What's the Matter With the American Military?

Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has served in the country's recent wars. But if that's a problem, what's the solution?

Johansen Laurel/U.S. Navy/Reuters

When I first visited Afghanistan in 1996, to write an article about al-Qaeda training camps outside Jalalabad, an Afghan man called my attention to the Tora Bora mountains. “There are foreigners up there, training for war,” he said. “If we Afghans go up there, they’ll kill us. And this is our country. Something bad is going to come from this.”

Indeed it did. Almost 20 years after that conversation, I have sworn off war reporting but still care deeply about Afghanistan. I refused to cover the Iraq War because I was so opposed to it, but Afghanistan was a different matter. Not only were the planners of the 9/11 attacks clearly holed up there, but I thought that the United States might be able to do a lot of good in a nation that was locked in a cycle of civil war and poverty. I grew up during Vietnam and am liberal in my politics, but I watched NATO save Bosnia from genocide and firmly believe in military intervention when civilian lives are in danger. And that was the case during Afghanistan’s long, horrible civil war.

It’s too early to tell if we changed Afghanistan, but Afghanistan certainly changed us. James Fallows, in his ambitious article for The Atlantic on the “tragedy of the American military,” outlines one of the most dangerous of those changes: a dysfunctional divide between the American public and its military. According to Fallows, the public is disengaged, the military is indulged with a huge budget, and arms manufacturers swoop in to pick up lucrative contracts. As a result, Congress approves ridiculously expensive programs, like the F-35 fighter jet, that do not make Americans safer but serve powerful corporate interests. Fallows makes a devastating case against the F-35, but it’s no more devastating than the cases that could be made against undue corporate influence on government officials involved in approving bank bailouts or the Keystone XL pipeline. Many a congressman can be bought with a steak dinner and a back rub, and weapons manufacturers feel just as entitled to this form of corruption as anyone else.

Still, these systemic problems are not good for America's precious democracy, and Fallows lays much of the blame at the feet of an apathetic citizenry. It is often observed that participation in the U.S. military is so low that the public barely even knows when the country is at war. The figure that one hears over and over—deployed for different reasons by both conservatives and liberals—is that less than 1 percent of the American public has served with the military in the country’s recent wars. If more people served, the theory goes, the public would have some skin in the game, and the United States wouldn’t go to war so ‘easily.’ (In fact, there were enormous street protests in New York City before the Iraq War and vehement opposition to a U.S. invasion in the liberal press—and rightly so.) Fallows takes this idea and puts a particularly sharp edge on it: “Because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action,” he writes, “the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.”

It’s an appealing theory that persists despite the fact that it’s demonstrably untrue. By the end of World War II, nearly 10 percent of Americans were on active military duty. That should have resulted in massive public resistance to the war, but it was exactly the opposite. As the political scientist Adam Berinsky writes in In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq, the American people at the time “wanted to continue fighting until victory was complete.” Between December 31, 1944 and January 4, 1945, he notes, Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion “asked, ‘If Hitler offered to make peace now and would give up all land he has conquered, should we try to work out a peace or should we go on fighting until the German army is completely defeated?’ … 73 percent of the public expressed support for the stated U.S. policy of unconditional surrender.” Clearly, the size of the military is not a deciding factor in whether a war is unpopular. The corollary idea—that personal exposure to war invariably turns people against it—is a common one that doesn’t bear scrutiny either. Most, though not all, of the courageous people I know in the peace movement have no connection to the military. And in my experience, the most ardent defenders of our recent wars are often the very soldiers and families who have borne the brunt of their effects. In fact, many of the vets I was in combat with say that they miss war, and one complained bitterly that after the United States pulls out of Afghanistan, there will be nowhere left to fight.

It’s also dangerous to arrive at the “right” conclusions through the wrong logic. For argument’s sake, let’s accept the proposition that the low level of public involvement in the military—less than 1 percent—explains public apathy about the war. Fine. But what’s the solution? Saying that 1 percent is too low implies that the figure should be higher. But how high? Five percent? Ten? Does the United States really need an army of 5 million people? Do Americans really want to pay for that?

Maybe when people get upset about the 1-percent figure, what they’re really getting upset about is the lack of a military draft. National service (with a military option) would be an amazing way to unify this country. But many Vietnam-era friends of mine are convinced that a military draft would spur the public to rise up and stop wars—or prevent wars from starting in the first place. It might do that, but it raises enormous ethical issues when people who oppose war advocate for compulsory military service in order to achieve a political goal that they have failed to achieve through political means. Because the United States is a democratic country, its military does not decide when and where to go to war; we the people do. We elect civilian leaders who authorize war on our behalf, and then we pay for it. Threatening young people with the draft as a way to pressure a government we elected to do the right thing seems like a dubious way to promote peace.

The other refrain one hears from time to time—also mentioned in Fallows’s article—is that if the children of lawmakers served in the military, Congress wouldn’t declare war so often. It’s an untestable assertion, but even if it were true, what are people who say this actually advocating? That we have compulsory military service for the children of members of Congress? That only representatives with children in the armed forces get to vote? Of course not. It’s a rhetorical point meant to underline the gulf between those who declare war and those who fight it. But eventually it becomes dishonest to keep pointing out problems when one would likely be opposed to all the potential solutions.

In the 1960s and 70s, the draft galvanized political opposition to the Vietnam War and ultimately helped force the U.S. government to negotiate a peace settlement and pull out of the conflict. Some people think that a reinstated draft would have the same effect now, but I doubt it. The crucial difference between America’s recent wars and Vietnam is not the absence of a draft but the fact that in 2001—like in World War II—the United States suffered a devastating attack on American soil. After 9/11, enlistment rates were high enough that the U.S. didn’t need a draft. Had the North Vietnamese attacked the United States in 1963 and killed thousands, there might not have been a need for a draft either. But they didn’t. And the U.S. government was left to sell an unpopular war that bears little resemblance to the war in Afghanistan. Put another way: The draft has never prevented the United States from going to war, but attacks on U.S. soil have always sent America to war. That makes Afghanistan more like World War II than Vietnam.

Fallows also invokes the accepted wisdom that the United States “lost” the wars it just fought. He captures the sentiments of many Americans when he writes: “Yet repeatedly [the U.S. military] has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war.” One of the most powerful arguments against the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan has been that it lacked any clear definition of “winning.” But if we accept the premise that there’s no definition of winning, then there’s no definition of losing, either, and we forfeit the right to use either word. You can’t “lose” a race that has no finish line.

If, however, “winning” is defined as achieving what most Americans wanted immediately after the 9/11 attacks, then the calculus changes. Think back to the grief and rage of that period. Recall the horror of those planes hitting the towers, of people leaping to their deaths, of several hundred cops and firemen dying with 2,000 civilians as the buildings collapsed. In those terrible days, many people would have defined “winning” as killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, decimating al-Qaeda’s leadership, and toppling the Taliban regime. Which is exactly what we did.

More broadly, did the United States lose the War on Terror? It’s a very important question, but it’s not the only one of its kind. Did the United States lose the war on drugs? On poverty? On crime? Some wars have no endpoint and are incredibly costly, but we fight them anyway because it seems dangerous or immoral not to. Clearly, much of the American public now feels that the War on Terror is no longer worth fighting. Across the political spectrum, people want to bring the troops home. I don’t believe journalists should personally judge national policy, but I wholeheartedly understand why people feel this way.

Nevertheless, facile truths and unexamined premises shouldn’t be used to condemn wars any more than they should be used to justify them. War is too serious a business to be filtered through politics or even personal belief. Like science or justice, it should be implacably neutral. Anything less fails to honor the many lives, both civilian and military, that were lost in these conflicts.