Defense Secretary Gates on War and Society

At some point soon, Bob Gates will be ending his long career of public service. Though once a subject of deep suspicion on the Left because of his service in the equally suspect CIA of the Reagan-Bush 41 years, he will end his career as a rare figure of public integrity, who was devoted to service and the interests of his nation above any form of  ideological purity or partisanship. His too little discussed speech at Duke University this past September approached, but did not fully confront the issue of military empire and political decadence that the U.S. now faces. The empire persists and expands in the worldwide network of bases and the frequency of military conflict, perpetuated by the self-confirming belief that they must be maintained for fear of the consequences of their loss.  The political decadence has several components. One is the maintenance of only a professional army through periods of repeated and extended warfare.

In The Political and the Wretched I wrote:

If the past decade has persuaded me of anything, it is that a healthy, powerful democracy, if it is not to be led astray into empire, if it is not to fall into decadence, should not rely in time of war on a professional, standing army. Any extended conflict should require the full commitment of the nation’s resources, there being no greater and more pronounced resource than the bodily and mental investment of the citizenry. If the leadership of a nation will pursue wars that its people will not support through obligatory military service, then there is something wrong with the war, the leadership, or the nation. And if wars are fought – two even! – for nearly a decade, with most of the population able to live their lives as if the conflicts were those not of their own, but of foreign nations, among peoples they do not know and with whom they have no personal connection….

well, then, I suggested, we would witness some of the kinds of cultural disconnects that we do in the U.S. in this first decade of the twenty-first century. Here is Gates providing some historical context.

So for the next few minutes, I’d like to discuss the state of America’s all-volunteer force, reflecting on its achievements while at the same time considering the dilemmas and consequences that go with having so few fighting our wars for so long. These are issues that must be acknowledged, and in some cases dealt with, if we are going to sustain the kind of military America needs in this complex and, I believe, even more dangerous 21st century.

First, some brief historical context. From America’s founding until the end of World War II, this country maintained small standing armies that would be filled out with mass conscription in the case of war. Consider that in the late 1930s, even as World War II loomed, the U.S. Army ranked 17th in the world in size, right behind Romania. That came to an end with the Cold War, when America retained a large, permanent military by continuing to rely on the draft even in peacetime.

Back then, apart from heroism on the battlefield, the act of simply being in the military was nothing extraordinary or remarkable. It was not considered a sign of uncommon patriotism or character. It was just something a healthy young man was expected to do if called upon, just as his father and grandfather had likely done in the two world wars.

Among those who ended up in the military in those early years of the Cold War were people like Elvis Presley and Willie Mays, movie stars, future congressmen, and business executives. The possibility of being drafted encouraged many to sign up so they could have more control over their fate. As I can speak from personal experience, the reality of military service – and whether to embrace it, avoid it, or delay it – was something most American men at some point had to confront.

The ethos of service, reinforced by the strong arm of compulsion, extended to elite settings as well. A prominent military historian once noted that of his roughly 750 classmates in the Princeton University class of 1956, more than 400 went on to some form of military service – a group that included a future Harvard President, a governor of Delaware, and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times. That same year, more than 1,000 cadets were trained by Stanford University’s ROTC program.

The controversy associated with the Vietnam War and the bitterness over who avoided the draft and who did not, led to a number of major changes in our military and in American society. One of them was the end of conscription and the beginning of the All-Volunteer Force under President Nixon.

Over the past four decades, after a difficult transition period during the 1970s, the all-volunteer experiment has proven to be a remarkable success. The doubts – and there were many inside and outside the military – were largely overcome. Indeed, the United States would not be able to sustain complex, protracted missions like Iraq and Afghanistan at such a high standard of military performance without the dedication of seasoned professionals who chose to serve – and keep on serving. Whatever shortcomings there may have been in Iraq and Afghanistan stemmed from failures and miscalculations at the top, not those doing the fighting and the leading on the ground. It has taken every ounce of our troops’ skill, initiative and commitment to battle a cunning and adaptive enemy at the front while overcoming bureaucratic lassitude and sometimes worse at the rear.

A key factor in this success is experience. Consider that, according to one study, in 1969 less than 20 percent of enlisted Army soldiers had more than four years of experience. Today, it is more than 50 percent. Going back to compulsory service, in addition to being politically impossible, is highly impractical given the kinds of technical skills, experience, and attributes needed to be successful on the battlefield in the 21st century. For that reason, reinstituting the draft is overwhelmingly opposed by the military’s leadership.

Nonetheless, we should not ignore the broader, long-term consequences of waging these protracted military campaigns employing – and re-employing – such a small portion of our society in the effort.

Gates goes on to talk about both the extraordinary quality and achievements of the all-volunteer force and the extraordinary stresses on it as a consequence of Afghanistan and Iraq. He then approaches the subject of what an all-volunteer military means for the society that sustains it and relies on it, but that ignores and becomes alienated from it.

It is also true, however, that whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction.  A distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally.  Even after 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.  In fact, with each passing decade fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle.  According to one study, in 1988 about 40 percent of 18 year olds had a veteran parent.  By 2000 the share had dropped to 18 percent, and is projected to fall below 10 percent in the future….

Having said that, the nearly four decades of all-volunteer force has reinforced a series of demographic, cultural, and institutional shifts affecting who is most likely to serve and from where.  Studies have shown that one of the biggest factors in propensity to join the military is growing up near those who have or are serving.  In this country, that propensity to serve is most pronounced in the South and the Mountain West, and in rural areas and small towns nationwide – a propensity that well exceeds these communities’ portion of the population as a whole.  Concurrently, the percentage of the force from the Northeast, the West Coast, and major cities continues to decline.  I am also struck by how many young troops I meet grew up in military families, and by the large number of our senior officers whose children are in uniform – including the recent commander of all U.S. Forces in Iraq whose son was seriously wounded in the war….

…there is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.

Gates chose not to pursue any consideration of what might be appropriate or necessary responses to these developments. The problem for the U.S., as in so many difficult areas now, is that at a time when solutions to this problem are most needed, the nation’s political culture is least fit to provide them. That itself may be one of the defining characteristics and consequences of the downward spiral into decadence.

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