SECDEF: Wars 'Remain An Abstraction' for Most Americans

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I've mentioned several times (for instance, here) impressive speeches by the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, about weapons, strategy, and national interest. I'm not blanket endorsing everything he's done in office; I am saying that, compared with other Cabinet officials in recent memory, he's done a better and more sustained job of laying out a way to think about major national issues.

He delivered another important speech last week, at Duke, about the continuing separation between the "narrow sliver of our population" that serves in the military and the rest of America. Eg. 

We should not ignore the broader, long-term consequences of waging these protracted military campaigns employing - and re-employing - such a small portion of our society in the effort.... [W]hatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] remain an abstraction.  A distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally.  Even after 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.  In fact, with each passing decade fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle.

He closed by "speaking about another narrow sliver of our population, those attending and graduating from our nation's most selective and academically demanding universities," and urging them to consider national service. ROTC might be coming back to their campuses, he said, but that "will not do much good without the willingness of our nation's most gifted students to step forward.  Men and women such as you." Worth reading. Full text here. And, Michael Nelson of Rhodes College has a good essay on larger citizen/soldier relations here. Of course this will lead us back soon to previous discussions of the forces holding American society together or pushing it apart.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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