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The Military and the Nation

August 5, 1999

The war in Kosovo will be remembered as a conflict fundamentally different from any that came before. It was conducted solely from the air, with not a single combat casualty. It has been called a "virtual war," one fought by no more than 1500 NATO pilots, whose targets were decided in video-conferences among the political and military leaders of the nations involved. And while most of the manpower and weaponry came from the United States, the war was fought under the umbrella of NATO command. If Kosovo has demonstrated the changing nature of war, it has also made clear that the role of the military is changing as well. Two Atlantic articles from recent years suggest visions of the military's future and point to ways in which the military may transform itself as it encounters a geopolitical situation that few would have imagined just ten years ago, when the Cold War ended.

In "Fort Leavenworth and the Eclipse of Nationhood" (September 1996), Robert D. Kaplan visits the fort that has been called "one of the most sacred places of the army's emotional geography," where almost all of the military's top officers have studied military doctrine and tried to envision the future of war by examining hypothetical and historical battle scenarios and running simulated war games. (Almost all of these exercises assume that the intervention will be an international one, in which the United States will form coalitions with France, Britain, Germany, and other countries rather than fighting alone.)

Fort Leavenworth was built in 1827 to guard the frontier. As Kaplan explains,

now that technology has bridged distances, Leavenworth is back on the frontier. Its computers disgorge advice to field commanders in Haiti, Rwanda, the Balkans, and wherever else American troops happen to be.... In planning for future conflicts Fort Leavenworth is helping to redefine the nation by redefining where its borders really are.

Kaplan foresees a future in which the gap between the military and society will widen, as war becomes more and more governed by technology, and technology becomes so complicated that civilian policy-makers won't be able to grasp it. But he also suggests that the "dissolving of distances" engendered by technology could eventually "dissolve the nation." America, protected by oceans, is a country whose very character has been defined by isolation. Now, "as nation-states begin the slow, inexorable process of melting into a transnational muck, the U.S. Army must maneuver to help the American nation preserve some semblance of a continental identity." The problem is, how does a military formed by and wedded to the idea of nation states adjust to this new mission? At Leavenworth, the army is trying to make the transition, but Kaplan is not optimistic.

The culmination of Fort Leavenworth's history may arrive on the day when the officers sit around their wooden conference tables, with Nathanael Greene, Douglas MacArthur, and other warriors of old looking down from the walls, and argue about what it is -- and who it is -- they are supposed to defend.

The task of protecting a new kind of nation could be made even more difficult if the military does not see eye-to-eye with those it is supposed to defend. In "The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society" (July 1997), Thomas E. Ricks argues that the army is becoming an increasingly insular subculture that views itself as distinct from and superior to the society is represents. "Society," Ricks says, "is now at odds with the classic military values of sacrifice, unity, self-discipline, and considering the interests of the group before those of the individual." The gap is a result of several interweaving factors. With the switch to an all-volunteer, professional force, Ricks explains,

It has become easier for the middle class in general and liberals in particular to follow their traditional impulse to turn away from the military. Within the military the end of the draft has also meant the end of its leavening effect: people from nonmilitary families were conscripted or spurred by the draft to enroll in ROTC, and found they actually liked military life.

The political and economic elite has, according to Ricks, "an uncertain grasp of military affairs," and takes little interest these days in the military except as an instrument of national policy. Finally, the military, which traditionally has been nonpartisan, is identifying itself more and more strongly with the fringes of the Republican Party. Ricks finds these trends worrisome.

The United States may be in danger of drifting into a situation in which the military is neither well understood nor well used and yet -- as was not true in previous eras of military estrangement -- is big, politically active, and frequently employed on a large scale to execute American foreign policy.

Whether or not Ricks and Kaplan are correct about the ways that both the military and America itself will change over the coming years, it seems clear that we should take an interest not just in what percentage of targets our precision-guided bombs destroy, but also in the larger issues of how the military as an institution is both shaping and adapting to a changing world.


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