What the Public Owes the Military—And Is Not Providing During This Election Year

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Image from the cover of our January issue last year

Among the lost opportunities in this crazed electoral system is any real discussion of the topic all candidates claim to value above all others: namely, the aims toward which the United States commits force, the strategies and weapons and doctrines with which it does so, and the obligations it owes to the one percent of the population exposed to life-and-death risks in the country’s name.

This was the theme I addressed early last year in The Tragedy of the American Military (for which my working title was “Chickenhawk Nation”) and that readers have been discussing over the months in this thread.

Now a note from a young veteran about why serious attention to the realities of the military matters — and despite all the “Salute to the Heroes!” halftime observances, is still not taking place. In addition to the many substantive points this reader makes, I highlight it to illustrate a chasm. On the one side of the divide is a very small proportion of Americans who wrestle with the complexity of military issues, in many cases because they’re personally exposed to them. On the other side are most of the rest of us, with flip “boots on the grounds” comments and political sloganeering about “being tough” and “winning again.”

Over to the reader:

I've had your article "The Tragedy of the American Military" bookmarked for several months but just now got around to reading it….

It's not an easy task to "call out" the military establishment but it needs to be done. You note in your article "those who did not serve are almost invariably afraid to criticize the military because of their not having served." I wonder if part of this hesitancy might derive from or be heightened by the actions of some veterans and current service-members who are quick to point out when people they disagree with haven't served, as an attempt to de-legitimize their views or attack their character.

As an example, the internet is rife with commenters dismissing the new Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning as not suited for the job simply because he hasn't served, despite his impressive resume and qualifications. The same type of vitriolic comments are frequently directed at Secretary Carter and other civilians within the DOD, as if prior military service is the most important factor in determining someone's qualifications or even their worth as a person.

In my 5 years (and counting) in the National Guard, ROTC, and Army Reserves I've run into manifestations of this looking-down-the-nose attitude in many different places, although it seems to be more prevalent within active duty circles than among the weekend warrior types.

It's rare to go a day in the Army without hearing at least one reference to the oft-quoted 1% statistic.  I once had a commander who frequently remarked that he hates "dirty nasty civilians." I think a certain amount of contempt for laziness and the other diseases of modern society is a natural result of the disciplined, regimented lifestyle that one has to adopt in the military, but taken to the extreme this contempt becomes generalized and applied towards civilians as a whole, the very people whom we're sworn to protect. Actions like these from the veteran community leave a bad taste in the mouth and certainly don't add anything positive to the discussion.

This elitist attitude, while understandable, is perhaps even more detrimental for those who perpetuate it than the target of their scorn.


As you've pointed out in your article, a military exempt from public scrutiny is a military prone to waste, fraud, and abuse. One of the hallmarks of our democratic system of government is the presence of checks and balances, and I can't help but feel that there are largely no such checks and balances on our military.

  I am painfully aware of the ramifications of the issues you describe, but am effectively muzzled (as are many) from speaking out by fear of career or UCMJ repercussions. In the Army we're encouraged to refrain from being vocally political, especially in regards to the organization we are a part of. There's an unwritten code of silence which keeps us from speaking out against those in charge. We're encouraged to bring up issues first within our chain of command, and only if that fails can we then seek out an alternate audience.

These restrictions, unwritten or not, are there for good reason - in order for the military machine to function effectively, the utmost discipline and order must be maintained, and public criticism of your superiors doubtless erodes the respect necessary for discipline to be unhesitating and complete. But the unfortunate side effect of this is that those who are most affected by problems of leadership or administration have the least ability to do or say anything about those problems.

At the point in my career I find myself, nearing a decision to re-up or get out, I feel faced with something akin to the whistleblower's dilemma: do I stay in and attempt to fight for change from within, and risk spinning my wheels against entrenched bureaucracy and rampant sycophancy, or do I part ways with the organization I love and try to affect change from without, but risk being dismissed as a pariah, or ignored because of the shortness of my time in service and my enlisted rank? [JF note: the classic study on this dilemma is of course Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States.]

Some who have found themselves in a similar place have chosen to stay in, but this is not without risk. Col. David Hackworth, a Vietnam-era hero and one of the finest officers the Army has seen (whose book "About Face" I hope you've read,)[JF: yes] chose to fight for change from within, but it effectively cost him his career and won him CID surveillance and threats of court-martial.

I have (as do most) a love-hate relationship with the Army, but something about it keeps me coming back for more, and so I will likely try to stick it out until I'm too old or unfit for service and do my best to make a difference from within. But the challenges are many and my voice is weak, and it will remain so until I have more of a base of experience and rank to speak from.

I beg you to keep writing on this subject. I feel that those with a voice who feel strongly about issues facing their countrymen have a civic duty to use that voice. Calls for accountability from those within the military or veterans often seem to go unheard, but perhaps the same calls from someone from without might have more of an impact. As you note in your article, the only things that seem to garner any sustained or meaningful political attention these days are scandals, and many of the issues plaguing the military seem far too entrenched and widespread to be considered scandals, at least by those who serve. I feel that more mainstream coverage of the administrative and bureaucratic issues facing our service-members, by civilians, would grant legitimacy to our complaints and help shine a light on the problems in our organization.

No one can threaten [outsiders] with a court-martial or dismiss you as a disgruntled veteran for speaking out, so I kindly ask that you keep that in mind and continue to write for those of us who would be put in a bad spot by doing so ourselves.


In my article I defined a Chickenhawk Nation as one willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. That kind of serious attention is what the reader, along with others like him I have heard from, is asking from the other 99% of us.