SECDEF: Wars 'Remain An Abstraction' for Most Americans

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/10/secdef-wars-remain-an-abstraction-for-most-americans/63973/