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?

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.


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.

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