With little fanfare, in 2000 the U.S. Military Academy abandoned the Army Mule, its mascot since 1893, and reassumed its historical mascot, the Black Knight.
In the late 19th century nearly every soldier was familiar with mules, the ambiguous, long-eared offspring of a donkey and a horse. This sterile, double-natured beast performed much of our country’s hard labor in pre-mechanized days. Its virtues were catalogued by novelist William Faulkner: The mule was powerful, rugged, dependable and tenacious, able to bear almost any burden and endure nearly any abuse.
On the other hand, the flip side of tenacity is stubbornness, and the mule was known also as willful, hardheaded, sometimes mean-spirited and not very bright. In perhaps his most famous quotation, Faulkner said that a mule will labor patiently and willingly for you for 10 years just for the privilege of kicking you once.
So even in the late 19th century, the mule was probably a semi-facetious choice for a mascot. But a mascot’s symbolic power changes over time, and by 2000 the age of the mule had passed. The Army has changed, as well. The modern all-volunteer force is smarter, more professional, and better-trained in the technical capacities that modern warfare requires. Taken together, our military is clearly the most powerful and capable force on Earth.
But, we’ve got to stop treating it like a mule.
The heavy burdens of our war in Afghanistan (completely justified) and our war in Iraq (extremely dubious) have been borne almost entirely on the shoulders of our military and their families. To sum up what many others have said, bad decisions by inept and misguided civilians near the beginning have turned the war in Iraq into a meat-grinding nightmare of extended and multiple deployments, undermanned units and inadequate equipment, uncertain combat objectives and poor treatment for the wounded upon return to the States.
The civilians continue to compound these miserable circumstances, imagining that just a little more force will resolve Iraq, when nearly everyone understands that the only solution is political rather than military.
Through it all, our military has responded to this mishandling with the dependable tenacity of a mule. As usual, it has done everything that has been asked of it with single-minded devotion. In fact, few branches, bureaus or agencies of the federal government function with the level of competence and success that our military achieves when it is given clear objectives suitable to its capacities.
But somewhere there’s a limit to docile, mule-like compliance with increasingly questionable and misguided directives. From the safety of retirement, some senior officers have objected to our policies in Iraq. Others, like Gen. Eric Shinseki, objected, were ignored and then saw no choice but to retire. Now, a grass-roots organization called Appeal for Redress (www.appealforredress.org) is providing a venue for soldiers in the lower ranks to object respectfully to our course in Iraq, and to date more than 2,000 have done so.
At present, these objections are unlikely to have much impact on our policies in Iraq. But in our system, a lot depends on a willingness to comply with the important constitutional principle that subordinates our military forces to civilian control. For the most part, the military has willingly stayed on the right side of the line, in spite of its over-extension and misuse in pursuit of bad policy. I suspect that its loyalty to the Constitution and the rule of law will cause it to continue to do so.
But civilians have put the military in a dangerous dilemma from which it cannot constitutionally extract itself, even though many soldiers, like their fellow citizens, recognize the futility of continuing. The administration is unwilling to change course in Iraq, leaving the protection of our military in the hands of Congress and the voters.
Our soldiers are powerful and doggedly persistent in pursuit of a good cause. But our military has also the fragility of a force made up of intelligent volunteers who are used to thinking for themselves. They’ve done their duty. It’s time for the civilians to begin to do theirs. Happy Independence Day.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)