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'It's no longer our army. It hasn't been for years.'


Back in the summer, Tom Ricks linked to what sounded like a very interesting article in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences journal Daedalus. Andrew Bacevich was trying to wrap his arms around one of the thorniest, but most important, issues of our day: The civil-military divide. The full story is behind a pay wall, but here was the excerpt on Ricks' blog:

'We the People' need to understand: it's not longer our army; it hasn't been for years; it's theirs and they intend to keep it. The American military belongs to Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, to Hilary Clinton and Robert Gates. Civilian leaders will continue to employ the military as they see fit. If Americans do not like the way the army is used, they should reclaim it, resuscitating the tradition of the citizen-soldier and reasserting the connection between citizenship and military service. … [A]s long at the tradition of the citizen-soldier remains moribund, reversing the militarization of U.S. foreign policy will be a pipe dream.
It wouldn't be fair to comment more on Bacevich's specific article without access to the full text, but from the snippets available online, parts of his thesis sound highly compelling. Since Vietnam, both deliberately and accidentally, the Pentagon has drawn away from main street (for lack of a better cliche) which has given it the ability to act more freely, with less public accountability. A downsized, all-volunteer force requires fewer sacrifices from fewer Americans than ever, and has created what Robert Kaplan calls a separate 'warrior caste' in American society. Fast-forward to today's force, in which the least Americans serve than ever before, and in which many of today's service members are likely to be the children or younger siblings of other service members.

All this has been rattling around in my head since July, and two things this week brought it rushing back: First was Tuesday's testimony by retired Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, former head of the National Guard Bureau. Blum told the House Armed Services Committee that his biggest fear for the U.S. in the 21st century isn't China or cyber-attacks, but "complacency."

In this dangerous and unpredictable world, a relatively tiny number of service members and their families bear a hugely disproportionate share of the load for defending the country, Blum said. "I don't want Americans to view the military as a foreign legion, or a mercenary unit ... What they do behind those gates is pretty much 'who cares?' to the general population." We've got to make sure, Blum said, that Americans are in the fight.

The second thing was a story Wednesday morning by AP's Bob Burns, which reported that one of every three veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan didn't consider the wars worth fighting. Burns also wrote this:

The poll results presented by the Pew Research Center portray post-9/11 veterans as proud of their work, scarred by warfare and convinced that the American public has little understanding of the problems that wartime service has created for military members and their families ... [It] reflected what many view as a troublesome cultural gap between the military and the general public. Although numerous polls have shown that Americans hold the military in high regard, the respondents in the Pew research acknowledged a lack of understanding of what military life entails. Only 27 percent of adult civilians said the public understands the problems facing those in uniform, and the share of veterans who said so is even lower -- 21 percent.
Despite all this, the Pentagon leadership loves its all-volunteer force and hates the idea of a draft. It has a strong memory of the last time the burdens of war were borne somewhat more "equally" across the population: During Vietnam, which was a nightmare no one in uniform or elected office would bring back. Because despite the complaints by today’s thinkers and troops, there’s a downside when the general public is “connected” to the war effort – it might oppose it. Today many Americans say they want to wrap up the war in Afghanistan, but there are no mass demonstrations and no real pressure for Washington to take any action.

What the Pentagon specifically and Washington generally learned from Vietnam is the more isolated it is from main street, the more freedom of action it has. As Bacevich implies, presidents with an ever-smaller, professional, all-volunteer force could use it to settle scores, prove points and knock down tin-pot bad guys because the Pride Was Back and it was Morning in America. So long as Americans weren’t in danger of being called up to serve in these various adventures, many of them didn’t really care – and as we learn from Blum and Burns, this has lasted right up until today.

But it’s important to note that many Americans don’t really care about anything -- complaining about American disengagement is like complaining about the weather, and it does as much good. Voter turnout, a reliable barometer of citizen interest, was about 37.8 percent in last year’s mid-terms, according to the Federal Elections Commission. As important as they are, commanders and service members shouldn't take it personally that many of their countrymen are tuned out.

Still, if the Pentagon was content being isolated before, it has great reasons for wanting to break through now: Thousands of Americans are dead and tens of thousands are wounded. Service members and their families have endured years’ worth of grueling deployments; many of them struggle with depression, addiction and even suicide. Some $4 trillion is gone. After decades of satisfied isolation and independence, now the military wants to engage with the general public, if for no reason than just to make it understand the true cost of American power.

The reason this is so complicated is that Americans say they do understand – you can’t get through a baseball game without a standing ovation for some returning troops, or watch TV without seeing a sentimental homecoming in a beer commercial. “Thank you for your service.” When the football commentator says his program is being shown on AFN, everyone in the booth has to go on record trying to out-do each other with their thanks for the troops. There’s always an uneasiness about all this, though, isn’t there? As if all the celebrities and TV personalities need to jump onto the bandwagon because they and their audiences – many of us – are being reminded, however briefly, that we sent others into harm’s way while we did what we wanted.

Here we some to the crux of the problem: How can the popular perception of the military be so positive, and the pop culture warmth shown to service members be so universal – and yet only 21 percent of new veterans believe Americans actually get it? Service members and their families appreciate all the sentiment, but they clearly aren’t buying it.

One reason Americans may be so disconnected is they haven’t been asked to “sacrifice” for the troops and the wars in the way they used to – by paying for them. Washington financed much of its last decade with borrowed money, not with new taxes or even war bonds, and now faces the Big Crunch still deeply reluctant to ask voters to pay more. But there is a growing chorus of military voices in Washington that believes that today’s high-quality, veteran military is worth the cost to maintain no matter what, and if that means more taxes, so be it.

None other than HASC chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, in a bizzaro-world moment for a modern Republican, has said that if his back is to the wall and he has to choose between deep military cuts and new taxes, he’d opt for the taxes. Retired Gen. Richard Cody, the former vice chief of staff of the Army, gave the same message to the HASC on Tuesday.

“We have to realize this a terribly unfriendly world,” he said in response to questions from ranking Democrat Rep. Adam Smith. “If we have to tax more, I’m all for taxing everybody.”

There’s no telling whether this kind of movement will gather steam, but based on the lukewarm reception to President Obama’s proposed new taxes on the wealthiest Americans, you probably shouldn’t hold your breath. But would asking Americans to sacrifice more, in the ways they can, bring them closer to the military? Could anything do that in our disconnected cyber-age?

What do you think?

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