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Who Will Serve, Gates Asks

One of the most sensitive military topics in America remains the growing divide between ordinary Americans and those who serve and fight for their country. Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed it head -on at Duke University last night.

Gates said the all-volunteer force, "this tiny sliver of America has achieved extraordinary things under the most trying circumstances.  It is the most professional, the best educated, the most capable force this country has ever sent into battle."

But, Gates added, "this success has come at significant cost. Above all, the human cost, for the troops and their families.  But also cultural, social, and financial costs in terms of the relationship between those in uniform and the wider society they have sworn to protect."

On Saturday I appeared on a panel with fellow defense journalists Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post and Steven Komorow of the Associated Press, as well as the head of Army public affairs, Thomas Collins, and the Pentagon's first head of new media, Price Floyd, to discuss whether and why the American public seems to be losing its appetite for military news and how the divide between the public and the all-volunteer force influences our coverage. The venue was the first meeting of the Army Public Affairs Alumni Association held at the Association of the US Army's headquarters in northern Virginia.

For those of us who deal daily with the military, the idea that there is a divide between the public and the military, and that that gap hinders both the public's intellectual and emotional understanding of what the military does, how it performs and why it does what it does was pretty much a standing assumption. We all nodded sagely when it was raised and moved on to the nitty gritty of how we cover the military and how they work with us.

Thinking about our reaction to how to deal with the civil-military divide after reading Gates’ speech leaves me all the more convinced that Gates absolutely needed to raise this issue publicly. It is especially pressing as the fiscal crisis facing the government remains essentially unanswered by Congress, and the Defense Department faces grim choices as it presses the fight in Afghanistan and tries to maintain the United States as the preeminent global power.

Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen have raised the difficult issue of the cost of an all-volunteer force's pay and benefits a number of times over the last six months. Gates hammered away at it again last night.

"There is also a question – and it is an uncomfortable and politically fraught question – of the growing financial costs associated with an all-volunteer force.  Just over the past decade – fueled by increasing health costs, pay raises, and wartime recruiting and retention bonuses – the amount of money the military spends on personnel and benefits has nearly doubled:  From roughly $90 billion in 2001 to just over $170 billion this year out of a $534 billion budget," Gates said.

Congress is loathe to even think about thinking about trimming pay or benefits to the troops. Both Democrats and Republicans fall all over themselves to raise pay and increase benefits to both those in uniform and to veterans. As a result of currying favor with vets in particular, Gates noted that health care costs have rocketed up "from $19 billion a decade ago to more than $50 billion this year, a portion of that total going to working-age retirees whose premiums and co-pays have not been increased in some 15 years."

So we want to maintain the all-volunteer force, Gates said, noting that "the junior and mid-level officers and sergeants in ground combat and support specialties" comprise "the most battle-tested, innovative and impressive generation of military leaders this country has produced in a very long time." And we shoulder a "sacred obligation" to take care of them and of their families, for they also serve.

But that "but" keeps coming up. How much do we pay them? How generous should their benefits be? And how do we build bridges to our largely urban society from remote bases such as Fort Hood and other largely southern, rural places?

Gates didn't really offer an answer. He made clear "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." He pushed the idea of service, stressing the national good that can arise from ROTC programs.

He made it personal for those listening to him at Duke, asking: "Will the wise and honest here at Duke [from which one of his closest advisors, Lt. Gen. Emo Gardner, graduated] come help us do the public business of America?" The country must attract such leaders, he said. If they do not serve, "who then can we count on to protect and sustain the greatness of this country in the 21st century?"

His question hangs, begging answers from the White House, Pentagon and Congress.

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