Thoughts on Service and Honor

My Grandfather during WW2

My grandfather, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. (center), on a ruck march during the Second World War.

By virtue of education and occupation, I now spend a lot of time in a world that is a couple of social echelons above that of my childhood. In contrast to the blue-collar, middle-class environment that defined my neighborhood and public education, our son graduated from a private school where the annual tuition would be enough to buy a new car every year. He now attends an elite, Northern liberal arts college where the families of half the students can afford the $65,000 per year cost of attendance, out of pocket, without financial aid.

Over a decade of social overlap with members of the “one percent” has taught me more than a few lessons about class differences, and has occasionally made me self-conscious of our solidly middle-class income and home. Comments like, “Our nanny has an apartment that’s bigger than your whole house,” and “You don’t make enough money to understand why I vote Republican,” have had the cumulative effect of reminding me that our family’s definition of wealth and prosperity is out of step with the one used by wealthy elites. In fact, there have been moments of jarring collision between the working-class values that shaped me and the lives led by those in the upper class.

None stands in more stark relief for me than the Spring concert when our son was in elementary school. The auditorium, which could comfortably seat 300 people, was packed with parents and grandparents who listened intently as their cherubic progeny sang their hearts out. For the final performance, the music director asked everyone who had ever served in the military to stand. The school’s founder, a retired Navy Commander in his late eighties, was at the front, bracing the American flag. I stood, as did two other parents. One was a Coast Guard officer, the other an Army officer. I was was the only NCO.  The other two men were in or near their fifties, I was in my early thirties.

It was a vivid, visual reminder that the social tier that produces our political and cultural leaders is not the social tier that places its life on the line to defend the policies they put in place. Over 300 people – physicians, attorneys, politicians, academics, corporate executives – were gathered in that room. The question was asked who there had taken an oath to serve their country. Fewer than 1 percent stood, and only one of them was an enlisted person, a former soldier who was also the only one under fifty.

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

Larger samples of age and demographic data also support that anecdotal visual. This trend is reflected in the makeup of Congress, a statistic that likely includes very few former NCO’s or junior enlisted. The numbers also show that military service tends to run in families, as it does in mine (including my grandfather, a mustang who climbed from private to Lieutenant Colonel and served in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam). Increasingly, however, those are not the families that are casting the votes – in Congress or in the shareholder meetings that actually govern our country – that send us to war.

Wanting our leaders to have “skin in the game” is reason enough to encourage our elites to consider military service, but I don’t think it should be our primary motivation. Those with power will always have ways to keep their families out of harms way. I think the formative aspect of military service is a much better argument for military service among the ruling class.

Uncle Henry

My Great Uncle, TSgt Henry Clay Travis

Another anecdote from observing my son’s academic world is perhaps relevant here. I had the opportunity to sit in on a class at our son’s top-notch school. A gifted professor was leading a spirited discussion on the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, a medieval text that, among other things, deals with the price of honor and loyalty to friends and family. The professor asked the students, “Is there such a thing as too much honor?” One student answered, “These days, probably. Then, no.” There were murmurs of assent from the other students in the class.

It occurred to me that the students, all of whom were obviously smart, thoughtful, and conscious of the many social and political nuances and relevancies of this 700-year-old text, are likely to choose careers where concepts like “honor” and “loyalty” are considered anachronisms. They are unlikely to enter career paths where commitment to integrity and an established code might mean life or death for themselves and for their comrades-in-arms. Whether a member of the military ever sees combat (and, unlike my grandfather, I never did), joining into the centuries of tradition that train our warfighters shapes us in ways that no other experience can. To a servicemember, there is no such thing as too much honor, and there is no price too high to pay for the sake of loyalty.

Aubrey Thompson Villines, Jr. - 2LT

My Uncle, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Jr., during Vietnam.

The military has a long, successful history of inculcating the importance of those archaic values. It carries forward other anachronisms too, like honoring the generations who preceded us, and respect for those who have earned their place of leadership or authority through diligence, skill, and sacrifice. My own understanding of leadership was shaped as much by knowing I could trust that my NCO’s and officers earned their place, and that they would put my needs above theirs, as it was by the sophisticated, formal leadership training I received. Having watched the world of elite education firsthand, I am deeply concerned that we are training our future leaders to begin at the top and only periodically peer down from there, a critique that William Deresiewicz articulates beautifully in his book Excellent Sheep. Military service, even for those who begin as officers without having been enlisted, teaches leadership from the bottom up. Living that out changed the way I understood my obligations and expectations as a leader in ways that I think are unique to the military.

That life also let me to shared experiences of collaboration and interdependence with people from the widest range of socio-economic backgrounds I have ever encountered in one place. As an enlisted person, I served alongside a (fellow enlisted) Harvard graduate with a law degree from Boston College, as well as a soldier from the swamps of Louisiana fresh out of high school. In Basic Training, I was one bunk over from a soldier from the south side of Chicago, and one bunk over from him was a guy who enlisted after finishing his Master’s at Tuskegee. In an era where our neighborhoods are increasingly segregated by class and income, and where social mobility is, at best, stagnant, military service is a rare opportunity to actually work alongside people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Grandpa, Great-Great Grandpa, Barbara

My grandfather, Aubrey T. Villines, Sr., newly graduated from OCS, stands with his grandfather, John Castner Villines, and his newborn daughter, Barbara.

“Alongside” is the key adverb there. Military service means knowing, trusting, and sacrificing for the person on either side of you, no matter how much or how little you might have in common. This is vastly different from the controlled, scripted opportunities for “cross-cultural understanding” or “community service” through which young elites are dutifully filtered before returning to their lives of privilege. I remember the moment in Basic Training when I realized that my strong academic skills and linguistic facility had absolutely zero likelihood of determining my success, and that I needed to rely on the people around me, people with far less experience with the skills that – until then – had defined “achievement” for me, to survive. When I was going through PLDC in the Okefenokee swamp in July, I didn’t care if the guy pouring his canteen of water over my head to stop me from puking had read Chaucer. I was just glad to know that if I needed him to, he would carry me out of that godforsaken swamp, or die trying.

We do our best to teach our future leaders that they should value everyone equally, but that equality takes on an entirely different dimension when you realize that the “value” of the person who is saving you from heat exhaustion has nothing to do with their level of education or tax bracket. Our next generation of leaders could benefit greatly from that kind of education.

If they are not going to get it through the military, then we need to have a serious discussion about where they might. There are millions of people for whom honor, sacrifice, and loyalty are not abstract concepts. Our future leaders should be among them.

Grandpa's Grave Marker

After presenting the Flag of the United States to my Grandma Sue, I stood, in uniform, at attention, on this spot in Lynchburg, Tennessee as my fellow soldier was finally laid to rest. I carried forward his watch, and others will succeed me.

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Why I Won’t Be Reading Go Set a Watchman

Sue Travis Villines in the 1940's.

Sue Travis Villines in the 1940’s.

No book has influenced me more, or meant more to me, than To Kill a Mockingbird. The person of Atticus Finch significantly shaped my character, my parenting, and my sense of what it means to be a progressive, Southern man. He is my favorite fictional hero, above even Moses, Noah, and Job (all of whom I like a lot, for various reasons). I don’t say that lightly. I cherish the stories of our faith, and my call to proclaim them, but To Kill a Mockingbird is also scripture for me.

The “for me” is significant. I have read more sophisticated books, more eloquent books, and even more profound books. To Kill a Mockingbird, however, is the only book I have ever encountered that completely captures the South and the Southerners I know and love. Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly, Anne Rivers Siddons’ Downtown, and anything by Lewis Grizzard or Celestine Sibley all have special places in my heart for the different ways in which they tell parts of the story of what it means to be a Southerner. To Kill A Mockingbird, though, is the ethnography of my tribe.

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. - 1920's

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr., seated on his front porch – 1920’s

If you want to know me, you have to know my family, and if you want to know them, read To Kill a Mockingbird. My Great-Grandma Lizzie Dale Sanders Travis never left the house between Memorial and Labor Day without white gloves on. She also never had fewer than twenty people around her supper table on any given night during the Depression, because she made sure that no one she met went hungry just because times were lean. If you want to know Miss Lizzie, get to know Miss Maudie Atkinson. My Grandpa, Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. earned a law degree while fighting in three wars over 26 years, and always scored expert with his rifle qualification. Having risen from Private to Lieutenant Colonel, Grandpa Al retired from the service and then traveled both the urban and the rural South working for five different Presidents. He wanted to make sure that those without means had access to Medicaid, because he remembered what it was like to grow up dirt poor in rural Tennessee. If you want to know Colonel Villines, get to know Atticus Finch. My Grandma, Sue Travis Villines could ride a horse, milk a cow, and shoot a marble (or a basketball) as well or better than any boy on the farm. She went on to be a corporate vice president in the sixties, and she stood up for her LGBT friends when the Southern Baptist Convention turned on them like a brood of vipers. Everyone was welcome at her table, and she created a home for everyone who needed one, even those whose own people had cast them out. If you want to know Grandma Sue, then get to know Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of my family.

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. - 1940's

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. – 1940’s

It is also the story of my greatest fictional hero – Atticus Finch. When I was a teenager, my greatest hero – my Dad – once said to me, “Son, there are very few people in this world who – no matter what they say – you know they are always speaking the truth. Try to become that kind of man.” When I opened the covers of To Kill a Mockingbird, I met a man just like that. In a scene perfectly captured in the movie, the courtroom gallery stands as Atticus passes, and Reverend Sykes solemnly intones “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” It was in that moment that I finally had an iconic image of the character and integrity that I hoped would define my life. Earlier in the book, Atticus explains to his brother Jack, “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake.  But don’t make a production of it.  Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.” It was there that I finally found a literary model for how I had been raised, and how I planned to raise my own child. Years later, when I stood before the judgment of a rural Southern congregation and proclaimed the good news that the gospel included LGBT people, I pictured my grandfather and Atticus standing in the great cloud of witnesses whose wreath I sought to earn. When I found myself at 3 a.m. holding a sick child, answering his questions and telling him of our love, I knew that it was also my father’s arms, my grandmother’s arms, and even the arms of Atticus Finch that held him – because I had learned how to love my son from studying their love.

There is something fetid and rotten in our culture that cannot abide virtuous icons like Atticus or my grandmother. We turn our heroes into anti-heroes. We deny their nobility and valor, claiming that we are making them more “complex” or more “real.” What we actually mean is that we have given up on the possibility of true virtue and integrity, excusing them from high standards so that we may exculpate our own lack of extraordinary moral character. Dethroning our heroes is a way to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our willingness to settle for the petty, shallow venality of choosing comfort and expedience over anachronistic concepts like idealism and honor. If heroes cannot be real, then “reality” is a place for mediocrity.

I do not want to succumb to that pessimism. Nor will I surrender my own need for real heroes because an increasingly crass and vulgar culture does not want to see their own reflection in the mirror that saints and stalwarts hold to our failed choices. To let go of those exemplars would be to tell a lie, because even if Atticus Finch never walked the Earth, I knew his touch in the hands of those who raised me. Atticus Finch is not just an archetype to me, he’s the literary incarnation of the strong, courageous, wise, honest, loving Southern men and women who have made me who I am, and who continue to challenge me to be more. I understand why amoral publishers, eager to make a quick buck off a fickle public’s need for salacious gossip, would want Atticus Finch to be less, but I want no part in it. I don’t need to know the adolescent, first-draft sketch of man who reinforces my worst fears about my own hypocrisy. I want to know the man who reminds us of what humanity can be when we are at our best. That is the “reality” whose “complexity” is worth exploring.

Sue Travis Villines and RC Burt - 1931

Sue Travis Villines and RC Burt – 1931

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On Loyalty and Secrecy

SAEDA 01

WWII SAEDA Poster – USGPO – src: http://www.usmm.org/postertalk2b.html

 

Many of my friends – all fellow liberals – have been shocked by the vehemence with which I have condemned Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.  Because of my generally liberal politics, their assumption is that I would value the men’s apparent act of conscience – their desire to see the “right thing” done – over their violation of their oaths of secrecy.  I do not, and here is why.

I have been an intelligence professional for over twenty years.  I am proud to be a member  of the Intelligence Community – an elite group of women and men whom I consider to be some of the finest people I have ever known.  Intelligence professionals bring a diverse set of skills to the table:  language proficiency, technical know-how, effective writing and speaking skills, the ability to organize and analyze complex information from disparate sources, the ability to think quickly under high stress, knowledge of other cultures and social systems, and psychology training – just to name a few.  There is one trait, however, that every single one of us has – absolutely and unequivocally:  we can keep a secret.

Secrecy is the lifeblood of intelligence work, not because we fear oversight or because our actions cannot withstand the scrutiny of the light of day, but because the lives of others depend on our ability to keep information – even apparently insignificant details – out of the hands of those seeking to harm our citizens.  Whether the topic is troop movements, collection methodologies, or the placement of covert agents – iron clad secrecy is fundamental and essential to effective intelligence operations.  The efforts, risks, and sacrifices of thousands of people working over the course of years can be compromised by one file copied carelessly onto a USB drive.

As a result, the safety of our nation requires a class of people for whom secrecy is the highest virtue, people on whom we can rely to never, under any circumstance, reveal classified information.  Those people are intelligence professionals, and we hold to the antiquated, anachronistic definition of “honor” that means we value our oath of secrecy over comfort, convenience, expedience, or other loyalties.  This is not hyperbole, nor is it overkill – it is absolutely necessary that we have such people for our nation to be safe.

What about the other requirements of honor?  What happens when one of us learns that members or agencies of our government – the body which acts on behalf of all of us who are “we the people” – act in a way that is cruel, dishonorable, illegal, or evil?  The simple answer is that we must act to prevent such things where possible, and punish them when necessary; but there are processes in place for just those purposes.  There are oversight committees, ombudsman inspectors, and open door policies – all within the cleared community – and each offers recourse for reporting abuses.

Are these methods perfect?  No.  Will some things, even shameful and patently wrong actions, slip through the cracks?  Almost assuredly.  No system is perfect, and if the Manning and Snowden cases indicate failures in those oversight processes we should pour considerable resources into resolving those failures.

That does not exonerate Manning and Snowden.  Even if there were no obvious casualties from their leaks, even if none of the information they provided would be of intelligence value to our enemies, even if they only made public information that our enemies already knew – they still broke their oaths of secrecy.  Every member of the intelligence community, from the PFC all-source analyst in a TOC to the National Security Adviser, only sees a piece of the puzzle.  It is not our job to determine what is and is not of value to our enemies.

It is our job to be people whom the nation can trust to always, in every circumstance, keep every single secret which has been entrusted to us.  That is a sacred trust, and failing in it is a cardinal sin.  It is, in fact, the cardinal sin, and those who commit it – except under torture – are traitors.

There are other jobs, other virtues, and other sins, and I think it is important that we have a public, national dialogue on what we consider the proper, ethical path for our nation to follow – both in overt politics and in covert intelligence.  Whatever that path, the lives of our warfighters, our public safety personnel, our civilians, and our allies all depend on the willingness of the intelligence community to do, under any circumstance, what we have promised to do – keep our nation’s secrets no matter what.

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