The Widening Gap Between Military and Society

U.S. military personnel of all ranks are feeling increasingly alienated from their own country, and are becoming both more conservative and more politically active than ever before. Do they see America clearly?
More

After following a platoon of Marine recruits through eleven weeks of boot-camp training on Parris Island in the spring of 1995, I was stunned to see, when they went home for postgraduation leave, how alienated they felt from their old lives. At various times each of these new Marines seemed to experience a moment of private loathing for public America. They were repulsed by the physical unfitness of civilians, by the uncouth behavior they witnessed, and by what they saw as pervasive selfishness and consumerism. Many found themselves avoiding old friends, and some experienced difficulty even in communicating with their families.

One typical member of Platoon 3086, Craig Hoover, reported that the Amtrak ride home to Kensington, Maryland, was "horrible." The train was "filled with smoke," he said. "People were drinking and their kids were running around aimlessly. You felt like smacking around some people." (An article I published in The Wall Street Journal in July, 1995, mentioned many of the recruits quoted here.) Hoover also found the train ride a sad contrast to the relative racial harmony of Parris Island. "It felt kind of segregated by race and class—a poor white car, a poor black car, a middle-class white car, a middle-class black car." Even McDonald's—which had become a fantasy-like symbol to the recruits as they ate military rations, particularly during a week of training in the woods-proved to be a letdown. "You look around and notice that a lot of the civilians are overweight, and a little sloppy," Hoover said.

Jonathan Prish, a former white supremacist, went with old friends to a bar in Mobile, Alabama. "We played pool and drank," he reported, in a typical comment. "It seemed like everyone there was losers. All they want to do is get smashed. They're self-destructive. They're not trying. They're just goofing around."

In the wealthy Washington suburb of Potomac, Maryland, Eric Didier felt the same way. "There are some friends I've stayed away from," he said. "They're not going anywhere, and I don't want to be around them. We don't have any common ground." Though they are in their early twenties, he said, "they're not doing anything, living at home, not working, not studying."

In Pittsburgh, Patrick Bayton went to a Saturday-night party where he saw two old friends as "losers." "Everything feels different," he said. "I can't stand half my friends no more." Frank DeMarco attended a street fair in Bayonne, New Jersey. "It was crowded. Trash everywhere. People were drinking, getting into fights. People with obnoxious attitudes, no politeness whatsoever." But, he said, "I didn't let it get to me. I just said, 'This is the way civilian life is: nasty.'"

Yet the member of Platoon 3086 perhaps most at odds with his former environment was Daniel Keane, whose background was probably the most privileged. The son of a Merrill Lynch & Co. executive, Keane seemed almost in pain when I interviewed him in the living room of his parents' house, in Summit, New Jersey. When he first got home from Parris Island, he said about being with his family, "I didn't know how to act. They said, 'What do you want to do?' I'd say, 'I don't know.' I didn't know how to carry on a conversation."

He found his old peer group even more difficult. "All my friends are home from college now, drinking, acting stupid and loud," the eighteen-year-old Marine said. He was particularly disappointed when two old friends refused to postpone smoking marijuana for a few minutes, until he was away from them. "They were getting ready to smoke their weed. I said, 'Could you just hang on for a minute? Can't you wait till you get to the party instead of smoking in the car?' They said, 'Then we'd have to give it out.'" So, he recalled, they lit up in front of their Marine friend. "I was pretty disappointed in them doing that. It made me want to be at SOI [the Marines' School of Infantry]."

Like many other members of 3086, Keane felt as if he had joined a cult or religion. "People don't understand," he told me, "and I'm not going to waste my breath trying to explain when the only thing that really impresses them is how much beer you can chug down in thirty seconds."

THE GAP

I think the Marines of Platoon 3086 were experiencing in a very personal way the widening gap between today's military and civilian America. To be sure, their reaction was exaggerated by the boot-camp experience, during which the Marine Corps especially among the services tries to sever a recruit's ties to his or her previous life. But because of the nature of American society today, the re-entry shock upon leaving recruit training appears to be greater now than it was in the past. Asked to explain this difference, retired Marine Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor said, "When I got out of boot camp, in 1946, society was different. It was more disciplined, and most Americans trusted the government. Most males had some military experience. It was an entirely different society—one that thought more about its responsibilities than its rights."

Similarly, Sergeant Major James Moore, now retired but at that time the senior sergeant on Parris Island, commented, "It is difficult to go back into a society of 'What's in it for me?' when a Marine has been taught the opposite for so long. When I look at society today, I see a group of young people without direction because of the lack of teaching of moral values at home and in school. We see that when we get them in recruit training. The recruits are smarter today—they run rings around what we were able to do, on average. Their problems are moral problems: lying, cheating, and stealing, and the very fact of being committed. We find that to get young people to dedicate themselves to a cause is difficult sometimes."

The idea of a gap between the military and civilian America is hardly new. For much of the nation's history, Samuel Huntington wrote in The Soldier and the State (1957), the U.S. military has had "the outlook of an estranged minority." A decade ago the journalist Arthur Hadley called this strained civilian-military relationship "The Great Divorce." In The Straw Giant: Triumph and Failure—America's Armed Forces (1986) he defined this as "the less-than-amicable separation of the military from the financial, business, political, and intellectual elites of this country, particularly from the last two."

The fact that most Americans pay attention to the military only when they see news of a sexual-abuse scandal, such as the one at Aberdeen Proving Ground, underscores that separation. As far as media coverage is concerned, the U.S. military has fallen to the level of a mid-sized Asian nation that breaks onto the front page with a large disaster but gets just a few paragraphs for bus plunges and plane crashes. The estrangement appears to be more complete now than it was in the past, for, I think, two overarching reasons. First, more than twenty years after the end of conscription the ignorance of American elites about the military has deepened. Second, with the end of the Cold War the United States has entered into historically unexplored territory. If the Cold War is indeed considered to have been a kind of war, then for the first time in American history the nation is maintaining a large military establishment during peacetime, with 1.5 million people on active duty and millions more serving in reserve and supporting civilian roles in the Defense Department and the defense industry.

Several trends already under way in civilian society and in the post-Cold War military threaten to widen the gap in the coming years, further isolating and alienating the military. In his 1974 prologue to the revised edition of The Professional Soldier, Morris Janowitz concluded confidently that there would not be "a return to earlier forms of a highly self-contained and socially distinct military force; the requirements of technology of education and of political support make that impossible." But the conditions that shaped the military of which Janowitz wrote no longer obtain. It now appears not only possible but likely that over the next twenty years the U.S. military will revert to a kind of garrison status, largely self-contained and increasingly distinct as a society and subculture. "Today," says retired Admiral Stanley Arthur, who commanded U.S. naval forces during the Gulf War, "the armed forces are no longer representative of the people they serve. More and more, enlisted [men and women] as well as officers are beginning to feel that they are special, better than the society they serve. This is not healthy in an armed force serving a democracy."

In this light, the Clinton Administration's frictions with the military—over gays in the armed forces, the alleged "dissing" of a uniformed general by a White House aide, military resentment at the Administration's ham-handedness in the later phases of the Somalia mission, and military resistance to U.S. interventions in Haiti and Bosnia—can be seen not as the unique product of the personal histories of one President and his advisers but as a precursor of future problems. The Harvard political scientist Michael Desch concluded in a recent assessment of post-Cold War decision-making in the United States that civilians are now apparently less able "to get the military to do what they want them to do" than they were during the Cold War.

Three broad areas need to be examined to understand why this political, social, and cultural gap appears to be widening: changes in the military, changes in civilian society, and changes in the international-security environment.

CHANGES IN THE MILITARY

By far the most important change that has taken place in the military is the termination of the draft in 1973. Twenty-four years later the consequences are still unfolding. Today all 1.5 million people on active duty are volunteers. That fact carries vast implications for how the military operates and how it relates to society. In contrast to the post-Second World War demobilization, for example, the post-Cold War drawdown is being met with fierce resistance by many soldiers, because all volunteered to be in the military and most are indeed fighting to stay in.

Partly as a result of the end of conscription, the past fifteen years especially has seen the rise of a professional military, even in the enlisted ranks. Although better trained as soldiers and more stable as a society, these professionals are very expensive, because they bring with them families and all the attendant social infrastructure, from health care to substance-abuse counseling to higher education on military bases. John Luddy, a Senate Republican aide, wrote that family-related costs to the Defense Department total more than $25 billion a year.

This strong social safety net may not be sustained. With defense-policy analysts in general agreement that a severe defense-budget problem looms in the late 1990s, the military's vast social infrastructure is likely to come under attack by Congress. The military—especially the Army, which is the most vulnerable of the services in terms of personnel—faces a dilemma in addressing those cuts. The social safety net appears necessary to support a professional military with a high "operating tempo." But to find the funds to maintain that net, the Army is likely to be required to take cuts in personnel far beyond what it will consider tolerable. Either course—curtailing support for personnel or curtailing personnel—is likely to engender resentment in the military.

The post-draft professionalization of the military has also wrought cultural changes. Richard H. Kohn, a former chief historian of the Air Force who now teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that the officer corps has changed since the Cold War in the way it acts and feels. "I sense an ethos that is different," he told me in an interview. "They talk about themselves as 'we,' separate from society. They see themselves as different, morally and culturally. It isn't the military of the fifties and sixties, which was a large, semi-mobilized citizen military establishment, with a lot of younger officers who were there temporarily, and a base of draftees." Change in the military culture aside, the American people have never been comfortable with professional militaries, as Huntington observed in The Soldier and the State—theirs or anybody else's.

The Revolutionary War was described as a war of citizen-soldiers against the standing armies and mercenaries of George III. The Civil War was [the Union fighting] against the West Point directed armies of the South.... German militarism was the principal enemy in World War I.... The professionals, in other words, are always on the other side.

A second major area of change in the military is the rebuilding that has occurred since the Vietnam War. In this area, as in many other aspects of defense nowadays, the Marine Corps appears to be exemplary. During the 1970s the Corps was a disaster. Drug use was rampant and discipline ragged. There were 1,060 violent racial incidents in the Corps in 1970. Jeffrey Record noted in the May, 1995, Proceedings, the magazine of the Navy's professional society, that during the Vietnam era

the Corps registered rates of courts-martial, non-judicial punishments, unauthorized absences, and outright desertions unprecedented in its own history, and, in most cases, three to four times those plaguing the U.S. Army. Violence and crime at recruit depots and other installations escalated; in some cases, officers ventured out only in pairs or groups and only in daylight.

Today the Marine Corps has drastically reduced its discipline problems. Its drug problem, too, is minor, with less than four percent of Marines testing positive in random urinalysis. And although racial tension still exists in the military, the services, especially the Army, have probably done about as good a job of minimizing the issue of race as is possible in the American context. In the Army's officer corps of 78,000, there are now some 9,000 blacks. As Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, has observed, the U.S. military is still the only place in American society where it is routine for black people to boss around white people. (This may be one reason the black drill instructor has become a stock figure in American popular culture, not only in films such as Private Benjamin, An Officer and a Gentleman, Major Payne, Renaissance Man, and In the Army Now but also in commercials for beer and long-distance telephone services.)

In addition, two related post-Cold War trends having to do with the military's infrastructure may have had important consequences for civilian-military relations. These are the process of closing unneeded bases and the privatization of many functions of logistics and maintenance.

The many base closings may increase the geographical and political isolation of the military—or, to put it another way, may return the military to its pre-Second World War condition. "Before World War II, the majority of the military posts were located in the South and in the West," Janowitz notes. Also earlier in this century the South was disproportionately represented in the ranks of senior officers—in 1910 some 90 percent of Army generals had a "southern affiliation," Janowitz reports. The closing of bases has so far hit especially hard in the Far West and the Northeast—areas that are both more liberal and more expensive to live in and operate in than the rest of the nation.

The move to privatize much of the military's huge depot structure—the network that maintains aircraft, vehicles, and other defense gear—may also contribute to the social and political isolation of the military. Faced with the need to cut personnel, and seeking to preserve its war-fighting "tooth," the post-Cold War military has sought to privatize much of its support "tail." This privatization, which promises to reduce the number of soldiers in civilian occupations, is occurring not only on U.S. soil, where maintenance work is being farmed out to corporations, but also in other countries where U.S. soldiers operate. In Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, for example, Brown & Root has performed a host of functions once done or at least supervised by the uniformed military, from staffing mess halls to purifying water to preparing the bodies of soldiers killed in firefights for shipment home. A concern relating to extensive civilian contracting is that military personnel today are less likely to be serving in occupations that have civilian equivalents, and are more likely to specialize in military skills that are neither transferable to the civilian sector nor well understood by civilians.

These isolating trends are occurring amid broader cultural changes in the military—notably the politicization of the officer corps. Of course, military culture has always had a conservative streak, just as journalism has always had an element of anti-authoritarianism. I suspect, however, that today's officers are both more conservative and more politically active than their predecessors.

Admittedly, the evidence is hazy and the data are skimpy—in part because "conservative" is almost impossible to define. Nonetheless, the few indications available today are strikingly at odds with the conclusions Janowitz reached. Janowitz found that many officers continued to avoid open party preferences, but also detected a trend toward more liberals among military officers. He found the military becoming more representative of society, with a long-term upward trend in the number of officers "willing to deviate from traditional conservative identification." And he detected a correlation between higher ranks and greater intensity of conservative attitudes.

Today the available evidence indicates that all these trends have reversed. The military appears to be becoming politically less representative of society, with a long-term downward trend in the number of officers willing to identify themselves as liberals. Open identification with the Republican Party is becoming the norm. And the few remaining liberals in uniform tend to be colonels and generals, perhaps because they began their careers in the draft-era military. The junior officer corps, apart from its female and minority members, appears to be overwhelmingly hard-right Republican and largely comfortable with the views of Rush Limbaugh. Air Force Colonel Charles Dunlap observed in a recent essay published by the Air Force Academy, "Many officers privately expressed delight that" as a result of the controversy over gays in the military, the Reserve Officers Training Corps program is producing "fewer officers from the more liberal campuses to challenge [the Air Force officers'] increasingly right-wing philosophy."

A variety of recent formal and informal surveys point toward those conclusions. Midshipmen at Annapolis, who in 1974 were similar in their politics to their peers at civilian colleges, are now twice as likely as other students to consider themselves conservative, according to an unpublished internal Navy survey. "The shift to the right has been rather remarkable, even while there has been an infusion of rather more liberal women and minorities," one of the study's conductors concluded.

Former Army Major Dana Isaacoff, who taught at West Point in the early 1990s, routinely surveyed her students on their politics, assessing about sixty of them during each of six semesters. In a typical section, she reported in a talk last year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, seventeen would identify themselves as Republican, but none would label themselves Democratic or Independent, instead choosing the traditional course of adopting no political label. She concluded that to today's West Point cadets, being a Republican is becoming part of the definition of being a military officer. "Students overwhelmingly identified themselves as conservatives," she said. Here the definition of conservatism is important: this does not appear to be the compromising, solution-oriented politics of, say, Bob Dole. "There is a tendency among the cadets to adopt the mainstream conservative attitudes and push them to extremes," Isaacoff said. "The Democratic-controlled Congress was Public Enemy Number One. Number Two was the liberal media. . . . They firmly believed in the existence of the Welfare Queen."

This tendency toward right-wing attitudes is not limited to malleable students at military academies. A 1995 survey of Marine officers at Quantico, a large base in Virginia that focuses on training officers, found similar views. The Marines are not the most representative example, but because they are the most tradition-bound and unabashedly culturally conservative of the services, they are the most dramatic. They should be viewed as an indicator not of where the U.S. military is today but of where it is heading. The Corps was less altered by the Cold War than any of the other services. With the end of the Cold War the other services are becoming more like the Marines: smaller, insular, and expeditionary.

In the Quantico survey 50 percent of the new officers studying at the Basic School identified themselves as conservatives. In a parallel survey of mid-career officers at the Command and Staff College 69 percent identified themselves as conservatives. In a striking indication of alienation from civilian society, an overwhelming proportion of the Basic School lieutenants—81 percent—said that the military's values are closer to the values of the Founding Fathers than are the values of civilian society. At the Command and Staff College, where students generally have at least ten years of military experience, 64 percent agreed with that statement. A majority of officers at both schools agreed that a gap exists between the military and civilian society, and stated that they expect it to increase with the passage of time. Fewer than half believed it desirable to have people with different political views within their organizations.

"I believe these results indicate the potential for a serious problem in civil-military relations for the United States," concluded Army Major Robert A. Newton, who conducted the survey of Marine officers and analyzed the responses. "Instead of viewing themselves as the representatives of society," he wrote, "the participating officers believe they are a unique element within society."

Again, officers today appear to be not only more conservative than those in the past but also more active in politics—both in how they describe themselves and in how they vote. This change is all the more striking because traditionally the American military has avoided political involvement. After the Civil War, Huntington wrote in The Soldier and the State, "not one officer in five hundred, it was estimated, ever cast a ballot." In Once an Eagle (1968), an illuminating novel about the twentieth-century U.S. Army, Anton Myrer has his young hero tell a congressman, "When I serve my country as a soldier I'm not going to serve her as a Democrat or as a Republican, I'm going to serve her as an American." But military personnel have for the past decade been voting in greater percentages than the general population. In his survey of Marine officers Newton found that "although the majority of the officers did not believe the military should play an active role in political decisions, a significant minority did believe such activity was appropriate."

It is worth noting that the past two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have entered election-year debates on issues touching on the military. During the 1992 election General Colin Powell twice spoke out against military intervention in Bosnia, which candidate Bill Clinton was proposing. Less noticed, Powell's comparatively retiring successor, General John Shalikashvili, spoke out during the 1996 presidential-primary season against isolationism and anti-immigrationism—two issues the Republican candidate Pat Buchanan was promoting.

An odd little book titled Clint McQuade USMC: The New Beginning (1990) is perhaps unintentionally revealing. Reading this novel—which was privately published by the author, Gene Duncan, a retired Marine major—feels like taking a spelunking trip through the collective unconscious of the Corps. Indeed, Duncan states at the outset that any resemblance to real people "springs from my subconscious, over which I have no control." The book is about a retired Marine master gunnery sergeant who is reborn with the body of a sixteen-year-old while retaining the knowledge, memories, and experience of his old self. He eventually—of course—joins the Marines.

The book is most interesting for what it asserts as a matter of course: essentially that American society is decaying, corrupted, misled by its elected officials, and deserving of resentment from the Marines who protect it. "Americans are selfish people," the hero explains to his buddies. Later he tells them, "I think I have lost all faith in our politicians, so I take the narrow view and confine it to those around me of like mind, minds which dictate unselfishness and honor." In a postscript the author says that his "purpose in writing" has been to "give to the reader a sense of the heart of the United States Marine Corps." He explains that he has tried to show the Marines to be "special people with special hearts who serve a seemingly ungrateful nation."

The novel shows part of the military talking to itself when it doesn't think it is being overheard. Though hardly famous in the outside world, Gene Duncan is well known within the Marines: his books are sold by the Marine Corps Association, which at its Quantico bookshop has a special "Duncan's Books" area. The 1991 edition of General Military Subjects, the textbook used to train all recruits at Parris Island, quotes Duncan on its inside cover as saying that the job of a drill instructor is to undo "eighteen years of cumulative selfishness and 'Me-ism.'" Just after the table of contents the textbook gives Duncan a full page. The only other person so honored in the entire 199-page textbook is President George Bush.

These isolating attitudes, while perhaps most extreme in the Marines, are also found in varying degrees elsewhere in the military. "There is a deep-seated suspicion in the U.S. military of society," Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who is the executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, told me in an interview. It is "part of the Vietnam hangover—'You guys betrayed us once, and you could do it again.'" This suspicion, he added, "isn't going away, it's being transmitted" to a new generation of officers.

Here again the long-term consequences of the end of conscription are still unfolding. It has become easier for the middle class in general and liberals in particular to follow their traditional impulse to turn away from the military. Within the military the end of the draft has also meant the end of its leavening effect: people from nonmilitary families were conscripted or spurred by the draft to enroll in ROTC, and found they actually liked military life. General Powell, for example, came from a nonmilitary background and attended the distinctly nonmilitary City University of New York. General Shalikashvili was a draftee. In some years of the early 1990s the Joint Chiefs contained more members who had come out of public universities than members who had gone the traditional routes of West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy. But the generation of draft-era officers is now retiring, and it is a virtual certainty that in twenty years the chairman of the Joint Chiefs will be a volunteer. All this will make it easier for the military and the liberal professionals of the middle class to look upon each other with contempt.

It is one matter to acknowledge that much in American society today is deserving of contempt. It is another matter to propose that the role of the U.S. military—especially an all-volunteer professional military oriented toward conservative Republicanism—is to fix those problems. Yet that is what some are doing. "It is no longer enough for Marines to 'reflect' the society they defend," Michael Wyly, a retired colonel, advised in the March, 1995, issue of the Marine Corps Gazette. "They must lead it, not politically but culturally. For it is the culture we are defending."

In some ways this is nothing new. The military can be seen as just reverting to its pre-Second World War and pre-Cold War stances—socially isolated, politically conservative, and working primarily on bases in the South and West. In The Professional Soldier, Janowitz wrote, "Military ideology has maintained a disapproval of the lack of order and respect for authority which it feels characterizes civilian society. . . . In the past most professional soldiers even felt that the moral fibre of American manpower was 'degenerating' and might not be able to withstand the rigors of battle."

There are two important differences between today's military and the military before the Second World War. First, it is far larger—some six times the size of the 244,000-man active-duty military of 1933. (Over the same period the U.S. population has merely doubled in size.) Second, it is frequently used as an instrument of national policy, as it was with the recent large deployments to Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. Possibly a third major difference is its quality: for the first time in the nation's history the U.S. military is generally regarded as the best in the world. If, as now appears likely, it is cut significantly over the next ten years, frustrated officers may be more politically direct in expressing their resentment than they were in the past. It would be surprising if all were to adopt the stance of General Omar Bradley, who in a passage quoted by Janowitz commented, "Thirty-two years in the peacetime army had taught me to do my job, hold my tongue, and keep my name out of the papers."

CHANGES IN SOCIETY

There is widespread agreement that over the past few decades American society has become more fragmented, more individualistic, and less disciplined, with institutions such as church, family, and school wielding less influence. Whatever the implications of these changes, they put society at odds with the classic military values of sacrifice, unity, self-discipline, and considering the interests of the group before those of the individual.

The split is all the deeper because the military has effectively addressed the two great plagues of American society, drug abuse and racial tension, but civilian society has not. In addition, the military is doing a better job in other areas where society is faltering, including education. The Army especially has done well with the growth of realistic training at facilities such as the National Training Center, the Joint Readiness Training Center, and the Combat Maneuver Training Center, where soldiers live in the field and conduct bloodless battles against well-trained opponents. Younger enlisted soldiers and Marines frequently exude an air of competence that is rare in today's eighteen- and nineteen-year-old civilians. Local military recruiters report that they no longer recruit from certain high schools, because so few of the graduates of those schools are able to pass the military entrance examination—the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a simple test of reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. The result of this selectivity is that the military is now far better educated than the general population: about 96 percent of recruits in 1995, for example, earned high school diplomas, as compared with 79 percent of civilians aged eighteen to twenty-four. Indeed, about 40 percent of all officers now hold postgraduate degrees.

The end of the draft has altered the way society looks at the military. Charles Moskos traces the American people's supposed intolerance of casualties to the end of the draft: because the elites aren't putting their own offspring in harm's way, the American people mistrust their sending everyone else's children into battle. I disagree with this analysis, and am instead persuaded by the explanation put forward by James Burk, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, that the American people will not tolerate casualties when they dislike a policy or don't understand it, as was true with Somalia.

But I think that Moskos is pointing in the right direction: American political and economic elites generally don't understand the military. A comment published this spring in the Utne Reader—the Reader's Digest of the New Age crowd—captured the disdain for today's military. In an editorial introduction to an article the magazine stated that in light of the Tailhook and Aberdeen scandals, "it's hard to imagine why any woman—or any man with a conscience—would want to join the military."

Nor is such understanding deemed important, even in making national-security policy. Consider, for example, the conspicuous lack in the White House of staff members with military experience—in an Administration that has proved to be militarily activist. Even after bungling an inherited mission in Somalia and then using U.S. forces to feed Rwandan refugees, invade Haiti, and enforce a peace agreement in Bosnia, the Clinton Administration did not see fit to follow Pentagon suggestions that it appoint someone with a military background to a senior post on the National Security Council. Misunderstanding the military is dangerous for both the military and the civilian population. Nowadays, I think, policymakers tend to overestimate what the military can do. It isn't clear, for example, just how the Clinton Administration expects the appointment of a four-star general, Barry McCaffrey, as drug czar to revitalize its efforts against drugs. Overestimating the military is probably even more dangerous than believing that it is made up of incompetent buffoons, as Baby Boomers seemed to believe in the 1970s.

An uncertain grasp of military affairs is likely to characterize policymaking for the foreseeable future. As recently as during the Vietnam War two thirds of the members of Congress were veterans. Today almost two thirds are not. What most congressmen know of the military is what they saw on television during the Gulf War. They learned two lessons: high-tech weaponry works, and the United States needs missile defenses. Partly because the Army effectively blacked out media coverage of its Gulf War triumph, Congress came away with little interest in training, personnel issues, or ground forces in general. It should have been no surprise to the military that after the Republicans won a majority in Congress in 1994, they advocated missile defenses and B-2 bombers while trying to cut military pensions. In March of last year several younger members of Congress formed the Republican Defense Working Group, which, they said, would "scour the defense budget for savings." As Andrew Bacevich has observed, it will be interesting to see how the political beliefs of the officer corps change when officers realize that to be conservative is no longer necessarily to be in favor of defense spending.

But the most salient point is that Congress isn't particularly interested in defense issues. This isn't a matter of ideology. Even before the Republican victory the Armed Services Committees were declining in prestige. Mainly because of the post-Cold War reduction in military budgets, defense is an unpleasant issue for members of Congress. Several rounds of base closings have made membership on the Armed Services Committees something of a liability: as one congressional staff member told me several years ago, "Back home, they'll ask, 'If you're on the committee, why couldn't you do something about it?'" Among the congressional freshmen elected to the House in 1992, nineteen requested seats on the Science and Technology Committee, historically a backwater, whereas only seven asked for Armed Services.

CHANGES IN THE SECURITY ENVIRONMENT

With the evaporation of the Soviet Union, many Americans don't understand why the nation needs a large standing army. For the first time in its history (with the possible exception of the two decades preceding the Spanish-American War) the U.S. Army must justify its existence to the American people. Again, this suggests that the Army will become more like the Marines—small, expeditionary, and, for the good of the institution, better at explaining itself to Congress and the media. Peacetime trends in American civilian-military relations already point toward huge budget cuts in the coming years. Last year, for example, Peter DeFazio, a Democratic congressman from Oregon, proposed reducing defense spending to $210 billion in 2001, from the current $263 billion. The Electronic Industries Association in 1995 forecast a 2005 defense budget of $214 billion. The Army is likely to suffer a disproportionate share of the cuts, and most of the cuts will be aimed at personnel rather than at procurement or operations and maintenance.

Also with the end of the Cold War, the military's definition of "the threat" went up for grabs. Everybody used to agree that it was the Soviet Union. Now there is a lot of talk in the military, especially in the Marines, that the new threat is chaos. Sergeant Darren Carey, a drill instructor for Platoon 3086, the unit I followed home from Parris Island, taught the platoon that "today the threat is the low-intensity things, the nine-one-one, that you never know what's going to happen—it's Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia." He told me that he also teaches that the threat is "the decline of the family, the decline of morals."

As his comment indicates, it is easy to blur the line between foreign and domestic enemies. I think this haziness may already be occurring on an institutional scale with the Marines, for whom the Los Angeles riots of 1992 were a preamble to the Somalia deployment later that year. From a military perspective, the operations were similar: in both cases Marine combat units based in California were sent to intervene in fighting between armed urban factions. "As soon as we got to Mogadishu, we were struck by the similarity to L.A.," one Marine colonel involved in both operations told me.

Some of the lessons learned by the Marines in Los Angeles are worrisome, especially when seen in the context of a strongly conservative, politically active military. Marine Major Timothy Reeves argued in a paper written at the Marine Command and Staff College that because of "the rising potential for civil disobedience within the inner cities" it is "inevitable" that the U.S. military will be employed more often within American borders. The trouble, he said, is that a variety of U.S. laws inhibit the execution of domestic missions. In Los Angeles, Reeves said, when faced with a choice between violating doctrine and violating federal law some Marines chose the latter course, detaining suspects and conducting warrantless searches. Similarly, Marine Captain Guy Miner reported in a 1992 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette that Marine intelligence units were initially worried by the need to collect intelligence on U.S. citizens in ways that would violate a 1981 Executive Order, but that "this inhibition was quickly overcome as intelligence personnel sought any way possible to support the operation with which the regiment had been tasked."

Reeves called for major alterations of U.S. law to enable the Marines to execute these new domestic missions just as they execute missions abroad—changes that could carry long-term consequences for U.S. civilian-military relations. "Experience from the Los Angeles riots," he said in his paper, "demonstrated the need to grant U.S. Marine forces the legal right to detain vehicles and suspects, conduct arrests, searches, and seizures in order to accomplish the peacekeeping mission." (The Los Angeles mission also demonstrated a need for the Marines to coordinate terminology with the police: when police officers asked some Marines to cover them while they confronted an armed suspect barricaded in his residence, Reeves reported, the Marines shot approximately thirty rounds of what they call "covering fire" into the building before the police stopped them.)

In a December, 1994, article in the Marine Corps Gazette, William S. Lind, a military analyst who has been influential in the doctrinal thinking of the post-Cold War Marines, wrote with two Marine reservists that American culture is "collapsing."

Little is remarkable about that paragraph, which reads like standard right-wing American rhetoric of the nineties—not all that different from Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan. Its significance lies in the conclusion that Lind and his co-authors drew: "The next real war we fight is likely to be on American soil."

As a coda, retired Colonel Michael Wyly wrote a few months later in another Gazette article, "We must be willing to realize that our real enemy is as likely to appear within our own borders as without." He then took swipes at the two fundamental principles of U.S. military professionalism: unwavering subordination to civilian control and nonparticipation in politics. "If our laws and self-image of our role as military professionals do not allow for [the recognition that the real enemy may be within] we need to change them." Wyly raised the possibility that the Marines would refuse to enforce certain laws. Specifically, if Congress were to restrict gun ownership, then Marines would need to understand that "enforcing such a restriction could quickly make us the enemy of constitutional freedom." (To its credit, the Gazette carried in the same issue a commonsense response to the Lind article from Major Mark Bean, who wrote, "America is made of tougher stuff than the authors would have us believe.")

When the military is politically active, when it believes it is uniquely aware of certain dangers, when it discusses responding to domestic threats to cherished values, then it edges toward becoming an independent actor in domestic politics. "A classic example of this situation happened in Chile," Major Robert Newton warned at the conclusion of his report "The Politicization of the Officer Corps." "The Chilean military was a very professional organization. The majority of the officer corps came from the middle class. When the society elected a communist President, the military broke from society. The officer corps believed this change threatened the basic principles upon which the society rested."

Starting in the mid-1960s, we have thrown away the values, morals, and standards that define traditional Western culture. In part, this has been driven by cultural radicals, people who hate our Judeo-Christian culture. Dominant in the elite, especially in the universities, the media, and the entertainment industry (now the most powerful force in our culture and a source of endless degradation), the cultural radicals have successfully pushed an agenda of moral relativism, militant secularism, and sexual and social "liberation." This agenda has slowly codified into a new ideology, usually known as "multiculturalism" or "political correctness," that is in essence Marxism translated from economic into social and cultural terms.
WHAT MUST BE DONE?

A U.S. military coup remains extremely unlikely. Samuel Huntington seems closer to the mark when he attributes the civilian-military turbulence of the Clinton Administration to the process of seeking out a new post-Cold War equilibrium in the civilian-military relationship.

But not all equilibriums are equal. The United States may be in danger of drifting into a situation in which the military is neither well understood nor well used and yet—as was not true in previous eras of military estrangement—is big, politically active, and frequently employed on a large scale to execute American foreign policy. The development of the semi-autonomous military described by the Harvard political scientist Michael Desch isn't healthy in a democracy. In addition, it isn't clear that the U.S. military, for all its political-military expertise, is best placed to decide how it should be used, either at home or abroad. However ignorant of military affairs the Clinton Administration may be, its estimate of the human costs of invading Haiti appears to have been far more accurate than the Pentagon's. Similarly, sixteen months into the Bosnian deployment none of the military's grim warnings that the U.S. military would suffer widespread casualties as it became entangled in a guerrilla war had been realized. This is a testament in part to the professionalism of today's soldiers. But it should also suggest that future Pentagon estimates of the human costs of possible operations deserve to be viewed with great skepticism.

Mutual distrust between the nation's political elites and military leaders could ultimately undercut U.S. foreign policy, making it more difficult to use force effectively. Indeed, this unease may in part explain why the Army was reluctant to take a more activist stance in the Haiti and Bosnia missions, and instead fretted publicly about "mission creep." To begin to repair the relationship, several steps could be taken.

First, consideration should be given to reinstating some form of a draft. Along the lines of the current German system, youths could be given the choice of performing, say, eighteen months of military service or two years of public service.

But the resumption of conscription appears unlikely for the foreseeable future, so several other steps should be considered in order to engage the military with civilian society. ROTC programs should be vastly expanded, especially at elite institutions. The service requirement attached to attending one of the three military academies might be shortened, in order to encourage more military officers to pursue careers in civilian society. Among other things, this might eventually lead to the presence in Congress of more people with military experience. Whenever possible, military officers pursuing higher degrees should be sent to civilian universities, whether or not this means closing some military schools. As Eliot Cohen, a military strategist at Johns Hopkins who is one of the most thoughtful commentators on U.S. civilian-military relations, has suggested, there may even be ways of bringing people into the military later in their lives—possibly at ranks as high as lieutenant colonel. And the military could use the skills of reservists far more imaginatively, especially in an era when civilian technologies are outpacing military ones. To help recruiters draw from the other end of the socio-economic scale, retired Admiral Stanley Arthur suggests that the military establish special preparatory programs that would enable more inner-city youths to enlist.

But the most important change that should be made involves the military only secondarily. This concerns the isolation of professional Americans, or the upper middle class, from the broad concerns of society. Ignorance of the military is, I think, just one manifestation of that larger problem. We live in an era when a Democratic President sends his child to private school and few eyebrows are raised. America's military problem is not unlike that facing parts of the former Soviet Union. In reviewing the depredations of semi-autonomous or fully autonomous militias in thirty-one new states and "ministates" in the old Eastern bloc and the former Yugoslavia, Charles H. Fairbanks Jr., an expert on post-Communist transitions, recommended that in order to assert public control over those forces, "it is particularly important to involve the new middle class ... in military service." America would do well to take the same advice.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Breathtaking Tour Above the Moab Desert

Filmmaker Ian Cresswell rigs an HD camera atop a remote-controlled "octocopter" for some spectacular aerial views.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In