U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Memorial Day Thought

In today’s New York Times, retired Army Lieutenant General and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and the historian David Kennedy published an op-ed entitled “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart.” Eikenberry and Kennedy identify a very real problem: the increasing social distance between our increasingly high-tech, all-volunteer military and the rest of American society.   Today’s military, they argue, presents “a disurbingly novel spectacle”:

a maximally powerful force operating with a minimum of citizen engagement and comprehension. Technology and popular culture have intersected to perverse effect. While Vietnam brought home the wrenching realities of war via television, today’s wars make extensive use of computers and robots, giving some civilians the decidedly false impression that the grind and horror of combat are things of the past. The media offer us images of drone pilots, thousands of miles from the fray, coolly and safely dispatching enemies in their electronic cross hairs. Hollywood depicts superhuman teams of Special Operations forces snuffing out their adversaries with clinical precision.

Eikenberry and Kennedy’s proposed solution to this problem is a return to some sort of military conscription. I think they’ve identified a very real problem but have, in a crucial way, misdiagnosed it.

Until 1940, the United States never had a peacetime draft.  And that first peacetime draft, in very short measure, became a wartime draft.  Though peacetime drafts returned during the Cold War era, the draft became massively unpopular during the Vietnam Era.  Our current all-volunteer force was, in large measure, crafted in reaction to that unpopularity.

Since then, the military has grown into, far and away, our most popular institution. Gallup polls suggest that three quarters of the public now have either a “great deal” or “quite a lot of” trust in the military. Small business rates at around 66%, the police at 56%, and every other institution — including organized religion, the medical system, the Supreme Court, public schools, and many others — garner less than 50% such support.

Our Memorial Day celebrations reflect this popularity. Facebook is filled with images that tell us that we are “the land of the free because of the brave.”  Our baseball teams dress in uniforms trimmed in camo.

But while Eikenberry and Kennedy think that the problem with this picture is that, despite its popularity, the military is distant from most of our lives, the problem I have with this picture is that the military has become so popular and so central to Americans’ understandings of both our country’s place in the world and the legitimate role of the state…even at home.

Eikenberry and Kennedy approvingly quote Samuel Adams’s warning that “a standing Army, however necessary it may be at some times, is always dangerous to the Liberties of the People. Soldiers are apt to consider themselves as a Body distinct from the rest of the Citizens.”  But they somehow don’t take Adams’s actual concerns seriously. Instead they draw the mistaken conclusion that a conscripted standing army responds to Adams’s worries.

In fact, the era of conscription was hardly a golden age for the place of the military in American life.  Indeed, the draft tore this country apart in the 1960s and 1970s. The very problems that Eikenberry and Kennedy describe have enabled much of American foreign policy in the decades since. In a very real sense, the separation of the military from American society is the price that we pay for our militarized foreign policy.

I suspect that Eikenberry and Kennedy are much more at peace with that foreign policy than I am. From where I sit, the problem is not the separation of the military from American society, but rather the exaggerated role that the military has come to play in American policy, society, and culture. We don’t need to reinstitute the draft. We need to demilitarize our state and society…though doing so seems like a truly impossible dream.

“The civilian-military divide erodes the sense of duty that is critical to the health of our democratic republic, where the most important office is that of the citizen,” write Eikenberry and Kennedy. Yet the office of citizen is not, or at least should not be, principally a military one.  Even as we memorialize our military dead on this holiday, we should be concerned about our tendency to reduce our notions of civic duty to the taking up of arms.  There are far more productive and valuable ways to fulfill one’s office as a citizen.

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. That’s a truly powerful and thought provoking piece.

    It brings to mind Andrew Bacevich’s concerns about the ways in which Americans grappled with Vietnam. His concern for the divide includes an analysis that, he argues, shows that it stretches back to the creation of West Point and the early officer corps. But I think he’d agree that the divide has become much worse since the creation of the All Volunteer Force.

    As for whether or not it can be fixed: I believe it can, but it will take considerable political will and capital to do so. Of course, the question is: what would that look like? I agree that a draft isn’t the best way, but it would also have to include a fundamental change in our foreign policy (which you also point out).

  2. Long-time reader, first-time poster …

    One of the problems in properly demilitarizing the public mindset is that a vital chunk of the US economy relies on military Keynesianism. That each state relies on military spending (supply contracts as well as bases) ensures a widespread dependence on a well-funded military and helps to conflate national (economic) health with that of the military. Arguing for that civic divorce means convincing many to work against their material interests. It’s not an impossible task (see Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?) but nevertheless a difficult one when there are so many with a stake in maintaining a fat military budget.

    • Wonderful point, Neil! We first need to disabuse ourselves of the Cold War notion that public works programs in infrastructure or conservation are “creeping socialism” while maintaining a massive public works program in national security is fine. Is that hypocrisy or just semantics?

      • Well, libertarians justify military Keynesianism on the basis of national defence preserving property rights, yet still deny public spending for other common goods as government overreach. So there is an ideological consistency there. It’s a dubious argument in practice given how much is devoted to military spending. To justify a military that size demands an interventionist foreign policy that runs counter to other libertarian beliefs (unless one really believes that the whole world is against America for no reason at all).

        That aside, then, it’s hard to justify public expenditures in what is primarily private industry yet deny it in matters of the common good, save for widespread use of doublethink and/or cloaking the military (and all its ties) in nobility and patriotism. Good thing an even scarier foe arrived on the scene once the Soviet Union retired from that role.

  3. Nice piece Ben. I thought, however, you were going to take the misdiagnosis in different direct. Or, to put it another way, I thought you might take the physician metaphor or diagnosis and prescription in different direction.

    As I see it, the problem is our nation’s limited collective imagination about “service.” And the Clinton era went some way toward a solution with its Americorps program. Too many regular citizens and denizens of the United States see military conscription/voluntarism as the only way they can bodily participate in American ideals. I say “only way” because giving one’s vote often feels ineffective or limited.

    The prescription, then, is something near what William James promoted more than 100 years ago: collective national service, a kind of “moral equivalent of war” (the title of James 1910 proposal).

    To be clear: I am decidedly *not* advocating for James’s program as he laid it out. Rather, we need something that gives people (young or old) a full participation in and sense of service to “the nation.” It has to be a program that takes care of people even if it doesn’t make them rich. It can’t *replace* civil service, but it could be a positive adjunct to it. It could be a kind of permanent WPA. But it should offer diverse experiences, including even shadowing civil servants such that more and more people understand that civil service is not a collective stealing from “the working people” and corporations.

    In sum, we need something other than military service to inspire our ideas of the nation. That would be a true memorial to those who died for a healthy “we the people” and their “general welfare.” – TL

    • Great response, Tim–I almost mentioned James in my above response, but I remembered reading a critique of it recently (no idea where) and so left it out.

      • Thanks Mark. I’ve brought up something like this here before, probably on one of Ray Haberski’s posts. But I wish national service (not merit-based) had been an option for me out of undergraduate. – TL

    • Thanks for bringing up James, Tim. James, in “The Moral Equivalent of War,” is committed to a notion of human nature as essentially warlike. While James puts himself in the “anti-military party,” his solution to what he sees as the problem of humanity’s essentially martial nature is to come up with non-military versions of military discipline, so that the “martial virtues” can be fulfilled without warfare. While I’m generally a fan of James, I’ve never found his project in this essay to be very attractive. It seems absolutely grounded in an early-twentieth century vision of masculinity (though James doesn’t say he’s only talking about men), with its focus on, e.g., “strenuous honor.” And the actual early twentieth century attempts to create non-military institutions that promote military-style discipline–e.g. totalitarian parties–are hardly attractive models for civic engagement.

      • My thinking in bringing it up was the usefulness of capturing the passions of youth (whether they manifest as militarism or otherwise). But I generally agree with you, Ben: James’s solution was contextually specific (hence my reference to Americorps, which is also not ideal).

  4. It costs a fortune to adequately train and equip a modern soldier; it is this economic fact that makes calls for a return to conscription rather academic. The era of massive armies is over with, at least for the time being. Whether the era of democracy* is also over now that states no longer need all that cannon fodder is the really interesting question.

    *In the sense of Carl Schmitt

  5. Of course conscription is perfectly compatible with the de-militarization of society. I hope to write a short essay arguing for the re-institution of the draft (together with some sort of optional national service, which would require a longer period of time…: hence my agreement with Tim on this) on egalitarian grounds during the summer. If anyone knows of argument one way or the other they find compelling, please, by all means let me know of them so I can take them into consideration. Thanks.

    • Well, as an historical matter of fact, mass conscription has, at least on occasion, led Americans to think less of the military as an institution. Just as modern industrial democracies with established churches tend to be less religious than the United States, so (most, though not all) modern industrial democracies with military conscription are less militarized. People in liberal societies don’t like being forced by the state to do stuff. So I certainly agree that a conscripted military is not incompatible with a less militarized society. My guess is that, had we invaded Iraq in 2003 with a conscripted military, the record-breaking demonstrations against the war in the weeks leading up to it would have been more intense. But I guess I don’t think that, as a general principle, introducing conscription will automatically lead to de-militarization. And the argument that it would sounds an awful lot like the kind of “increasing the contradictions” argument that I’m generally suspicious of. Certainly it’s not in the interest of the state doing the conscripting to make people less trusting of the military as an institution, even if that might eventually be an unintended consequence of conscription.

      • The argument I hope to make will not depend for its merits on its possible contribution to the decrease of militarization of society as it will be largely from egalitarian premises (including conceptions of fairness and justice). I would hope, however, that as a by-product or spillover effect, a more egalitarian participation in the armed services would lead to an increase in the number of individuals throughout society who seriously think through the reasons proffered for their deployment abroad, but I don’t intend to make an argument that hinges on the likelihood of such consequences (understanding of course that militarization is of course much wider and deeper than such considerations in any case).

      • Perhaps UMT is not the golden ticket to de-militarization, but it would certainly aid in the de-romanticization of violence and, thus, potentially encourage demilitarization. A father in my son’s dojo, a vet or Iraq and Afghanistan, won’t let his son play with nerf guns. Anecdotal, to be sure, but it does seem that armed service promotes or can promote a more realistic, even hesitant, attitude toward violence.

        Personally, I’m a big fan of UMT (Universal McDonald’s Training) as an egalitarian policy.

        Aren’t discussions of UMT a moot point, however, in our drone age? Perhaps it’s not the romanticization, but sanitation, of violence that’s the real problem.

        In any case, thanks for this great post, Ben.

  6. Patrick, if you were going to argue for some kind of draft, I guess I would also argue that women should be eligible for/subject to that draft, whether that’s a wartime draft for military service, a peacetime draft for military service, or some kind of mandatory conservation corps / service requirement.

  7. The prescription, then, is something near what William James promoted more than 100 years ago: collective national service, a kind of “moral equivalent of war” (the title of James 1910 proposal).

    Ah, yes. What one gentleman called “liberal fascism.”

    The undiscussed alternative is that we serve our nation best by assuming individual responsibility for our own well-being, and invest our time and efforts into the “little platoons” of family and community, that it is a healthy “society” that makes a nation great, not its government.

    Public service corps are still a top-down collectivism, not unlike the National Guard or the Army Corps of Engineers. Such structures and entities are useful of course, but making them universal and centralized is to subvert, not enhance, the spontaneous genius of true community, such as #Occupy.

  8. I real envy those,who are older than me, that did not have to deal with this national service drivel in their youth. When my older siblings were in college during the early eighties there was endless debates on campus about nuclear war, the situation in Central America, and abortion. Many, like our current president, thought that these debates were needlessly divisive and what the youth of this country needs is boring and non-political national service. By the time I started college in 1993 there was no debates on any issues, but instead the faculty just promoted the idea that everyone should serve their community and nation. As a result many in my generation don’t know or care about the current political issues of the day. I personally find reading about political issues much more fulfilling and interesting than doing mindless community service work that could probably be done better by paid workers.

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