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?

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.

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.

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