Friday, Sept. 8, 2006 | UCSD Professor Steve Erie attributes the “amateurism” in San Diego governance to the fact of its being “a Navy town.” He is right, but I’m not sure why that happens. I lived for 35 years in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and since moving to San Diego, I have been struck – thunderstruck is more like it – by the resemblance between the two cities, despite the very obvious and startling differences. San Diego is an ocean city, Albuquerque a desert place. This city is twice the size of Albuquerque and has a more diverse population.

What unites them, however, is that they are both military towns. The Navy dominates here; the Air Force and the national laboratories (Sandia and Los Alamos) have a large presence in Albuquerque and New Mexico generally. Indeed, the military has been the largest employer there since 1846, when Stephen Kearny grabbed it from Mexico before heading to San Diego.

That military dominance retards the development of civic culture. Military culture is hierarchical, logical, authoritarian. This is not a weakness; indeed, on the battlefield, you want a plan and men to carry it out. You don’t want a neighborhood meeting while the bullets whiz overhead. Yes, soldiers might have to improvise as battlefield conditions change, particularly in modern guerilla, urban warfare. Sometimes, brave soldiers even question orders that might violate the rules of war such as the Geneva Convention, for example. Still, for the most part, soldiers are expected to follow, not challenge orders or their superiors.

Civic life, however, is very different. Democratic or representative societies work best when their members get together and decide what to do. Challenging common assumptions and critical thinking is essential. This is slow, as we know, but then everyone sees the task, talks about the pitfalls, the strengths and works out differences. Most of all, in this process, the people identify natural leaders and the “specialists” who will achieve certain tasks. Governance is a maturing process. The founding fathers saw the distinction between the military and civic processes and kept the two separate, even though generals have served as presidents. (Both Washington and Eisenhower clearly saw the difference.)

When the military dominates a community, providing jobs, spinning off business, and even participating in city government (retirees from the military on the council, for instance), it brings its mind set with it. Again, this is fine for the battlefield, but not so good for civic life. As this mind set seeps through the community, people just tend to forget about getting together and working things out.

The military budget doesn’t stop, the military contracts continue to flow in, and most importantly, either directly or indirectly the government provides jobs. “Someone” is in charge, taking care of things. One outcome, however, is the current situation of Duncan Hunter deciding the airport question in Washington, effectively shutting out local decision-making. Another is Mayor Sanders simply deferring to the military on the airport; what’s good for the military is good for San Diego, no questions asked.

San Diego and Albuquerque are both conservative communities that want the government out of their lives, yet government, in the form of the military, fills their wallets. The democratic process of self-governance and maturation is hobbled. If you want the government out of your life, you have to get it out of your pocket.

Cathy Robbins is a San Diego-based writer. Send a letter to the editor here.

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