A Memorial Day reflection on the widening gap between the American people and their military
I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but Retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry’s PROVOCATIVE THOUGHTS about the American populace and its armed forces merit your consideration:
After fighting two wars in nearly 12 years, the United States military is at a turning point. So are the American people. The armed forces must rethink their mission. Though the nation has entered an era of fiscal constraint, and though President Obama last week effectively declared an end to the “global war on terror” that began on Sept. 11, 2001, the military remains determined to increase the gap between its war-fighting capabilities and those of any potential enemies. But the greatest challenge to our military is not from a foreign enemy — it’s the widening gap between the American people and their armed forces.
Three developments in recent decades have widened this chasm. First and most basic was the decision in 1973, at the end of combat operations in Vietnam, to depart from the tradition of the citizen-soldier by ending conscription and establishing a large, professional, all-volunteer force to maintain the global commitments we have assumed since World War II…
For nearly two generations, no American has been obligated to join up, and few do. Less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in the armed forces, compared with more than 12 percent during World War II. Even fewer of the privileged and powerful shoulder arms. In 1975, 70 percent of members of Congress had some military service; today, just 20 percent do, and only a handful of their children are in uniform.
In sharp contrast, so many officers have sons and daughters serving that they speak, with pride and anxiety, about war as a “family business.” Here are the makings of a self-perpetuating military caste, sharply segregated from the larger society and with its enlisted ranks disproportionately recruited from the disadvantaged. History suggests that such scenarios don’t end well.
Second, technology has helped insulate civilians from the military. World War II consumed nearly half of America’s economic output. But in recent decades, information and navigation technologies have vastly amplified the individual warrior’s firepower, allowing for a much more compact and less costly military. Today’s Pentagon budget accounts for less than 5 percent of gross domestic product and less than 20 percent of the federal budget — down from 45 percent of federal expenditures at the height of the Vietnam War…
Third, and perhaps most troubling, the military’s role has expanded far beyond the traditional battlefield. In Iraq and Afghanistan, commanders orchestrated, alongside their combat missions, “nation-building” initiatives like infrastructure projects and promotion of the rule of law and of women’s rights. The potential for conflict in cyberspace, where military and civilian collaboration is essential, makes a further blurring of missions likely.
Together, these developments present a disturbingly novel spectacle: a maximally powerful force operating with a minimum of citizen engagement and comprehension. Technology and popular culture have intersected to perverse effect. While Vietnam brought home the wrenching realities of war via television, today’s wars make extensive use of computers and robots, giving some civilians the decidedly false impression that the grind and horror of combat are things of the past. The media offer us images of drone pilots, thousands of miles from the fray, coolly and safely dispatching enemies in their electronic cross hairs. Hollywood depicts superhuman teams of Special Operations forces snuffing out their adversaries with clinical precision.
The civilian-military divide erodes the sense of duty that is critical to the health of our democratic republic, where the most important office is that of the citizen. While the armed forces retool for the future, citizens cannot be mere spectators. As Adams said about military power: “A wise and prudent people will always have a watchful and a jealous eye over it.”