In April, there was a flurry of media attention to the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of U. S. military involvement in Vietnam. What resonated most with me during the coverage was the degree to which the military experience and the commitment to military service have been diluted in America’s leadership class. To me, military service has been the “great leveler” for American youth, primarily males, as it cut across race, class, social, and economic lines in assimilating its recruits into service to the country. The all-volunteer military isn’t the same and the post-Vietnam generation missed this experience which, for most of our history, had been a “rite of passage” for us. John McCain’s Presidential candidacy seemed to have an element of this generation’s coming to grips with this void, with some nostalgia, some guilt, and some yearning all mixed with the repeated litany of his experience as a POW. It is also, I think, part of the fascination with movies such as Saving Private Ryan and books such as Citizen Soldier and The Greatest Generation. All branches of the military are falling far short of their recruiting goals and, in spite of their increased efforts, more advertising won’t close the deficit. The major factor is the growing gap between the military and American society. As the World War II generation passes on, fewer and fewer Americans feel a direct connection with or obligation to military service. In a recent article in Duke Magazine, Kirk Kicklighter, a former Marine Corps Captain, says 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. Duke University is participating in a study of this estrangement, which has produced some disturbing results. Military personnel are annoyed by what they see as a breakdown in virtues like honesty and sacrifice within civilian institutions, and they believe that civilians are in the midst of a moral crisis. Seventy-seven percent of military officers believe the adoption of such military values as honor, accountability, and teamwork would help civilian society reform itself. Eighty-one percent of newly commissioned officers feel the military’s values are closer than civilian values to those of the Founding Fathers. On the other hand, the research shows that most university professors, and CEO’s have never served in the military. Only about 25% of today’s members of Congress are veterans; in 1971, 75% had served. Before Vietnam, neither the powerful nor the famous were exempt. There are other factors involved in this estrangement and the decline of the warrior class. The feminization of the military is one factor, as is the pattern of deployment. Most soldiers view the nonstop missions of “peace-keeping” and humanitarianism unfulfilling and unchallenging, and the “no casualties” mentality is destructive to leadership initiative. No great republic can endure without an effective, committed warrior class, properly accountable to civilian authority with a clear vision of the society’s vital interests and the proper uses of power. With each passing anniversary of D-Day, I wonder whether it will be again possible for America to wage a major war and if there are vital interests for which we are willing to risk large numbers of casualties. In short, for what are we willing to die?
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