Quite a lot has been written about the disconnect that obviously has widened in recent years between the so-called “elites” who populate the governing classes in politics, the media, and academia and the rest of the citizens who must find a way to get through the day in dealing with the results while keeping their lives and fortunes intact. Peggy Noonan has been particularly good at describing this phenomenon and senses that this gulf has never been as wide as it is right now. I agree, and one particular aspect of this gap that is especially worrisome is the one between those who have some connection to past or current military service and those who have not.
In a recent article, Gary Schmitt and Cheryl Miller note that, despite the fact that we have been at war for almost ten years continuously and although Americans hold military service and sacrifice in very high regard, they do so increasingly from a distance, and they believe that this trend is a threat to America’s civic ethic of equal sacrifice. The latest figures show that veterans now represent 9% of the total population, a percentage that continues to decline, and that less than 1% serves in any of the military services, active duty or reserves. The data also show that our soldiers come from an increasingly narrower segment of society–geographically and culturally. Not surprisingly, Southerners disproportionally populate all the military branches, while the middle-class suburbs surrounding the largest cities produce relatively few service members compared to their large populations of young people.
The all-volunteer military has served our country very well, and I am certainly not suggesting the return of the draft. But we should be concerned about many of the attitudes among our opinion leaders and some of its resulting policy that smack of a certain dismissiveness of the willingness and commitment of our young people to serve their country. To wit, several weeks ago, during a discussion about the “end of combat operations” and pending troop reductions in Iraq on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe”, commentator Lawrence O’Donnell made the comment “If you want to end U. S. involvement in wars, reinstate the draft; that will do it instantly”. Commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin said that she was struck by the reaction at a party in New York when she mentioned that her son had chosen to enter the military. There was disbelief among those at the party, as though they could not imagine why he would do that. To which O’Donnell then replied “That’s because the elite understand the burdens and risks of war as others don’t. The volunteers are full of a lot of naivete”. The final comment from a discussion participant from Rolling Stone magazine was “And they volunteer because they need the employment”. If this dialogue doesn’t represent the ultimate in elite condescension, I don’t want to hear anything worse. Is there any doubt about how out of touch this crowd is with the warrior class and the patriotic sense of duty of the kids who defend this country and the families from which they originate?
Over ten years ago, in the June 2000 issue, I wrote of “The Demise of the Warrior Class” in which I noted that it is clear that, as the World War II generation passes on, fewer Americans feel a direct connection with or obligation to military service. I also quoted Kirk Kicklighter, a former Marine Corps Captain, who said that the military and the civilian culture it serves are becoming estranged, and that the problem began with Vietnam, as the students who protested the war became the tenured faculty and civilian government leaders of today and are highly skeptical of the military.
Coincidentally, Duke University was then conducting a study of this estrangement, which produced some disturbing results. Large percentages of military personnel reported being annoyed by what they saw as a breakdown in virtues like honesty and sacrifice within civilian institutions, and they believed that civilians are in the midst of a moral crisis. Seventy-seven percent of military officers believed the adoption of such military values as honor, accountability, and teamwork would help civilian society reform itself. Eighty-one percent of newly commissioned officers felt the military’s values are closer than civilian values to those of the Founding Fathers. Of course, this survey was completed before 9-11 launched us into our current conflicts and it would be interesting to know how these attitudes would compare ten years later, but my guess is that they would be fairly consistent. They are certainly worthy of our attention.
I repeat: The attitudes and sensitivities of our elites to the contrary notwithstanding, no great republic can endure without an effective, committed warrior class, preferably one that is representative of the body politic, properly accountable to civilian authority with a clear vision of the society’s vital interests and the proper uses of power. God help us if we ever forget this.