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?

An odd little book titled Clint McQuade USMC: The New Beginning (1990) is perhaps unintentionally revealing. Reading this novel—which was privately published by the author, Gene Duncan, a retired Marine major—feels like taking a spelunking trip through the collective unconscious of the Corps. Indeed, Duncan states at the outset that any resemblance to real people "springs from my subconscious, over which I have no control." The book is about a retired Marine master gunnery sergeant who is reborn with the body of a sixteen-year-old while retaining the knowledge, memories, and experience of his old self. He eventually—of course—joins the Marines.

The book is most interesting for what it asserts as a matter of course: essentially that American society is decaying, corrupted, misled by its elected officials, and deserving of resentment from the Marines who protect it. "Americans are selfish people," the hero explains to his buddies. Later he tells them, "I think I have lost all faith in our politicians, so I take the narrow view and confine it to those around me of like mind, minds which dictate unselfishness and honor." In a postscript the author says that his "purpose in writing" has been to "give to the reader a sense of the heart of the United States Marine Corps." He explains that he has tried to show the Marines to be "special people with special hearts who serve a seemingly ungrateful nation."

The novel shows part of the military talking to itself when it doesn't think it is being overheard. Though hardly famous in the outside world, Gene Duncan is well known within the Marines: his books are sold by the Marine Corps Association, which at its Quantico bookshop has a special "Duncan's Books" area. The 1991 edition of General Military Subjects, the textbook used to train all recruits at Parris Island, quotes Duncan on its inside cover as saying that the job of a drill instructor is to undo "eighteen years of cumulative selfishness and 'Me-ism.'" Just after the table of contents the textbook gives Duncan a full page. The only other person so honored in the entire 199-page textbook is President George Bush.

These isolating attitudes, while perhaps most extreme in the Marines, are also found in varying degrees elsewhere in the military. "There is a deep-seated suspicion in the U.S. military of society," Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who is the executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, told me in an interview. It is "part of the Vietnam hangover—'You guys betrayed us once, and you could do it again.'" This suspicion, he added, "isn't going away, it's being transmitted" to a new generation of officers.

Here again the long-term consequences of the end of conscription are still unfolding. It has become easier for the middle class in general and liberals in particular to follow their traditional impulse to turn away from the military. Within the military the end of the draft has also meant the end of its leavening effect: people from nonmilitary families were conscripted or spurred by the draft to enroll in ROTC, and found they actually liked military life. General Powell, for example, came from a nonmilitary background and attended the distinctly nonmilitary City University of New York. General Shalikashvili was a draftee. In some years of the early 1990s the Joint Chiefs contained more members who had come out of public universities than members who had gone the traditional routes of West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy. But the generation of draft-era officers is now retiring, and it is a virtual certainty that in twenty years the chairman of the Joint Chiefs will be a volunteer. All this will make it easier for the military and the liberal professionals of the middle class to look upon each other with contempt.

It is one matter to acknowledge that much in American society today is deserving of contempt. It is another matter to propose that the role of the U.S. military—especially an all-volunteer professional military oriented toward conservative Republicanism—is to fix those problems. Yet that is what some are doing. "It is no longer enough for Marines to 'reflect' the society they defend," Michael Wyly, a retired colonel, advised in the March, 1995, issue of the Marine Corps Gazette. "They must lead it, not politically but culturally. For it is the culture we are defending."

In some ways this is nothing new. The military can be seen as just reverting to its pre-Second World War and pre-Cold War stances—socially isolated, politically conservative, and working primarily on bases in the South and West. In The Professional Soldier, Janowitz wrote, "Military ideology has maintained a disapproval of the lack of order and respect for authority which it feels characterizes civilian society. . . . In the past most professional soldiers even felt that the moral fibre of American manpower was 'degenerating' and might not be able to withstand the rigors of battle."

There are two important differences between today's military and the military before the Second World War. First, it is far larger—some six times the size of the 244,000-man active-duty military of 1933. (Over the same period the U.S. population has merely doubled in size.) Second, it is frequently used as an instrument of national policy, as it was with the recent large deployments to Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. Possibly a third major difference is its quality: for the first time in the nation's history the U.S. military is generally regarded as the best in the world. If, as now appears likely, it is cut significantly over the next ten years, frustrated officers may be more politically direct in expressing their resentment than they were in the past. It would be surprising if all were to adopt the stance of General Omar Bradley, who in a passage quoted by Janowitz commented, "Thirty-two years in the peacetime army had taught me to do my job, hold my tongue, and keep my name out of the papers."


There is widespread agreement that over the past few decades American society has become more fragmented, more individualistic, and less disciplined, with institutions such as church, family, and school wielding less influence. Whatever the implications of these changes, they put society at odds with the classic military values of sacrifice, unity, self-discipline, and considering the interests of the group before those of the individual.

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