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 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.

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