Readers on the 'Tragedy of the American Military,' No. 1

"It is a dangerous slope we are on where we worship the troops, have no clue what they do, or why, and as along as we don't need to know, we are happy," a West Point graduate writes.

Last night my article on "The Tragedy of the American Military" went online. The article is here; an accompanying reading list is here; the "Gary Hart memo" that I mention in the article is here. And a video on how the troubled F-35 fighter plane exemplifies larger Pentagon problems is here.

Rather than wait a few days to quote reader mail, I'm going to dig right in and start doing so now, since so much has arrived with such range and intensity of argument. I'll do two or three per installment.

From a West Point graduate who became a successful business executive:

I am an [post-Vietnam era] West Point grad. Resigned after 5 years.

Your article is spot on. I often wonder what the rest of the world thinks of us when at each major sporting event, we have fly overs of fighter planes, B-52s, Apache helicopters and legions of troops getting awards at halftime.

I see in my classmates a total divorce from civilian reality. They live in a rarefied world where they are the only ones who are honest, law abiding, and religious.

They totally disdain social welfare programs as they receive health benefits to death, commissary privileges, and pensions. In their view, civilians are not worthy of these programs.

It is a dangerous slope we are on where we worship the troops, have no clue what they do, or why, and as along as we don't need to know, we are happy.

I hope your article stirs discussion. I fear it won't. The coup may in fact be coming.

From a reader in the West:

I am Vietnam Vet of two tours ('68-70). I strongly believe at least some of the issues regarding  present day military-civilian interactions is ownership. There is none.

As you stated at the beginning of your article: Having another war is OK as long as someone else is going to do the fighting. If a draft had been in place at the beginning of the Iraq War, the war might not have started or not have gone on as long as it did and the same would hold true for the Afghan war.

In this last midterm elections only 33.6 percent (nationally and some states were as low as 22 percent) of the electorate showed up to vote. In my mind that is total disrespect towards those whom the fans cheer for at any of the respective sporting events.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were sold to the American populace stating these military actions are being fought to preserve American Freedoms and way a of life, yet the electorate throws their right to vote in the circular file.

From Jamie Dodson in Alabama:

As a retired Army officer I concur with your overall assessment and see Gary Hart’s three recommendations as key. Of the three, I see restoring the military-civilian relationship as the most vital.

I strongly support the return of the draft and the citizen soldier. That’s a tall order considering our high tech military. It takes a great deal of time to train soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen/women. So how long would our new draft have to be—three years?

The draft changed my life for the better, and I rose through the ranks to retire as a field grade officer. I feel certain that it could also do wonders for many of our nation’s youth—especially those of the elite. And perhaps by extension, keep us out of unnecessary conflicts.

On this last reader's point, I agree in principle that a broadly based draft might rebuild a connection between the citizenry and its military, as well as creating additional drag against launching "wars of choice." In the current issue, Joseph Epstein writes about what such a draft meant for the America of the early Cold War era.

But as a practical matter, I think there is simply zero possibility that the United States will adopt compulsory service of any sort, absent some change in world circumstances no one can now foresee. Therefore I view this as a thought experiment rather than as a real option.

* * *

Three process notes:

1) Comments. For reasons explained here and here, I've never allowed comments on my portion of The Atlantic's site, although comments are enabled on my article itself. Instead I enjoy receiving, quoting, and learning from reader emails, as I am doing here and will in coming days. For me this approach offers most of the benefits of a comments section, including exposing a range of informed (or sometimes only passionate) response, without the drawbacks that are on display in many unmoderated comment sites.

A carefully moderated comments site, like the one that Ta-Nehisi Coates has operated over the years, is in principle the best solution of all. But I've never been willing to commit the time to run a site that way.

2) American Futures. I'm tagging this post as part of our American Futures series, because we're really talking about another part of our ongoing question about the civic fiber of the country. It's different in nature from the other entries but it meant to get at similar long-term themes.

3) Editing. Some messages I quote originally began with something like "Great story" or "I'm glad you wrote this!" On principle I edit most of this out. Although I crave compliments as much as the next person, it just seems creepy to quote them about yourself. Thus when I leave in positive comments, as I have in a message here, it's either because they're addressed at some criticism I've posted, or because they seem germane to the larger point the reader is making. I realize that it is a form of humblebrag to raise this point at all, but it seemed part of explaining the reader/writer interaction on which online forums rely.

Thanks for these reader messages. That's all for the process notes. More comments on the substance of civil-military issues coming shortly.

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