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 split is all the deeper because the military has effectively addressed the two great plagues of American society, drug abuse and racial tension, but civilian society has not. In addition, the military is doing a better job in other areas where society is faltering, including education. The Army especially has done well with the growth of realistic training at facilities such as the National Training Center, the Joint Readiness Training Center, and the Combat Maneuver Training Center, where soldiers live in the field and conduct bloodless battles against well-trained opponents. Younger enlisted soldiers and Marines frequently exude an air of competence that is rare in today's eighteen- and nineteen-year-old civilians. Local military recruiters report that they no longer recruit from certain high schools, because so few of the graduates of those schools are able to pass the military entrance examination—the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a simple test of reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. The result of this selectivity is that the military is now far better educated than the general population: about 96 percent of recruits in 1995, for example, earned high school diplomas, as compared with 79 percent of civilians aged eighteen to twenty-four. Indeed, about 40 percent of all officers now hold postgraduate degrees.

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.

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