Civic Casualties

Better military policy starts with educating civilians

| January / February 2008

Perhaps at no other time in American history has the disconnect between our democratically elected government and the armed forces been more glaring. Unlike in decades past, few politicians have served in the military. Even fewer have been in combat. Meanwhile, the citizenry empowered with electing these leaders knows little of its military’s history or the challenges soldiers face on the contemporary battlefield.

“More and more in America, civilians have no contact with the people who do the fighting, yet civilians are the ones who decide when and where those people fight,” writes Kristin Henderson, author of While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), in the July 22 issue of the Washington Post Magazine. “What happens to a democracy when its civilians live in one world and its warriors in another?”

Henderson’s article kicked up a lively online chat as a military wife, a pacifist, a Catholic school teacher, a soldier in Afghanistan, and others parsed the explanations for the growing divide. They cited civic disengagement, the absence of a draft, the scarcity of veterans in public service, and good old-fashioned partisan politics. What didn’t come up, and what promises to further exacerbate the situation for years to come, is the lack of military focus in the halls of academia. 

David A. Bell, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, writes in the New Republic (May 7, 2007) that military history is all but absent from today’s college curricula. Harvard’s history department, for instance, has no military specialists; of the 85 history courses on its roster last spring, only 2 focused on war. The figures are no better at Bell’s own university. “Even in the midst of the Iraq war—the fifth major U.S. deployment since 1990—professors are teaching undergraduates surprisingly little about this historical subject of rather obvious relevance,” he observes.

In a symposium on this educational blind spot in PS: Political Science & Politics (July 2007), University of Texas government professor David L. Leal pointed out that a number of Ivy League schools have eliminated their Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs, which provide a way for students to combine study with service (and pay their tuition in the process). Historically, ROTC brought civilians and officers-in-training closer together—or at least exposed the two groups to one another. Since many of the country’s elected leaders earn their diplomas at these exclusive institutions, this change reinforces the civilian-­military gulf.

This gap is potentially perilous, argues Judith Hicks Stiehm, a political science professor at Florida International University. If students—and citizens—aren’t schooled in the demands and sacrifices of military service, their elected leaders are more likely to make irresponsible decisions about when, where, and how to deploy force.

Doug Nusbaum_1
2/5/2008 12:00:00 AM

I do not know if you have covered Ron Paul. Probably not, or only to a minor degree since the idea of following ALL of the constitution, you know like the 2nd, 9th & 10 amendments is, probably, beyond your ken. Having said that, it would have been nice if you had mentioned that when you look at dollars or numbers of individuals, then the military supports Dr. Paul by almost just as much as all other candidates combined. One would think that something like that is worth mentioning.