Placeholder on Civil-Military Relations

Several days ago I mentioned SecDef Robert Gates's important speech about the widening gap between the "narrow sliver" of Americans who have anything personally at stake in the country's ongoing wars, and all the rest of us. The latter group -- the huge majority -- isn't even touched by the wars financially, since taxes haven't gone up to cover their costs.

A ton of valuable replies have come in, but for work-and-travel reasons I have not been able to reply, edit, or share many of them (or on other pending topics). Two items for the moment:

1) That Joint Forces Quarterly article. For a very long time -- essentially, throughout the entire post-Vietnam, post-civilian draft, volunteer-service era that started in the early 1970s -- people in and around the military have debated how much the "narrow sliver" phenomenon matters. For a 1997 report in the Atlantic (by the estimable Tom Ricks), see here. For paired arguments by (now Senator) James Webb and me in the magazine in 1980 see here and here. With ten more minutes I would find ten more links.

The latest big development on this front is an article in a military journal that is being seen as either a re-assertion of military professional independence, or a dangerous challenge to civilian authority. The article is here. You can follow debate starting with a critical assessment at Fabius Maximus here. More later on this.

Recommended Reading

2) The "spreading the burden" argument. After the jump is a long reader message that represents many, many I have received. It argues for a resurrection of broad national-service programs (not military-only). Or at least a debate about this idea. For reasons I'll explain later, I just don't think this is politically imaginable in today's America. But the problem this writer and many others address is real.

Here is the reader message that represents many I have received (and will quote from selectively later on):

>>I couldn't agree more that Secy Gates speech is a very important one in a long line of thoughtful speeches. And, in that context, I wanted to bounce something off of you for consideration.

It's time for mandatory public service (not military, just govt) in America, and Pres Obama should announce it as the SOTU speech in early 2011.

Why now?

- The military is becoming more disconnected from society...and in ways that should concern us all (we don't connect; we don't really understand thre breadth of casualties from this war; we don't understand the beauty, discipline and drudgery of military life; we don't understand the consequences of a presidential speech). When you have served in the military, its hard to not turn on the channel when the President is speaking from the Oval Office. His words have consequences.

- The Tea Party. Once you get beyond the incoherence/contradictions of their "platform" (admittedly, it takes a while), you start to think about how can we better educate the average American. Now, I would like to see a President of the United States stand up on early February and announce we are going to require every American between 18 and 30 to dedicate 2 years of their lives to serving in the government...just like our close allies, the Israelis! Those Tea Partiers love their country, I am sure they will embrace this.

- The Left. Okay, so they dont have to join the military. But, it sure would be nice for the pro-government crowd to understand how government really works; the law of unintended consequences; the hard work of turning a law into a regulation into a policy (and into contracts) that then achieve what you want them to achieve. (I'd also like to see them join the military and embrace that too).

In sum, I want to see who is against this idea, and why...and draw that discussion out in the open. We have big problems right now; lets bring more on board to help solve them.

I also think this has the chance to create a new coalition of support that doesnt break along traditional left and right lines. I had the fortune to be with a small group of active and retired (medical) officers in Boston last week. I had a post dinner conversation with Gen (Ret) Dave McKiernan, former commander of all US and intl forces in Afghanistant. I am retired AF (and center-left leaning); McKiernan is center-right. We are both on board with this idea (and both lamenting the smaller and smaller circle of recruits from which the military draws.

I would be very interested in your thoughts.<<

My thoughts, for starters, resemble those about a lot of other ideas for reforming America. (Eg, equalizing funding across school districts, so we don't have the pernicious "them that haves, gets" patterns even in our public school system.) That is: beneficial in concept, almost inconceivable in reality. But more to discuss in upcoming installments.