missouri… though it’s worth noting the dog-training guy is both an authority and an expert, having actually worked with dogs in the service. Dog-training and book sales aside, what is this authority for? There’s a huge market for books and movies that promulgate and proclaim the authority of the operator. Why is this, and what uses are or can it be put to?

Taken as a unit, the operator literature promulgates – implicitly, in most cases, but no less strongly for that – an alternative system of meritocracy to the one that selects, and more importantly, justifies the elite that governs the United States. Unlike the stories of other figures whose high achievement in a specific area gives them an aura of authority – star athletes, say, or entertainers – the stories through which the operators articulate their authority also articulate an alternative structure of meritocracy to the one that both selects and affirms our leaders, including the leaders who sent them into war. While many of the operator-memoirists criticize this or that specific element of our meritocratic elite – more often vague categories like “the media” or “the politicians” or “the liberals” than actual individuals – they usually don’t explicitly challenge the mainstream meritocratic vision or those who draw power from it. Less dangerous than an explicit challenge, but arguably more subversive, what the true believers in the meritocracy of the operators do is undermine the basis on which our authorities claim the right to their overweening power. Real merit, the one thing most Americans agree can legitimize power, belongs in a whole other conceptual universe, the operator-memoirist – and his followers reading and watching him, engaging in the ideology through the books and movies and magazines and blogs – tells us.

The meritocratic assumptions of our society are so ingrained in most of us – including, I think it’s fair to say, the people in this room, many of whom have spent their lives immersed in the academic end of the meritocracy — that they’re often hard to see or articulate, so I’ll try to make clear what I mean by the term meritocracy. Most of us have some understanding of one element of the basic meaning, that those most qualified should be in charge of a given enterprise- a business, government, whatever. The other important part that sometimes gets missed is the belief that there’s an objective standard by which to gauge merit. Partisans of every system of governing or choosing leaders thinks that their preferred system produces the best leaders; aristocracy, the term often held to be an antonym to meritocracy, also means “rule by the best.” What distinguishes meritocracy from other schemes for determining the elite is its elaborate, transparent, and objective measures for determining who these best are. In almost all instances, these measures come down to tests of intelligence or academic aptitude or achievement. The first use of the word “meritocracy” comes from a satirical essay written in 1959 by Michael Young, a British Labour Party apparatchik, who sought to depict a future where a mania for testing and for social separation by intelligence test score from youth onward produced a society both silly and vaguely sinister, and in no way in line with the aims of Labour as Young understood them. Alas for Young, the term came to be taken up as a positive, first by other Labour people, then by much of society at large, both in Britain and in the United States. People have since come to use the phrase to describe things as far back in time as far as the system of examinations used to select bureaucrats in imperial China going back thousands of years. In the US, it’s also associated with academic tests, especially the Scholastic Aptitude Test, introduced by the College Board in 1926. The backers of the SAT have been the winner in a decades-long contest both to place as much of college admissions on a meritocratic basis as possible, and to make their test, the SAT, the most important objective metric of what constitutes merit, over various other means that were proposed as the system came together during the postwar explosion in college enrollments. It’s important enough to the structure of the American meritocracy that it’s reasonable to call it the “SAT meritocracy” as shorthand and to separate it from other versions of the same concept.

Practically, the SAT and other meritocratic measures undertaken in the mid-twentieth century were designed to manage the massive growth of institutions like schools, corporations, government, and so on in a rational way. Ideologically, the presumption behind the idea that future elites could be drawn from universities and that these universities would select them via a test like the SAT said a lot about the vision of the future that college administrators and the like saw ahead of them. Some combination of being good at the subjects the SAT tests and the temperament necessary to subject oneself to learn those skills and regurgitate them for a test would be the qualities needed to face the late twentieth century- essentially, technical and management problems. The actual shape of society, its political arrangements, its power structures and hierarchies, were settled matters- the SAT wasn’t and isn’t about to prepare you to think too much about those. The meritocracy of schools and tests both promised mobility – those who could pass the test could raise up the social ranks – but also promised to close the door on structural social change. In short, it was one of the more encompassing liberal visions of the mid-twentieth century, both in terms of promising liberation within a given set of structures and utterly forswearing the ability to change the structures themselves- ironically, after the experience of depression, political agitation, and war opened up enough of the previous hierarchies to allow for this new dispensation.

One thing about being a largely-accepted background assumption of how we go about lives is that critiques of the assumption are easy to articulate, where defenses of it often stumble. We can all point to the obvious flaws in the SAT-meritocracy. It largely fails on its own terms, after all. The preexisting elite of wealth and power still reproduces itself, passing its status on to its children, both through the expedient of holes within the system (legacy admissions to high-end colleges, etc) and due to the fact that wealth can basically buy the achievement markers the system looks for. It fails to produce leaders much better than those produced by most other systems, and their failures are motivated by many of the same traits as any other leaders: hubris, greed, ignorance, action bias, etc. The signature initiative of the first generation of leaders to be produced by the post-war meritocracy was America’s intervention in Vietnam; this is why David Halberstam gave the people around JFK the facetious name “the best and the brightest.” Every major fuckup of the lifetimes of most of the people in this room, from the Iraq War to the mortgage crisis to our turn to mass incarceration as a solution for social issues, was overseen by people vetted by a system meant to produce people objectively smarter and more assiduous than their peers. Insofar as there’s an articulated defense of the system, it’s typically some mixture of minimizing the scope of these fuck-ups, emphasizing the good personal qualities of our leaders, and admonishing the critic to come up with a better system. Some of the more daring defenders insist that the problem is that meritocratic elites haven’t been given enough power, that democracy is fouling the whole thing up, but that’s usually sour grapes when one or another faction loses a big vote than anything else. Explicit defenses of the SAT-meritocracy tend to be rather lame and easy to mock- think David Brooks. Implicit defenses – like the sort of meritocratic stories which underlie many of our favorite fables, from sports stories to children’s television to Barack Obama’s autobiography – do a lot better.

Explicit critiques of the meritocracy tend to follow predictable and usually rather banal lines, too. There’s lefty critiques like me, going on about the system’s masked inequities or fundamentally anti-democratic basis, setting off our pop-guns at a system way too big for our critiques to do much to penetrate, scathing and original though mine – I mean ours! — are. There’s the occasional conservative critic who dislike meritocracy for lacking spirituality or things along those lines- one imagines David Brooks getting into it, in his utterly ineffectual way, with fellow Times op-ed denizen Ross Douthat, who wrote along these lines in his memoir of his time at Harvard. There’s little in the way of a social reality in this country to give weight to these critiques, either in terms of the more democratic, liberatory agenda on the left or the more spiritual agenda on the right, outside of isolated religious or other intentional communities.

There is one critique of the SAT-meritocracy that does seem to resonate with millions of Americans: the literature surrounding the operator. This literature has a lot going for it, in terms of popular ideology. It doesn’t demand that Americans think of a new way of structuring society- the hierarchy is fine, it should just value different things and different people. It doesn’t demand asking too many uncomfortable questions about America’s place in the world or Americans place in their country- in fact, it typically discourages asking those kind of questions, the hardest question it permits is the occasional intimation of treason on the part of some of our civilian higher-ups. And, in fact, the operator-meritocracy tracks the SAT-meritocracy at several key points. Almost all of the memoirs contain lengthy passages pertaining to the difficulty and selectivity of special forces training. Many SEAL memoirs seem as interested in detailing their rigorous selection and training process at the Coronado Navy base as they are in the actual missions they undertook (it probably helps that training is presumably under less official secrecy). Like the role that college plays to the conventional SAT-meritocrats, special forces training certifies the operator, humbling him even as it grants him exalted status through finishing it.

Indeed, both the meritocracy-believers clustered around military-news sites like SOFREP and their opposite number who identify with the Atlantic display an obsessive concern with credentialing and the appropriate attribution of achievements. Of course, in keeping with a broader willingness to indulge the American appetite for pathos, the military blogs like to refer to the issue as that of “stolen valor.” Naturally enough, veterans get upset when people claim deeds, commendations, or medals that they did not earn. This is even more pressing for memoirists hailing from elite units, who need their commendations and their stories to bolster their claims to authority. They cannot afford, ethically or financially, for these claims to be cheapened. Concerns with this issue have led to vicious infighting within the community of military memoirists and their readers, with even figures like Chris Kyle – a man whose very real military record required no burnishing – caught for inflating his medal count. That someone like Kyle felt the need to do this speaks to the urgency of questions of credentialing within the culture- but it’s also worth noting that he’s still a hero to millions for whom “stolen valor” is supposed to be an act of disrespect to deeply-held values. On balance, Kyle’s authority, as a uniquely lethal man uniquely outspoken about his battle against evil, outweighs all else. Authenticity debates within operator circles – and their civilian followers – might take some of their vociferousness from less from the danger involved in undermining any one hero (nearly all of them have had some aspect of their stories disputed) and more because of their potential to undermine faith in valor and military distinction more generally. It’s similar to how cheating, corruption, and plagiarism take an on an exaggerated importance due to the place of credentialing and attribution in the mainstream SAT meritocracy. There’s a difference though. The SAT-meritocracy does not generally make its own honor and authenticity one of its major selling points; the operator meritocracy does. If the honorability of the operators seems wobbly, then so would their pretense to meritocratic excellence. The equivalent in the SAT-meritocracy would be their meritocrats failed on one of their selling points, like if they made a lot of rash, foolish decisions… Wait a minute…

But ultimately the credentialing is a small part of the story. While all SEALs who pass the training are worthy of respect, the notion goes, they aren’t the ones who become famous symbols. It’s the SEALs (and other operators, though I think the special place of the SEALs in this lore deserve note) who fight and kill. In the spiritual economy of the special forces genre, the training, more than preparing the operator for the physical rigors of his job, is what allows killing to go from being a despicable act (like when an Iraqi militant does it) to an act that endows a special knowledge on to the operator, that elevates him above other men, even other troops. Instead of killing making you upset or sad or guilty or simply traumatized, you become someone who understands the most extreme element of the life cycle. This knowledge manifests itself in strange ways. It’s not just whatever existential knowledge comes from having undertaken an extreme, irrevocable action, though it’s that too. It’s a way of relating to the world that grants knowledge through some means both below and above rational cogitation, some sort of Zen oneness with the world through violence and the authority that familiarity with violence imbues. The different operators manifest this to varying degrees, but this knowledge extends well beyond the battlefield into seemingly every area of life: relationships, assessments of the character and ability of other people, technology, the list goes on. Predictably, Chris Kyle was the most extreme in this, correct about every given decision from whether or not to shoot a given Iraqi to when to leave the Navy to placate the medics and his wife, right in every instance until after his book was published and he decided the right way to treat combat-related PTSD was by taking those affected out in the country to shoot guns. The others are less extreme, but typically, when they’re not right about something, it’s due to self-doubt. If they believe in themselves, they are right, and moreover unlike most other positive thinkers out there, they can cite their training and accomplishments as proof for their authority.

There is no substitute for the mastery of violent killing to acquire this self-knowledge. This is as true in the memoirs of the comparatively easy-going, Obama-voting Brandon Webb to the frank reactionaries like Kyle and Luttrell. Everything else that might distinguish a leader in our society – which is effectively identical with the list of distinctions the SAT-meritocracy holds dear — is considered and rejected by the operator-memoirists as ultimately being lower than what distinguishes them. The gnosis of killing bypasses every earlier justification of leadership – after all, even the unabashed warrior cultures of the past didn’t place so much of their ideological weight on killing, valuing courage, strategic acumen, etc. – and meets up with meritocracy in a manner similar to how race thought once linked with nineteenth science while bypassing Enlightenment values. The operator expresses their value in meritocratic terms because for all their talk of warrior values, the unheroic metrics of meritocracy really are the only language they have on hand to advance their claim to authority.

This equation – killing to knowledge to authority – loans itself to be plugged in to preexisting ideological fault lines surrounding authority and identity in this country (though it’s worth noting a fair number of operator-memoirists choose not to). Chris Kyle and Marcus Luttrell did this quite explicitly, Luttrell most recently by endorsing Donald Trump for President and laying the death both of his own fellow SEALs in the raid he described in Lone Survivor and of the Americans at Benghazi at the feet of the Democratic Party and the culture of weakness it supposedly represents. Especially as the conventional SAT-meritocracy visibly fails either to make the lives of average Americans better or to undertake a successful foreign policy, its sources of authority begin to come under question. Moreover, unlike success at things like the SAT or college, the sorts of things the operator-meritocracy values bolster and affirm the values of traditional masculinity. As anyone with an internet connection can tell you, those who most value masculinity seem to always think it’s under siege from vast, shadowy, sneaky forces- the sort of forces the operators once dealt with, and who can be dispelled by those displaying the same sort of virtues. Much of this is a distillation of the sort of back-stab legends that became popular in the wake of our defeat in Vietnam. Weak people – protestors, humanitarians, bureaucrats who believed they could run a war in an administrative, numbers-driven fashion – prevented us from winning there, the legend (which has since become semi-official in large parts of the culture) goes. These weak people, in turn spread their weakness throughout the culture, in the form of racial and gender liberation, consumerism, distrust of authority, irreligion, the usual litany of horrors we’re all familiar with and that varies from plaintiff to plaintiff.

While this is a familiar conservative lament, in the special forces literature, it floats free of partisan politics and becomes a general attitude towards the world- strength and goodness aligned against weakness and evil… you’d figure that’d be a pretty unfair fight in favor of the strong, but what do I know? While Luttrell occasionally tries to sheepdog the sentiment back towards conservative politicians, there’s little evidence Chris Kyle gave a damn, and less so from the other operator-memoirists. Authority comes from the operator, not from politicians, even politicians who exude strength. Perhaps the clearest picture of this comes from the film version of 13 Hours. Where Clint Eastwood smoothed off many of Chris Kyle’s rougher edges for the film version of American Sniper, Michael Bay made the chasm between the authority of the operators and the falseness of everyone else much clearer in 13 Hours than in the book by Mitchell Zuckoff on which it was based (Zuckoff, it might be worth noting, is a journalist and not a memoirist, though he worked closely with the Benghazi contractors). The ex-special forces guarding the secret outpost in Benghazi, especially the ex-SEAL played by Jim from The Office, exude the calm and preternatural knowingness of the operator, but in an even more exaggeratedly macho fashion than even Chris Kyle dared: they’re forever doing shirtless exercises outside and correctly predicting aggression and impregnating their womenfolk stateside. The civilians they’re charged with protecting are screaming (literally screaming, once the shooting starts) representations of the femininity and weakness of the conventional SAT-meritocracy. In a brilliant casting move, they got David Costabile – a fine character actor perhaps best known for playing the man Kristen Schaal cuckolds in favor of the non-attention of Bret and Jemaine on Flight of the Conchords – for the CIA chief. In the book, the unnamed chief is depicted as mediocre at his job and a bit snobbish. In the movie, he’s depicted as the picture of everything wrong with American government. He’s a weak bully, literally calling the operators “hired help,” bragging about how he and his CIA pals went to Harvard and Yale, and yelling at Jim from the Office and friends exercising too loud outside of his windows. In a line that indicates that someone at the studio has at least fleeting familiarity with internet-based masculinity culture, one of the operators grumbles that Costabile’s character “gets off on telling alphas” — that is, alpha males, men like the operators, killers, lovers, guys who haul tires around to get swole – “what to do.” Of course, once disaster strikes and the zombie army of brown people attack, the tables are turned, and Costabile only survives through following the barked orders of the men with the guns. We don’t know if he learns a lesson, or care- but the viewer learns again how the world works, and whose merit counts for more, the operator or the bureaucrat.

Part of the strength of the operator-memoir as an ideological prop is its lack of specific political demands. Sometimes the memoirists – more often online commenters and bloggers – will complain about our country’s treatment of veterans. Often, this is less about the very real problems with veteran’s health or material well-being and more a matter of vague “respect.” A typical lament is to take a given pop culture phenomenon and demand to know, in an article or online comment, why people are paying attention to it and not to the troops. Ideological entrepreneurs playing this game know it has limited but theoretically infinitely renewable rewards- after all, no one can actually say one could respect veterans too much or too often.

More often, the memoirists complain about rules of engagement – regulations from higher-ranking officers about what they can or can’t legally do in battle — hemming in the performance of their jobs. These rules usually don’t hem in the part of their job involving surveillance, say, or training foreign troops, but the part that grants them special status as superior men- killing. Such complaints are present in almost all of the operator-memoirists, from the relatively easy-going Jack Coughlin to the rageful Marcus Luttrell, and it’s worth noting that the more popular ones tend to be more angry and to link the rules with the impertinent impositions of civilian liberals. This is the place where the SAT-meritocracy and the operator-meritocracy cash most noisily, though it’s worth noting that the noise – to say nothing of the victimhood claims, ironic from such archetypal tough guys – is almost all from the side of the operator-memoirists. From what I’ve seen of liberal supporters of the American security state, they’d be likely to agree with the rules-of-engagement lament, but their sympathy would run in to the ultimate limit- whether killing bestows existential authority, or whether expertise – the kind that drafts rules – does.

Presumably, this would be the part where I tell you about the threat to democracy all this poses- men enamored of violence and experienced in its most direct application leading armies of slavering reactionaries to enact every fantasy of revenge against “the libs” that ever graced a message board. Alas, I cannot. Luttrell might want to stand on the podium with Trump, but he’s not running himself, and all the special forces memoirists I’ve read are in agreement that electoral politics are too much of a headache for them. Eric Greitens, the ex-SEAL running for Missouri governor, looks likely to lose, and if he wins, there’s little evidence that he’s a particularly extreme politician. Hell, even 13 Hours failed, both in terms of spreading the Republican talking points on Benghazi (Hillary Clinton isn’t mentioned at all) and in more typical movie industry terms- it just barely made its money back largely through overseas sales, and was no megahit like American Sniper. The American military as a whole shows little inclination towards intervening in American civilian life beyond seeing to it that its budgets and prerogatives stay intact- something the civilian leadership on both sides of the aisle seem more than happy to grant.

More than anything else, the concept of meritocracy – any meritocracy — is a way of managing the masses in a democracy. It explains why people are where they are in the social order through neat, understandable stories which many people find relatable and compelling. In the classic manner of successful liberalisms from Locke’s day to our own, the midcentury American liberals who promulgated the SAT-meritocracy in which we are embedded were able to yoke the stories they told about the relationship between individual and society to the actual operating mechanisms of that society- never on a one to one basis, but well enough. Meritocracy was both a myth and a functioning system. Its mythic stature becomes more important as its failures become more evident- as it becomes increasingly clear that it’s neither internally consistent nor capable of avoiding massive failures. We can see the operator-meritocracy and the stories it tells about the relationship between violence and authority as a first draft of an alternative, an effort to manage a portion of the population for whom the SAT-meritocracy’s authority is declining more quickly than most, either due to conditions that make school seem an unlikely route to success or due to preexisting cultural disinclination towards what the SAT-meritocracy represents. The danger in the operator-meritocracy isn’t the operator, few in number and dependent on the larger military machine. The power there is in the stories, and there’s few things less predictable than what the results of masses of people following an inchoate but vivid dream will be.

2016 Birthday Lecture: Merit and Lethality

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s