Many–including Max Boot, Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, and our own Matthew Cantirino–have remarked critically on the way that President Obama appealed to the manifest virtues of our military in his State of the Union Address.
Let me join the chorus.
What the President was reaching for in his invocation of the military was republican virtue—the virtues of citizens willing to subordinate themselves to the ends of the community, enduring hardship and privation, subjecting themselves to a rigorous self-discipline, and holding one another responsible and accountable. These are impressive virtues, reeking of Greece and Rome, and self-consciously invoked by the founding generation in the pseudonyms they chose when they published political pamphlets—Publius, Pacificus, Helvetius, Agrippa, Cato, Brutus, and so on.
I’ll leave aside whether this president’s—or any president’s—domestic agenda can inspire them. I have my doubts.
The point I’d like to focus on is that these are not soft, self-indulgent qualities. They have, as I’ve already noted, a hard core of self-discipline and personal responsibility, which can only be cultivated in settings that inflexibly demand these qualities of those who participate in them. You may not need the Spartan Agoge system or the Great Santini, but you do need, at the very least, old-fashioned fathers. You’re not going to get there with speeches, or with schools where everything is litigated, arbitrated,or mediated by helicopter parents and union shop stewards, overseen by various intrusive government bureaucracies.
Don’t get me wrong. I want the American military to be as good as the President says it is. And I would welcome more self-discipline and self-sacrifice from my fellow citizens. But to get there from here, the President shouldn’t be talking about the Navy SEALS, but about old-fashioned “family values.” The problem is that he has largely foreclosed that line with the ways in which he has given in to those who think family is all about self-actualization.