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The Monitor's View

This Veterans Day, a salute to a military that shows government can work

Public anger at Washington is at a high. But perhaps the much-admired military has qualities that can rub off on the rest of government.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / November 8, 2011



About a third of Americans are now flat-out angry at how Washington works and not just simply dissatisfied, according to polls. Congress’s approval rating is at a record low.

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Surprisingly, however, more than three-quarters of Americans retain a high confidence in one federal institution – the military. It earns even more respect than religious organizations.

This Veterans Day – marked 11-11-11 on the calendar – is an opportunity to ask what people see in their military that they would like to see in the rest of government.

Chances are, people wouldn’t focus just on how well the armed forces does in conflicts like Libya. Rather, they would probably focus on the way that soldiers operate with service, loyalty, trust, integrity, and purpose, or other high-minded qualities often found lacking in politics or civilian bureaucracies.

The best example in the public’s mind today? Gen. David Petraeus, now the CIA chief.

Qualities matter in foxholes as much as physical training. “The US military has always distinguished itself from other countries by the degree of trust and responsibility placed on its small unit leaders,” said former Defense chief Robert Gates in a speech this year.

Yes, some of the rank and file can go astray, as with the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. For British soldiers in Iraq, the low point was the 2003 killing of Baha Mousa, a civilian in their custody.

But most soldiers display a mental and moral strength that is not only admired on military-related holidays but by civilian employers who hire vets. After all, vets come out of a system with a high accountability for mistakes.

A 2010 Gallup survey found active military personnel are much more likely to be thriving with emotional well-being than workers overall. Much of that may be due to the sense of community within the military.

Another poll showed Americans consider service in the all-volunteer military as the second most patriotic act after voting in elections. Being recruited into the military, then, isn’t just about the benefits.

In both the United States and Britain, however, the top brass worry about the quality of recruits from a society that increasingly stresses individualism and moral relativism. In Britain, the former head of the armed forces, Gen. Lord Richard Dannatt, gave a speech today at the London-based social think tank Theos in which he suggests that society learn from the military – as a way to help ensure better recruits.

“Given that much of our society is pretty unstructured these days,” he said, “and given that the military has the unique opportunity to educate its own into the importance of a proper moral understanding, then perhaps the military community may have a wider contribution that it can make to the nation.”

Lord Dannatt describes a need for military leaders to provide a “spiritual dimension, beyond the rational and beyond the moral” to soldiers – because they are asking for it.

So when another political scandal hits or public disgust with government reaches a new low, perhaps citizens can look to the military for inspiration – and also, come each Veterans Day, we can all honor those who serve.

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