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 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.


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."

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