The military has never been better at solving society’s problems—or more estranged from mainstream America
Like much of southeast Washington, D.C., Eighth Street has seen better days. But at the corner of I Street sits one local landmark unscarred by age, crime, poverty, or neglect—a symbol, you might say, of tradition untouched by progress: the U.S. Marine Corps barracks. Amid urban chaos, it is an oasis of order. A guard stands at the gate; inside, crisply uniformed men and women move with purpose. The lush, manicured parade ground, maintained by a horticulturist and a staff of 20, spreads to the foot of the commandant’s residence.
But not only the physical contrast to the surrounding streets is stark: Those who live within the walls of this haven are a breed apart as well. The young enlisted Marines I meet, none older than 24, have poise and self-possession well beyond their years. They carry themselves with pride and speak in modulated tones, their words laced heavily with “ma’ams.” Their answers are thoughtful. They have come, by and large, from the South, and from the working class, the children of seamstresses and social workers, farmers and factory workers. But from the first day of boot camp they abandon their inherited identities to be reborn into the military class.
They signed up for many reasons—patriotism, opportunity, challenge, to test their mettle. Corporal Gabriel Ford, 21, enlisted three years ago after growing up on a West Virginia farm and deciding college wasn’t for him. His parents divorced early, and he wanted to make something of himself before making a commitment like marriage. The Marines promised to make the most of him. “They break you down to ground zero—and then build you up,” he says. “You realize that you can be a leader, that you have all these qualities you never knew you had.”
Chief Warrant Officer Joe Boyer, 40, says he signed up 20 years ago because everyone from his small-town Illinois high school was “going to the farm or going to work at Caterpillar to make bulldozers.” Neither option appealed to him; slaying dragons and seeing the world did. Yet Boyer says civilians have told him he must have gone into the military because he was too stupid to do anything else. This white male Midwesterner looks at me and says, “I am a stereotyped minority.” He's right. Among the well-educated and well-off, the perception persists that the military is the blue-collar option of last resort.
Twenty-five years ago, that notion had some merit. Once the educated began to evade the draft, and then were let off the hook entirely by its abolition, the military became a place for people with few options. Drunkenness, drug use, desertion, illiteracy, and racial tension were rife. Forty percent of Army recruits were high school dropouts.
But beginning in the early 1980s, the armed forces began raising standards and requiring, if not a high school diploma, at least a GED (and only a tiny percentage of recruits have a GED instead of a diploma). Today, the caliber of recruits is the highest in history—more than 90 percent of enlisted men and women are high school graduates—and the services regularly turn away those who don’t meet their standards.
If the raw material is impressive, so is the finished product. The military remains one of the few institutions in American life concerned with turning out good citizens who seek leadership, practice discipline, and believe in public service; and it has successfully tackled problems—most notably race and affirmative action—that continue to bedevil society at large. The military certainly isn’t flawless, but it does have a lot to teach us. It’s hard to learn at a distance, though, and the distance between the military and civilian population has arguably never been greater.
All They Can Be
No group has benefited more from the upward mobility the military offers than African Americans, because no institution in America has offered blacks more opportunity. That’s the thesis of All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way (Basic Books), a new book by sociologists Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler. Moskos and Butler trace the military’s and in particular the army’s success not just in recruiting blacks, but in promoting them to positions of authority. Colin Powell is the most notable, but far from the only symbol of that success. Seven percent of the army’s generals are black; as are 11 percent of all officers and 30 percent of enlisted men and women. The army has made affirmative action work without quotas, without lowering standards, and without a white backlash. Moskos and Butler identify several principles the army has relied on and civilian society could learn from. The first is to promote on merit—but only after enlarging the pool of qualified blacks from which to select. The army actively ensures that the pool is big enough by recruiting heavily on historically black campuses, for example, and establishing education programs to bring the skills of potential recruits and officers up to par. Standards stay inflexibly high, which means all who are promoted have earned it—and everyone working under them knows it.
Moskos and Butler also stress that the army concentrates more on creating black opportunity than on eliminating white racism. In truth, though, the nature of the military ensures that anything that gets in the way of accomplishing its mission is unacceptable. Racism gets in the way. As Corporal Ford, who is white says, “From day one of boot camp, everyone is green.” The armed services also happen to be the only place, Moskos loves to point out, where blacks routinely boss around whites.
Military race relations aren’t perfect, of course. And if the peacetime benefits are high for blacks, so are the wartime costs: Blacks will be deployed in disproportionate numbers to their presence in the population (although a disproportionate number of blacks deployed are not sent into combat). That’s why some black civil rights leaders look askance at military service: Upward mobility shouldn’t require the willingness to strap on a uniform. That it too often does tells us more about society than it does about the military.
The military builds character—in the sense of resilience, courage, and leadership—by giving young people responsibility foreign to most civilians. At age 23, John Brown, a marine second lieutenant now training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, will have under his command a group of enlisted men ranging from privates fresh out of recruit training to a staff sergeant with 10 years of service under his belt. “Some of the junior enlisted men will have personal problems—their wives still in high school, pregnant, with bills to pay,” Brown says. “I will have to think things out to a greater degree than I ever have before. I have to look out for them, help them take care of problems so the unit can function effectively.”
Those in the military also grapple with moral dilemmas most of us skirt: When should you put your life on the line for others? Is it ethical to put completing a mission before saving a life? Is it honorable to put saving your own life before completing your mission?
Then there’s the discipline, which to most civilians seems both archaic and arbitrary. But in combat, you must react instantly, as a unit, and you must react correctly; discipline hones those reflexes. The discipline is bearable because those giving orders have survived the same trials, and thrived. While complete deference to authority isn’t something we want to replicate in civilian life, there is a virtue in learning to do things you might not want to do, and learning that you can survive that too.
Beyond the many things the military does daily in the service of society is the fact that its members have literally signed their lives over to protect that society. As our tolerance for military casualties diminishes, it is unlikely that thousands of men and women will have to give up their lives for us. But they are prepared to. As a result, they have thought deeply about what it is they are protecting. “People don’t see the direct connection between their ability to walk around, have protests, vote how they want—and the military,” says George Flowers, a marine second lieutenant. People don’t in fact, see the connection between the presence of a strong military and their right to disparage it.
Given that people in the military seem to have both bigger muscles and stronger moral fiber than many of us, it’s no wonder that they increasingly disdain non-servers and the mores they live by. Thomas Ricks of The Wall Street Journal provided a classic case study when he followed a group of Marines home from boot camp in 1995. They described their old friends as “losers.” The marines I met concur. When she first came back from boot camp, Lance Corporal Tashawna Craig says, civilians suddenly seemed “so stupid, so silly,” and most of all, “so undisciplined.”
Which is why, more and more, those who are drawn to the military lifestyle are themselves the products of military families. Consider Lance Corporal Christina L. Wright, one of the young marines at the Washington, D.C., barracks. Her stepfather was in the marines; from the time she was five, he conducted room inspections while she stood at attention. From then on, she says, she knew that she too would be a marine—as is her older brother; as, she expects, her two younger brothers will be. She doesn’t like the city, doesn’t trust most of the civilians around her, and will always be far more comfortable with the corps.
Indeed, more of those joining the armed forces are also making a career of it, and the combination of these trends is troubling. We have inadvertently developed a professional military caste. Ricks wrote earlier this year that “it now appears not only possible but likely that the U.S. military over the next 20 years will revert to a kind of garrison status, largely self-contained and increasingly distinct as a separate society and subculture.” Reversing this trend requires understanding how the past 30 years brought us to this point.
In his autobiography A Good Life, Ben Bradlee recalls eagerly waiting to escape Harvard to go fight in World War II. Three decades later, another Harvard student and future journalist, James Fallows, was starving himself to avoid the draft, an experience he recounted in a 1975 Washington Monthly story. Bradlee’s enthusiasm was widespread among his classmates; so was Fallow’s recalcitrance.
What happened? Well, Vietnam, most cataclysmically. Until about 1963, military service was a rite of passage for many young men, including those born to the upper classes (Kennedys) and those destined for the upper ranks of the meritocracy (Elvis Presley). It was fairly rare to find a male government leader—or sports star, or movie star, or journalist, or business executive—who had not experienced military service.
But as the Vietnam war machine geared up, leaders began opening loopholes, notably educational deferments, that told the rich and educated they were exempt from the obligation to serve. As the war’s ignoble character became apparent, the well-educated and well-off rationalized evasion as moral, and service as stupid or wrong. Meanwhile, those without the education or know-how to escape, as well as those who believed it was their duty, went to Vietnam.
By 1973, when we officially instituted an all-volunteer force, the notion that not serving was the moral thing to do had been cemented. Instead of selecting soldiers from the population as a whole, we purchased some of our youth on the labor market. The military became middle-class, working-class, and just plain poor. And so only a minority of the generation now assuming power in government, media, academia, and business has served—a circumstance that will become more dramatic as World War II and Korean War veterans retire or expire.
The trouble with this trend is that elite service not only benefits the military—it also benefits the elite, or at least broadens their horizons, by doing what public schools once did: integrate people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. “You learn arrogance in the Ivy League,” says a former army lieutenant who graduated from Princeton and is now a Harvard graduate student. “You learn humility in the army, become some guy from a college you’ve never heard of knows a lot more than you do.”
That few privileged youth share that experience is troubling, because they often grow up to be powerful leaders. Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service trains the elite of the foreign policy establishment, and it would seem logical that students would have some interest in the military as a key foreign policy tool. Not so, as Richard G. Miles, a U.S. Army Reserve captain, found when he enrolled at the school. “The sum total of [my classmates’] knowledge about military matters—ranging from tactics to tanks—came from movies and magazine articles,” he wrote in Newsweek.
Close to 48 percent of the men in the Senate are veterans, but only 31 percent of those in the House (and a fifth of the freshman class). Only 20 percent of Senate-confirmed Clinton appointees are veterans, and only 4 percent of the White House staff (a fact that understandably has aroused the ire of vets who wonder why the administration looks like America in every category except military service). Says one army officer: “If Clinton tells an 18-year-old to go fight, he expects him to go whether or not he thinks it’s a good idea. Yet he didn’t think Vietnam was a good idea; he didn’t want to serve, and he didn’t. I’m not saying he didn’t make a morally responsible choice. But given what he does [command the armed forces], it’s a problematic choice.”
Civilian leaders not serving isn’t just morally problematic; it’s pragmatically so. To command the military, a civilian must have the military’s respect. To earn the military’s respect, the civilian must understand military culture. Fewer and fewer civilian leaders do. It is obviously important to have some leaders in government who haven’t served, who have a skeptical attitude toward the military, not a vested interest in it. But it is crucial as well to have people in the White House and in Congress who understand the institution, who know what questions to ask, as Dwight Eisenhower did, and who have the credibility to get answers.
That’s all the more true because at least some of the leaders who avoided service seem less skeptical about the military than guilt-ridden about their own past. As Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, writes, “Thirty years later, now elected to positions of prominence, those who evaded service now truckle and fawn to demonstrate the depth of their regard for men in uniform.” Thus we have Bill Clinton, who some how manages simultaneously to piss off and kiss up to the military. Eager to curry the military’s approval, or fearful of incurring its wrath, Clinton has shied away from responsibly downsizing the military-industrial complex. Instead, there’s hairy-chest beating, as the administration boasts about the size of its defense budget.
What matters even more is whether our leaders have children or relatives who are serving, or know people who do. There is no authoritative count of how many of the children of Congress members or administration officials have served, but by all accounts it’s a tiny percentage. Yet many of these leaders are deciding to send the military into risky situations, particularly in the post-Cold War era, when “military operations other than war” have become common place. Where our national interest is not at stake, but our “values”—a much broader rubric—are, will we sacrifice American lives? That’s never easy, but it is slightly easier if you are sending abstract “brave men and women in uniform” rather than Bobby Jones from your hometown.
The same standard, of course, ought to apply to journalists who are exhorting the president to send troops for a peacekeeping or humanitarian operation. Yet many journalists who express such opinions have nothing—and no one—at stake. Many of those covering the operations also have no military experience. That doesn’t make good coverage impossible, but it makes it harder. During the Gulf War, for example, reporters allowed themselves to be herded around by Pentagon officials whose assertions went unchallenged. It took a week, for example, for the press corps to wake up to the fact that the Pentagon’s boast about an 80 percent success rate in air missions in the Gulf was based on “arriving at the target and delivering the ordnance,” not on actually hitting the target.
The national hysteria over Colin Powell was akin to what we might expect from the second coming of Christ. Somehow, we imagined that Powell’s ability to lick Saddam Hussein meant he could also lick bad schools, drugs, the economy. Clinton boasted during last year’s first presidential debate that he had appointed as drug czar “a four-star general . . . the most heavily decorated soldier in uniform when he retired,” as if the correlation between a successful military career and the ability to deter drug use is perfectly clear. This rosy, hazy view of the competent modern military encourages civilians to expand the military’s purview into peacekeeping, drug interdiction, humanitarian intervention, riot control, disaster relief, even chauffeuring Olympic athletes, an inclination compounded by the fact that we now have 1.5 million people in the military with no Cold War and no clear mission. Belief in the omnipotent military sends more soldiers into harm’s way; it also gives a potentially dangerous level of political power to the military.
The combination of a powerful and self-righteous military and a naïve and guilt ridden civilian leadership isn’t good. A military is crucial to a democracy but is not itself democratic, and we don’t want a society made in its image. What we want are civilians who understand and respect what the military is and what it does, and who share the burden of public service the military increasingly shoulders.
Who gives the order to kill, and who executes it, isn’t just a wartime dilemma. Any democratic society that wants to ensure its preservation grapples with the same decision—or ought to—daily, especially when the military is under civilian command. If we are going to ask others to do what we ourselves are unwilling to do, we should consider the implications of an all-volunteer military. It’s harder to do that when the military is an isolated abstraction.
The obvious solution is to resurrect the draft. That remains a noble ideal, but an increasingly impractical one. The military today is much too small to sustain the numbers universal conscription would churn up. Many of its operations also require a technological sophistication that draftees would have difficulty acquiring in a year or two; there is less of a place for conscripts in an increasingly professionalized military. A draft, remember, might not just draw in the elite; it could also pressure the military to accept those it now prides itself on weeding out.
So how do we stem the growing alienation between civilians, especially elite civilians, and soldiers, and recover the class mixing, character building, and community service that the military once provided? Various educational measures could improve civil-military relations. We could require military officers to go to civilian graduate schools and civilian decision makers to spend time at military academies; preserve or restore ROTC on campuses, both to provide access to the military and because its presence can educate students about military affairs; and ask undergraduates to study military history and culture.
But we need to take more dramatic steps, especially as military service becomes less a calling than a ticket to success. Recruiters now rely more on appeals to bread-and-butter needs and aspirations than to patriotism and public service. The danger is that gradually the civilian ethos of serving the country, that young people anxious to compete with their peers and surpass their parents will shun the less lucrative returns military service provides.
Reversing this trend ultimately may have nothing to do with getting more people to serve in the military—and everything to do with getting more people to serve, period. The fact is, only a tiny proportion of college graduate go into the Peace Corps or Teach for America. People are simply out of the habit of serving.
As a remedy, Moskos and Butler propose national service. But since we can’t afford a national service program for all young Americans, the best compromise may be a national service lottery. If your number comes up, you can do military service (if you meet the military’s standard); or, as in Germany, you can opt for civilian service. Those who go into the military will, of course, be putting more on the line, and their compensation should reflect that.
Such a program could draw a wider pool of people into the armed services, including at least a few more children of the privileged. A lottery would also provide the military with more short-termers and fewer lifers, which would mean a healthy injection of skepticism and self-criticism by those whose careers wouldn’t be on the line. For those who serve, it could renew a national sense of obligation, an understanding that rights require sacrifice.
National service is, of course, popular among neoliberals, but what surprised me was how many military people I talked to proposed it—indeed were passionate about it. In part, this is because those who volunteer for military service would feel less alone in shouldering the burdens of citizenship. But it is also because they believe in duty, honor, and country—and understand that paying tribute to those words has little to do with wearing a uniform.