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POV: How the Government Stole Our Military

With fewer Americans serving, our leaders are free to make war

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Dishonesty pervades the relationship between the US military and society. Rhetorically, Americans “support the troops.” In practice, we allow them to be subjected to serial abuse, as policy makers engage in needless and unwinnable wars.

Americans generally see the creation of the all-volunteer force in the wake of Vietnam as a good thing. Certainly, our reliance on professional soldiers has relieved citizens of any responsibility to contribute to the nation’s defense. As a consequence, however, the American people have forfeited any ownership of the army. It has become Washington’s army rather than America’s army. One result has been to give Washington a free hand in deciding when and where to commit US forces.

But in their use of that army, civilian and military elites have proven to be both reckless and incompetent. The world’s best military is supposed to win wars quickly and decisively—the end of the Cold War and then Operation Desert Storm bred that expectation. Subsequent events have belied that expectation, however. We know how to start wars, but the evidence presented in Iraq and Afghanistan says we don’t know how to win them. Once begun, wars drag on indefinitely.

The upshot is that we’ve ended up with too much war and too few warriors. The burden of permanent war is borne by one percent of the population. The other 99 percent of us are spectators. This distribution of service and sacrifice is neither democratic nor moral.

The secondary effects are likewise unfortunate. The disparity between Washington’s appetite for war and our willingness to provide warriors has created an opportunity for profit-minded “private security firms” to enrich themselves, even as they promote pervasive waste and corruption.

The Obama administration has at least partially grasped the problem. It has tacitly acknowledged that invading and occupying countries to transform them is a fool’s errand. After flirting with counterinsurgency and nation-building, it has devised an alternative way of war. Missile-firing drones and special operations forces provide the basis for waging a campaign of targeted assassination. This reduces costs, but cannot provide the basis for a coherent strategy, although it affirms the popular inclination to tune out. In addition, since drone technology will inevitably proliferate, this Obama Doctrine sets precedents that may yet turn the world into a free-fire zone.

An alternative to the all-volunteer–professional military exists. A program of national service offers a way to revive the tradition of the citizen-soldier, while also enriching the prevailing—and exceedingly thin—concept of citizenship.

National service means that all young Americans would spend a period of time in service to the country. Some would serve in the armed forces. Others would serve in different capacities—preserving the environment, helping the elderly and the dispossessed, improving the community in various ways.

Three nos have defined the people’s role in war post-9/11. First, we will not change. Second, we will not pay. Third, we will not bleed.

A wiser and more democratic approach to basic military policy would repeal the three nos, replacing them with these three affirmative commitments: First, citizenship should entail not only prerogatives, but also responsibilities, among them an obligation to contribute to the nation’s defense. Second, if a war is worth fighting, it should be worth paying for on a pay-as-you-go basis—no foisting war’s costs onto future generations. Third, any war worth fighting should be fought with forces drawn from all segments of society.

Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate and former Army colonel and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and history, can be reached at bacevich@bu.edu. He will discuss his new book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (Metropolitan Books, 2013), tonight, September 10, at 7 p.m. at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Cambridge.

“POV,” a new addition to BU Today, is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

18 Comments

18 Comments on POV: How the Government Stole Our Military

  • JP2014 on 09.10.2013 at 7:02 am

    Great article Andrew! Thank you for your service!

  • Bill Skocpol on 09.10.2013 at 8:55 am

    Prof. Bacevich is yet another of Boston University’s “National Treasures”. I hope that our Nation will listen to, and realize the value of, his message. It seems unlikely at the moment, but perhaps the realization will dawn on increasing numbers of people!

  • Anne DiNoto on 09.10.2013 at 9:22 am

    Thanks for posting this opinion piece and the info about the book event! I saw Mr. Bacevich on Bill Moyers promoting his book-check it out if you get a chance.

  • Maureen on 09.10.2013 at 9:29 am

    Excellent piece Sir. I absolutely agree with you. Thank you.

  • John on 09.10.2013 at 10:01 am

    The military already spends an absurd amount of our tax dollars which could be used for education and infrastructure, and now you are proposing a scenario where I and others are required to unconditionally commit years of our lives? I will refuse with every ounce of my being. Even in a non-military role, I will respect no infringement upon my free will. I am a citizen, not an indentured servant. This is disgusting.

    • Maks on 09.10.2013 at 12:10 pm

      Yet, as a citizen, you benefit from the service and sacrifice of others. Your “free will” depends on our country being not only secure but also prosperous, which requires collective contribution to infrastructure, education, community and rule of law. In expressing unconditional unwillingness to serve, you provide a classic example of a free rider, aka a moocher.

      • John on 09.10.2013 at 4:14 pm

        If you think any of us have benefited from any Post-WWII conflict, you are deluded. Meddling in world affairs does nothing for me, or you. Unless you’re a military contractor in which case you’re richer than I could ever imagine.

        And don’t presume that I am a freeloader. I work, and therefore I both pay taxes and perform actions that contribute to the economy of the country through voluntary exchange. I intend to keep it that way.

    • Michael Williams on 09.10.2013 at 9:59 pm

      John, Your comments make the author’s point. We need more people like you to serve in the military, not fewer. When there was a draft military duty was only two years. Everyone had skin in the game. They learned discipline, cooperation, and got a chance to see the world. We all had something to contribute. Now we are irrelevant to any war effort except to say “thank you for your service” to a person in uniform. As if they were servants, which in a way they now are.

      The only way that the military has achieved this level of funding, lack of oversight, and ability to enrich private contractors, is by becoming professionalized. This was a cynical move that happened during the Viet Nam war to give the government a freer hand in conducting it’s senseless war, and taken to a higher level during the Bush-Cheney administration. The Viet Nam war was eventually abandoned as the the citizens turned against it. The Iraq war proceeded unchecked because we as citizens were not invested. Our only obligation was to say “Thank you for your service”.

      There is a good argument to be made that we take back our country by becoming more a part of it.

      • John on 09.12.2013 at 3:14 pm

        You misunderstand me. I do not want any skin in the game ever. The elites will make war as they please and I refuse to be sucked in.

  • KO on 09.10.2013 at 11:38 am

    Good article but 1% vs 99% is tired out and will lose a lot of people’s interest in an otherwise well-writiten article. Occupy Wallstreet will never be seen as a positive protest.

  • cletus van damme on 09.10.2013 at 11:48 am

    “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” -Eisenhower

  • AF on 09.10.2013 at 12:19 pm

    Do you really think public mandatory military service is a good alternative and will solve the problems?! Probably, you are living in too much convenience!

    • student on 09.17.2013 at 12:23 am

      He is actually not living in convenience. He lost his son to Iraq in 2007.

  • Lesli on 09.10.2013 at 12:44 pm

    I am active duty navy for 18 years. I’ve been to Afganistan and deployed on 2 aircraft carriers. What are we fighting for? It never ends. Do more with less! we are spending money on people who don’t want to work yet you want to take my retirement! I agree Support our troops but what does it mean. All my son knows is the Navy kept us apart.

  • Chris on 09.10.2013 at 3:26 pm

    The Vietnam War and the end of the draft are portrayed in this piece as having created a disconnect between the popular will and the wars in which our politicians feel entitled to engage, but this seems to get the causation precisely backwards: the disconnect between popular and political will resulted in such widespread disillusionment and protest that politicians were forced to end conscription in order to continue engaging in their wars of empire.

    • ethan on 09.10.2013 at 5:31 pm

      I agree with your comment for the most part and I believe his article is coming from that very perspective. The call to end conscription always seemed like a good idea, to me. My father was a Vietnam vet (volunteer) and I’m a vet of our current wars. He doesn’t make it a point in the article, but I think it carries an implied message that because of the end of conscription, the people may have unintentionally disassociated themselves from the workings of government. Kind of like saying, “do what you, but leave me out of it”. While this may not be the intention, I’ve seen it painted this way by military brass and politicians alike. If people have no emotional investment in something, they tend not to pay very much attention.

  • nathan on 09.11.2013 at 3:43 pm

    It seems a rather large problem that the title, and a major premise (the effect of the all volunteer army) is unsubstatiated conjecture. It is an opinion, but an opinion with no science seems very close to useless. Standing by itself – I don’t see a connection between drafted soldiers with no political power inside the system, and having “skin in the game.” Especially when the draft years included a recent draft dodger AWOL president(G.W. Bush) and a educational deferral draft dodger President (Bill Clinton.) The wealth decision makers in this country have almost NEVER had “skin in the game.”

  • Joey on 06.15.2014 at 11:01 am

    National service means that all young Americans would spend a period of time in service to the country.
    (Some would serve in the armed forces.)Others would serve in different capacities—preserving the environment, helping the elderly and the dispossessed, improving the community in various ways.

    (Yes the poor boys will fight in the WAR.)

    The wealthy boys would services in civilians’ jobs well away from the war ozone.

    This is the same system we had in Vietnam.
    Politicians
    High ranking Military officials
    Wealthy Business man, Actors and others wealthy people ALL MADE SURE THEIR SONS DID NOT GO TO VIETNAM!

    Also let’s not forget that if you were in college at the time you got a deferment for being drafted.

    This is why we got rid of the DRAFT! It was designed to make sure only poor Americans fight in it.

    Now you’re saying we should reinstate this bias and unfair system?

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