Military personnel have dirty, dangerous jobs, but they aren’t demigods in uniform.

By James Joyner | April 11, 2011

There has been much hand-wringing lately that the public does not share in or even understand the sacrifices being borne by America’s military. As a combat veteran who’s the son of a combat veteran, my reaction is simple: So what?

In a January speech at National Defense University, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen lamented that Americans know “precious little” about the military and worried that, while they have been “very supportive” of our troops, they have almost no direct relationship with them. The people who fight our wars come disproportionately from rural areas and serve in remote outposts that give them little contact with the general public. As a result, “we don’t know the American people. The American people don’t know us.”

This continued a line of argument began by Mullen’s boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who bemoaned in a September speech at Duke University that, while Americans have “fond sentiments for men and women in uniform,” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “remain an abstraction, a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally.” He continued: “Even after 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.”

Gates contrasted this with the earlier days of the Republic, in which “apart from heroism on the battlefield, the act of simply being in the military was nothing extraordinary or remarkable. It was not considered a sign of uncommon patriotism or character. It was just something a healthy young man was expected to do if called upon, just as his father and grandfather had likely done in the two world wars.”

He noted that this “ethos of service” once extended to elite circles as well, with famous entertainers, sports stars, and the graduates of our nation’s top universities routinely doing a hitch in the military, whether in peacetime or war.

The inauguration of the all-volunteer military in 1973 ended that. While Gates emphasized that “reinstituting the draft is overwhelmingly opposed by the military’s leadership,” he nonetheless lamented that the strain of repeated deployments is felt only by a “tiny sliver” of society.

Division of Labor

It’s no doubt true that our armed forces are less representative of the greater society than ever before. Is that really a bad thing?

America has traded a model in which a tiny cadre of professional soldiers was augmented with legions of amateurs during wartime for a large professional force augmented by a semi-professional reserve force. By most accounts, the result is a far superior fighting machine.

Indeed, Gates himself acknowledged in the Duke speech that “the all-volunteer experiment has proven to be a remarkable success” and that we currently field “the most professional, the best-educated, the most capable force this country has ever sent into battle.” Furthermore, “Going back to compulsory service, in addition to being politically impossible, is highly impractical given the kinds of technical skills, experience, and attributes needed to be successful on the battlefield in the 21st century.” Especially since, as Gates noted, “an ever-growing portion of America’s 17- to 24-year-olds, about 75 percent, are simply ineligible or unavailable to serve for a variety of reasons, but above all health and weight problems in an age of spiraling childhood obesity.”

Does having our warfighting done by professional soldiers, rather than a cross-section of the young male citizenry, put the burden on a smaller group of people? Sure. And does that mean that there’s less mutual understanding? Certainly. But that’s the nature of specialization and division of labor.

Once upon a time, most people grew their own food, made their own clothes, and built their own houses. Now most of us specialize in one field and pay others to do those things for us. While there’s doubtless something lost in the process, the result is a much more prosperous society—with better food, clothes, and housing.

And as defense analyst Jason Sigger rightly notes, “most of America is just as uninterested and uninformed in education policy, food safety, health care, and transportation issues. Unless the issue hits them their wallets, they just don’t care.” That may be lamentable, but it’s the natural byproduct of specialization: people focus on their own tasks and leave everything else to the experts.

A Job Like Many Others

The obvious retort is that the military is somehow different from other occupations because troops risk their lives fighting for our freedom. But that argument doesn’t hold up. That most people don’t share in the sacrifice of war is no different from the fact that most of us don’t share in the sacrifice of fighting fires, rounding up criminals, slaughtering and processing meat, mining coal, or any number of other dirty, dangerous jobs that need doing.

People choose careers for any number of reasons. Some want to serve their community. Others crave adventure or the admiration of others. Sometimes they manage to make their livings doing what they’re good at and truly enjoy. Sometimes they hate their jobs but lack better alternatives. Often, it’s a combination of factors.

The military is no different. People join for a whole host of reasons. And they stay around after their initial obligation for a variety of factors, too. Are they doing a dirty, dangerous job? Yes indeed. But even in the midst of two wars today, the proportion of work-related fatal injuries is actually higher among fishermen, and loggers and timber workers have comparable rates.

Ah, but while fishermen and loggers are doing ordinary jobs, our troops are fighting for our freedom! Alas, that cliché is untrue in any meaningful sense. Regardless of one’s views on the value of the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s absurd to argue that Americans’ liberty is somehow in the balance in either place.

It’s been a long time since the United States has faced a peer competitor. While the Russians maintain the theoretical ability to wipe us off the map, no one seriously thinks they’re interested in doing so.

And, if our conception of national defense were limited to defending our borders, skies, and shorelines, most of the burden of military service would be lifted. It’s so arduous these days because we’ve spent the last two decades projecting power to far-flung places, not because our freedom is in peril.

Demigods in Uniform

The disconnect between the military and civil society is problematic for at least two reasons. First, there’s growing concern that our military, and especially its officer corps, sees itself as a breed apart that’s more honorable and courageous than the people it serves. Second, the civilian population—and most political leaders—are in awe of the military and its commanders and are overly deferential to them.

Both of these phenomena lead to real tension with the time-honored principle of civilian control of the military. We have recently seen this manifest on several occasions.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal alone accounted for multiple incidents. First, he gave a speech to a British think tank not-so-subtly telling President Obama to hurry up on issuing his new Afghanistan strategy and even-less-subtly dismissing Vice President Biden’s public position on the war as “short-sighted.” Shortly thereafter, he or someone close to him leaked what should have been a private report to the president on his recommendations for the war in Afghanistan, thus putting his commander in chief in a tough spot. Finally, in a well-publicized Rolling Stone profile, McChrystal belittled Obama, Biden, and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, giving the president little choice but to fire him.

The sacking, and the fact that almost all active and retired officers agreed that it was warranted, indicates that civilian control is still a respected principle. But the contemptuous attitudes of McChrystal and his senior staff towards civilian authorities were widely shared among their fellow officers. There’s a general sense that those who do the fighting ought to have the final say on everything from strategy and tactics to manning and procurement. But while some deference to experts is due, no other bureaucracy expects—much less gets—the degree of deference that the military does.

We’ve gone from military service being something that was simply viewed as a man’s duty, to an ugly disdain for the military in some circles in the late Vietnam era, to a cult of worship where everyone who wears a uniform is viewed as a hero or part of a priesthood above questioning.

(Blogger Andrew Sullivan points to a related phenomenon: the “chicken-hawk” accusation, in which those who have not served in the military—or, sometimes, the present war—are ridiculed as ineligible to speak out on it or advocate policies that might lead more men to die. It’s a notion as outrageous as it is absurd.)

What We Owe Our Troops

Every American in uniform initially volunteered to be there. Most of those now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan joined the service after 9/11, fully knowing that they would be sent to war. And unlike past generations, they’re getting paid pretty well.

That they are volunteer professionals and not victims or demigods does not mean that we should be indifferent to the sacrifices their service entails. Aside from the fact that they risk their lives on our behalf, they have one unique attribute that distinguishes them from those in any other line of work: they’re not allowed to quit whenever they feel like it.

When we send them to fight for us, we owe it to them to ensure that they’re properly trained and equipped. We also owe them the best available medical care for wounds, whether physical or psychological, suffered in our service. And it’s a national duty to take care of the families they’ve left behind.

First and foremost, though, we owe it to them not to risk their lives cavalierly. They’ve signed up to put their lives on the line for their country. But they did so trusting that they’d be called upon to fight only when necessary—and, implicitly, to risk dying only for achievable objectives.

We’ve been failing them in this regard—ironically, often at their own urging. Once committed to a mission, and especially once comrades have died for the cause, warriors naturally want to stay until the job’s done. Civilians must take that decision out of their hands and not commit them to hopeless causes to begin with.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council and writes about public policy at outsidethebeltway.com. The views presented in this essay are his own.

The American Conservative needs the support of readers. Please subscribe or make a contribution today.