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Reinventing the Military

December 12, 1996

The U.S. Armed Forces are struggling to define their role in the wake of the Cold War: the superpower-enemy is gone, missions are often more civilian than military, sexual-harassment scandals are proliferating, and the military budget may soon be significantly reduced. Since the Second World War the military has repeatedly had to rethink its function in order to keep pace with our rapidly changing world, and The Atlantic has often reported on the military's efforts to reinvent itself. The results, both in the past and the present, have been explorations of the American military's unique -- and some say threatened -- culture.

In "You're in the Army -- Again" (January, 1949), Edgar L. Jones criticized the Army for pretending that it is a "glorified trade school" where soldiers are all treated with respect and instilled with the values of society at large. Jones argued that what is really taught in the Army is "discipline as harsh and as undemocratic as is necessary to take care of all eventualities." In a time of a newly instituted peacetime draft, Jones was skeptical of the Army's attempt to "humanize" itself. "They know . . . that no amount of sugar-coating can disguise the fact that military life of necessity must be in harsh opposition to the democratic virtues of undisciplined civilian life."

James Fallows examined the effects of the switch from a conscripted to an all-volunteer force in "The Civilianization of the Army" (April, 1981), and concluded that the Army has been severely weakened. The wealthy and highly educated now avoid the Army in droves, leaving poorer whites and blacks, with much less education and few other job prospects, to fill the military. Changes meant to encourage people to volunteer -- easier basic training, for example, along with off-base housing for some and more comfortable barracks for others -- have inhibited the development of the loyalty and trust essential for success on the battlefield. A position in the Army has become, Fallows argued, "just another job" -- one that no longer engenders national pride.

The Armed Forces represent one of the most successful examples of racial integration in the country, military sociologist Charles Moskos argued in "Success Story: Blacks in the Military" (May, 1986). Orders are almost always obeyed in the military; as a result, when President Truman mandated the end of racial segregation in the Armed Forces in 1948, those in charge listened. Now blacks are well-represented in the upper reaches of the Army and are much more likely to occupy positions of authority there than in the outside world. On average, blacks who enter the Army are better-educated than white recruits; for many blacks, the Army allows a social mobility unavailable anywhere else in this country.

In "Army Women" (August, 1990), Moskos turned his attention to the changing roles of women in the Army and the resulting debate about whether they should be allowed to take part in combat. Moskos interviewed many of the women who had taken part in the 1989 invasion of Panama, including some who had accidentally ended up in military skirmishes. Most agreed that their exclusion from combat roles made it more difficult for them to obtain respect and promotion through the Army ranks. Moskos concluded that those advocating that women should be allowed to choose whether to join a combat division still have some thinking to do.

To allow women but not men the option of entering or not entering the combat arms would -- rightly or wrongly -- cause immense resentment among male soldiers; in a single stroke it would diminish the status and respect that female soldiers have achieved. To allow both sexes to choose whether or not to go into combat would be the end of an effective military force.

Now that the Cold War is over, what will happen to our huge -- and expensive -- military establishment? In "Colonel Dunlap's Coup" (January, 1993), Thomas E. Ricks wrote that the Armed Forces have kept military expenditures at Cold War-era levels by allowing a "worrisome drift . . . into civilian affairs"; he cited as examples the humanitarian mission to Somalia and the relief mission after Hurricane Andrew. Many in the military are concerned that increasing involvement in civilian affairs will damage their ability to fight; Ricks argued that a more serious result could be the "possible erosion of distinctions between the military and civil society."

In "Fort Leavenworth and the Eclipse of Nationhood" (September, 1996), Robert Kaplan visited the fort where virtually all of the military's top officers have trained and reported on the military's preparations for its future. Kaplan found a kind of intellectual and technological elite who delve into classic military and historical texts to understand what future wars might bring while also immersing themselves in the complex technologies of modern warfare. As foreign policy becomes more difficult to comprehend, Kaplan reported, the military is gaining more power, since "war, peacekeeping, famine relief, and the like are becoming too complex for civilian managers." But at the same time, Kaplan argued, a world of transnational character is taking shape and our military -- grounded in the idea of our country as a discrete nation-state with distinct geographical boundaries -- may not be able to keep up.

Read an interview with Thomas E. Ricks on the recent Army sex scandals.

See the Flashbacks archive.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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