Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
This week the nation celebrated the Memorial Day holiday. Major League Baseball teams even wore special Marine Corps desert camouflage caps and uniforms – as they will also likely wear for the 4th of July and September 11th – for games that day. Many announcers that day, and other fellow citizens, however, conflated Memorial Day – a day to honor those that have made the ultimate sacrifice in uniformed service to their country – with Veterans Day, which honors those who have served in uniform. Now this may seem like hair splitting to some, but there is a big difference in the purposes for these holidays and this confusion, or sometimes-awkward exclamations of "thank you for your service," is symptomatic of one, however small, fracture in the civil-military divide that exists in the United States in 2013.
Two op-eds in major newspapers of opinion and record this week have sought to address this civil-military divide. Retired Army lieutenant general and former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and Stanford historian David M. Kennedy in the New York Times argued that three factors have led to this chasm in relations between society and its military: first the end of the draft in 1973, second "technology has helped insulate civilians from the military" by making small numbers of service members increasingly more lethal than their more numerous predecessors, and third "the military's role has expanded far beyond the traditional battlefield" – particularly in areas related to counterinsurgency and cyber activities. In their words, "Together, these developments present a disturbingly novel spectacle: a maximally powerful force operating with a minimum of citizen engagement and comprehension."
For Eikenberry and Kennedy,
The modern force presents presidents with a moral hazard, making it easier for them to resort to arms with little concern for the economic consequences or political accountability. Meanwhile, Americans are happy to thank the volunteer soldiers who make it possible for them not to serve, and deem it is somehow unpatriotic to call their armed forces to task when things go awry.
In order to get a handle on this they call for a draft lottery and possibly restoring the "total force" concept of placing combat support and combat service support units in the reserves and National Guard as a brake on using force by making them politically difficult to mobilize and by calling on the Congress to reassert itself in the war-making process and in funding operations once begun.
Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal writing in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) for his part addressed national service – both military and nonmilitary. He states
Today… the duties of citizenship have fallen from the national agenda. Talk of service is largely confined to buoyant commencement ceremonies. And too often it is just that: talk.
Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military – a historic low during wartime – leading to a broad, complacent assumption that serving the nation is someone else's job. As we've allowed our understanding of service to be so narrowly limited to the uniform, we've forgotten Lincoln's audience: With the armies still fighting, the president exhorted a crowd of civilians on their duty to carry forward the nation's work.
He offers as a solution universal national service
that would create one million full-time civilian national-service positions for Americans ages 18-28 that would complement the active-duty military – and would change the current cultural expectation that service is only the duty of those in uniform.
At age 18, every young man and woman would receive information on various options for national service. Along with the five branches of the military, graduates would learn about new civilian service branches organized around urgent issues like education, health care and poverty. The positions within these branches would be offered through AmeriCorps as well as through certified nonprofits. Service would last at least a year.
But are these views correct? Would a draft or national service bridge the civil-military gap? Emotively, perhaps. Military service – and presumably universal national service – would bring together young men and women of myriad backgrounds and experiences from all over the country together. Their shared collective experience would probably create a lot of understanding and mutual respect across various groups. It would also help to spread the burden of service in times of war, particularly in periods like the mid-'00s when the services were having trouble filling enlistment quotas.
But what about in times of peace? The nation has only had one period when there was conscription during peacetime (1953-1965). However, that was a much different era than todays: there was a real, capable existential threat in the form of the Soviet Union that likely wouldn't allow for a quick mobilization of the reserves and National Guard. And, practically speaking there is about a zero percent chance of Congress authorizing conscription, particularly when the services don't want it.
This also leaves aside the question of equity. According to the CIA's World Factbook in the United States 2,161,727 males and 2,055,685 females turn 16 every year. If one accepts then that similar numbers of men and women turn 18 every year then those numbers are hard to absorb in any form of national service unless something truly catastrophic was to happen. And even if there were a lottery system then issues would surely arise even if no deferrals were allowed.
Last, if this is about ensuring that "elites" serve, there are no current prohibitions from their serving today. In fact, one might argue that one could turn this issue on its head if the Ivies, "little Ivies" and "public Ivies" told incoming classes of students that they would not be admitted into their first year classes if they hadn't served for a year or two in military or national service. This probably has less than a zero percent chance of happening.
So what is to be done? One initial step might be to expand the concept of service. After all teachers, many municipal workers, police officers, fire fighters, medical professionals, clergy, elements of the legal profession, etcetera all provide service to their communities and the nation. (Although surely they do this in different ways than members of the military, notably in terms of not serving with "unlimited liability" aside from police and fire personnel.)
Another initial step might be to treat veterans with respect, but not with absolute deference or awe. Yes, the actions of some members of the profession of arms are truly awe inspiring, but the best way to honor that service is to keep faith with promises made. Veterans too must earn that faith not only with their previous wartime service but also with enlightening their fellow citizens about military service when appropriate and by returning to their communities and being productive members of society.
These two steps might not seal the gap between society and its military, but they at least would not widen it farther.