The Aspen Ideas Festival

For the second year, The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute collaborated in July to host the Aspen Ideas Festival, which gathers scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, religious figures, and others for a week of conversation and debate. Participants contribute provocative ideas from their fields, and discuss the world, both as it is and as it might become. Following are some excerpts from this year's discussion.
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David M. Kennedy
on the military and American democracy

In a Fourth of July debate about the state of American democracy, Kennedy, a historian at Stanford, suggested that war making was becoming too easy for American policy makers.

Today’s all-volunteer force numbers 1.4 million … and about 900,000 in the Reserves. The active forces today proportionate to population are [1]-125th the size of the force that we deployed in World War II. Moreover, thanks to the advances in technology … that extremely small force, measured by historical standards, is extraordinarily lethal …

From Atlantic Unbound:

Blog: Atlantic@Aspen (July 3-9, 2006)
Dispatches from the Aspen Ideas Festival by James Fallows, Ross Douthat, James Bennet, Clive Crook, and Corby Kummer.

The total Defense Department budget today, including the expenditures for Afghanistan and Iraq, is less than 4 percent of GDP—one-tenth of what this economy had to deliver to win World War II. Now what this means in effect is that our society can now deploy history’s most lethal military force without breaking a sweat, without making any very deep demands on our manpower pool or the size of our economy. And this, to me, raises very, very serious questions about political accountability and [the] lowering of the threshold for the executive to employ military force without having to engage the deep and durable engagement and agreement of the citizenry at large …

Another asymmetry of very troubling proportions, it seems to me, is [in] the nature of today’s armed forces; 42 percent of today’s Army enlistees are ethnic or racial minorities—42 percent. In the general population in the eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old age cohort, nearly 50 percent of people … have had some exposure to college education. In that same cohort in the U.S. military today … the percentage of people who’ve had some kind [of] exposure to college education is 6.5 percent. So … the vast majority of our society … has in effect hired some of the least advantaged of our fellow citizens to conduct some of our most dangerous business. And I think that is an unstable situation, and one that does threaten, in the long run, the health of our democracy.

John Alderice
on the psychology and politics of terrorism

Alderdice, a politician in Northern Ireland and a psychiatrist, argued that the underlying psychology of terrorism often reflects thwarted desires for respect.

And, perhaps one of the most moving things … was when Martin McGuinness [the Irish Republican Army leader] started talking about what he’d really, really wanted to do when he was a little boy. He wanted to be a motor mechanic. More than anything else, he wanted to fix cars. And when he was sixteen and he had finished up at school, he didn’t go on to do his later exams; he went to the local garage and he said, “I’d like a job.” And the guy says, “Don’t have a job for you, son.” He said, “No, no, I understand you might not have a job. But just, you know, keep me in mind, and when a job comes up—you know.” He says, “Look, son, you don’t understand. I’m never going to employ you. You’re a Catholic.”

But that wasn’t the really striking bit. The really striking bit was when Martin McGuinness said, “You know, I sometimes wonder: If I got that job, would I ever have got involved in all the things I got involved in subsequently?” Now, for a man who not only runs Sinn Féin but runs the IRA, that is a big statement, a very striking statement.

And what does it say? It says that it’s not about whether he got money for being employed as a mechanic, that it would have kept him from getting involved in paramilitarism. It was the humiliation and the disrespect—that was what was absolutely critical.

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