Why Do Intellectuals Oppose the Military?

Almost a decade ago the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick penned an essay asking "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?" That is, why would those who live well reject the open society that allows them to do so? The essay was less a venture in social science than a thought experiment about the upbringing of intellectuals and the outsized influence this group exerts on society. Much of what Nozick says about intellectuals' reflexive disdain for capitalism also helps explain their disdain toward the military - and even the differences are intriguing. So his essay is worth pondering today as we survey civil-military relations in a nation at war.

Whom are we talking about? In his book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson defines a member of this elite group in general terms, as "someone who thinks ideas are more important than people." By contrast, Nozick confines his attentions to "wordsmith intellectuals" concentrated in professions such as the academy, print and electronic journalism, and government. He deems "numbersmiths" working in the sciences, business, and other quantitative fields less prone to anti-capitalist animus, despite similar intelligence and academic attainment. (Why this should be true warrants looking into.)

Schooling, maintains Nozick, breeds in intellectuals a sense of superiority, and with it a sense of entitlement to the highest rewards society has to offer - not just top salaries but praise comparable to that lavished on them by their teachers. After completing their formal academic training in the centralized environment of the classroom, intellectuals go forth into a seemingly chaotic capitalist society, which purports to reward individual citizens by merit but in fact applies a different standard of merit from the one imparted in the classroom.

So an open, capitalist society falls just short of satisfying intellectuals' sense of entitlement. At least three points are worth teasing out of Nozick's essay. One, capitalist society allows wordsmiths to live comfortable lives-but those who excel outside the classroom often reap the highest material rewards. Entrepreneurship in business or other applied disciplines -- disciplines that may or may not depend on pure academic knowledge or verbal dexterity -- can bring a far more extravagant lifestyle than a career in journalism, government, or the academy.

This runs afoul of intellectuals' sense of their place in the natural pecking order. But it should have little bearing on intellectuals' attitudes toward the armed services, given the less-than-generous salaries and benefits paid to soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Servicemen rank well below wordsmith intellectuals from a purely material standpoint. This disparity should seem to reinforce intellectuals' sense of superiority.

But, American society reserves the highest respect and admiration not for professors or journalists but for those in practical disciplines such as the armed forces, law enforcement, firefighting, or emergency medicine. Americans typically rate the military at or near the top of the nation's institutions, with journalism and lawmakers near or at the bottom. This status deficit rankles intellectuals. While America certainly needs academic skill and enterprise, an open society maddeningly-prizes other things as much as if not more than the ability to turn a clever phrase.

Success in such a society comes in large part from applied intellect, amplified by such virtues as technical proficiency and physical and moral courage. Schooling is not primarily responsible for instilling these virtues. Disaffection follows when society frustrates intellectuals' lofty expectations. Awarding superior status to people they learned in the schoolhouse to regard as their inferiors must trigger a certain revulsion.

Nozick observes that academic training teaches intellectuals to prefer a centralized environment in which an authority figure, not the vagaries of the market, sets standards and dispenses rewards and punishments according to certain rational standards. Does this relate to intellectuals' skepticism toward military service? It's unclear. The armed forces are nothing if not regimented institutions, and thus they should seemingly appeal to wordsmiths. An old joke in the ranks points out how odd it is that it takes a socialized institution like the military to defend liberty.

But here, too, the military allocates rewards-medals, ribbons, written evaluations-based on criteria that cut against the intellectual grain. While training and education provide the foundation for excellence in the armed forces, servicemen are judged primarily by factors such as technical acumen and valor under fire. In other words, Americans acclaim the military for reasons that have little to do with schooling-calling into question wordsmith intellectuals' feeling of superiority, and indeed their entire worldview.

Do intellectuals' attitudes even matter, given their predilection for the abstract over the concrete and for ideas over action? Yes, says Nozick. While wordsmiths cannot dictate the outcome of national discourse, they do set the terms of debate.
"They shape our ideas and images of society; they state the policy alternatives bureaucracies consider. From treatises to slogans, they give us the sentences to express ourselves. Their opposition matters, especially in a society that depends increasingly on the explicit formulation and dissemination of information."
Nozick left his inquiry open-ended, commending it to the study of social scientists, and so will I. Some enterprising social scientist ought to examine these matters in a sustained, rigorous manner. If wordsmith intellectuals indeed frame debates on affairs of state-in particular war and peace-then their views and prejudices must be taken into account in public discourse. Our system of civil-military relations could depend on it.

James Holmes is a former naval officer who served on the University of Georgia faculty until February. He will be an associate professor at the Naval War College starting later this month. The views voiced here are his alone.