POV: How the Government Stole Our Military
With fewer Americans serving, our leaders are free to make war
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 email@example.com Comments