Civic Casualties

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Illustration by Christiane Grauert

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.

“We need to help our students think carefully,” writes Hicks Stiehm, about those who are “willing to kill and to risk dying for us. If members of the military are willing to offer their life and liberty for honor, it behooves us to ensure that they are, in fact, honored by giving them only worthy missions, missions which can be accomplished, and which can be accomplished in a just manner.”

Test Your Military IQ

The following is adapted from a quiz published by Cambridge University Press’ PS (Oct. 2006). Judith Hicks Stiehm, a political science professor at Florida International University, suggested that professors use it to test their students’ basic knowledge of the military.

1. How many active duty U.S. military personnel are there?

2. In how many countries is the U.S. military officially stationed?

3. What is the pay for newly enlisted personnel?

4. What is the Department of Defense budget for fiscal year 2008?

5.  How many nuclear weapons does the United States have ready for launching?


1. There are more than 1.3 million active duty personnel. The National Guard and Reserves, which have been heavily tapped for service in Iraq and Afghanistan, comprise another 1.1 million at least. The military also now relies significantly on private contractors.

2. The Pentagon’s Base Structure Report for fiscal year 2007 identifies 39 countries with bases owned or rented by the U.S. military. Interestingly, Afghanistan and Iraq are not included in the report. Critics cite much higher numbers. If you count Central Intelligence Agency secret detention centers, the number is probably even higher.

3. Base pay for fiscal year 2007 was $1,203.90 a month. This does not include allowances for housing, food, clothing, and other benefits, such as enlistment and reenlistment bonuses, which can be higher than $40,000. Certain military personnel, like those stationed aboard a submarine and those required to parachute, earn additional pay.

4. The 2008 budget is $481.4 billion. A supplemental appropriation of  $141.7 billion is slated to be used for support operations in the “war on terror.” By contrast, 2008’s second-highest budget item, health and human services, is just under $70 billion. Education comes in at $56 billion.

5. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Jan.-Feb. 2007) reports that the United States has more than 5,700 operational warheads and more than 4,000 others stockpiled.

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