The Tragedy of the American Military
In the January/February issue, James Fallows examined the consequences—namely, lost wars—of the growing distance between the American public and the country’s armed forces.
All civilians, from the president on down, are getting in the habit of offering the military … “overblown, unlimited praise” instead of the kind of detailed and sometimes critical scrutiny—the investment of attention—they deserve. And so we continue to throw money at the Pentagon for missions we barely understand or acknowledge, and only become alarmed when U.S. casualties occur, which ratchets up the sense of guilt while creating grievances among career military members that their fellow citizens have no idea what they experience, which is true.
We have become, says Fallows, a “chickenhawk nation,” one that wages and ends wars via remote control and without a whole lot of debate.
What to do about it? Some people (myself included) think a restoration of the idea of national service—not a draft, and not universal military conscription, but well-funded opportunities for most young Americans to spend a brief period of time in civilian or military service as a quasi-universal right of passage—would help enormously. Barring that, a reassertion of the idea that civilian control of the military is essential to civil health should replace the sort of cringing and begging a lot of politicians now express when addressing the armed forces, which undermines real respect on everyone’s part. And just as importantly, Americans need to take the military and its often violent role seriously enough to pay close attention to it—respectfully, but not superficially—even when they are not directly and personally affected by its triumphs, failures, and risks. That’s more difficult in an age of shadowy limited wars waged by special forces and drones. But it’s the only way to avoid waking up some fine day and realizing we’ve created, authorized, and ritualistically praised a war machine we barely recognize as our own.