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 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."

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

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


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

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In