The recent incident at Fort Hood recalls to mind a proposition that has become a great truism since the terrorism attacks of September 11, one that should never be allowed to be merely a truism: how grateful we, usually civilians, should be to the first responders who run toward danger rather than away from it. The guardian virtues our military, police, and public-safety organizations inculcate are all the more to be admired because they stand in such stark contrast to the virtues centering on comfortable self-preservation that are the stock and trade of our deeply bourgeois regime. In other times and places, courage, discipline, and honor might have been seen as among the highest expressions of our humanity; but I dare say most of us most of the time see them as instrumentally useful to peaceable pursuits that are the real business of life.
Courage of course requires being in harm’s way, and what we might hope would be the normal qualms of a decent chain of command about putting people in harm’s way is only heightened in our particular cultural environment. This point was brought home to me with great force when a student directed me to a recruitment video at the United States Navy Memorial website with the tagline “working every day to unman the front lines,” featuring the Navy’s remotely-piloted drone technology. It would be churlish and wrongheaded to deny that such marvels are a wonderful way to avoid putting the lives of our sons and daughters at risk. But it would be foolish to ignore the double entendre as well. With the front lines unmanned, there will be less need of nerve, courage, and spiritedness — manly virtues that Officer Kimberly Munley, who took down the Fort Hood shooter, reminds us are not exclusively the province of men. And it is not the Navy alone, of course. The push to replace human soldiers and first responders with robotic devices is well underway in nearly all services (I don’t know that much is happening on the fire or emergency medicine fronts).
Battling ’bots may still be only a distant prospect, and right at the moment we plainly have no lack of fellow citizens willing and able to serve as our guardians (although some first responders, like volunteer fire services, might be an exception). But in her provocative book Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs warns that the guardian virtues hang together, and if you tamper with one you risk undermining them all — a point Plato might well agree with. So we should be asking ourselves: What happens to virtues like honor, loyalty, or discipline when they are not only challenged from without by the bourgeois virtues, but from within; when a need for courage is seen by the guardians themselves as a sign of a defect in their ability to protect us without putting themselves in harm’s way? It is an awesome task to be responsible for the lives of others at the risk of one’s own life, and through the guardian virtues the terrible power of that task is directed and constrained. As much as we hope for a day when all men will live in peace, we are entitled to wonder whether that day will be brought closer by replacing the traditional terrors of battle with innovative methods of cold-blooded killing.