Absence of America's Upper Classes From the Military

Thanks to Sen. John McCain's youngest son checking into Marine Corps boot camp, the number of Congress members with enlisted children will skyrocket a whopping 50 percent. McCain's son Jim joins two other enlisted service members who have a parent in Congress (a few members of the officer corps are children of federal legislators).

In all, about 1 percent of U.S. representatives and senators have a child in uniform. And the Capitol building is no different from other places where the leadership class in this country gathers -- no different from the boardrooms, newsrooms, ivory towers and penthouses of our nation.

Less than 1 percent of today's graduates from Ivy League schools go on to serve in the military.

Why does it matter? Because, quite simply, we cannot remain both a world power and a robust democracy without a broad sense of ownership -- particularly of the leadership class -- in the military. Our military is too consequential, and the implications of our disconnect from it too far-reaching. We are on the wrong path today.

Those who opine, argue, publish, fund and decide courses of action for our country rarely see members of their families doing the deeds our leaders would send the nation's young adults to do, deeds that have such moment in the world.

These deeds hardly begin and end with the Iraq War -- 200,000 U.S. troops are deployed in 130 other countries around the world, keeping it "flat," to borrow Thomas Friedman's phrase. They train other nations' security forces, help keep the peace, provide humanitarian assistance, rescue Americans from Lebanon, stand ready to go to Darfur if sent, to go wherever the country calls on them for assistance. In short, they do the complex work of the world's sole superpower. Yet these doers are strangers to most of us, and the very missions they do are mysterious.

When the deciders are disconnected from the doers, self-government can't work as it should. Most of these decisions about whether and how to use the U.S. military are hard, and we need to be as best equipped as possible to make them. We need to be intellectually capable and have as much real knowledge as possible about what the military actually does, but we also need to be morally capable, which means we need a moral connection to those Americans we send into harm's way. Moreover, we need the largest pool of talent from which to draw those troops. Military work must not simply become fee for service.

A Duke University study demonstrates that it matters whether civilian decision makers have military experience: A review of U.S. foreign policy over nearly two centuries shows that when we have the fewest number of veterans in leadership and staff positions in Congress and the executive branch, we are most likely to engage in aggressive (as opposed to defensive) war fighting. And we are most likely to pull out of conflicts early.

A study by the eminent military sociologist Charles Moskos shows that people living in a democracy are not willing to sustain military engagements over time if those in the leadership class do not serve in the armed forces. When they don't serve, they send a signal that the conflict is not vital or worthwhile. Since we don't know what conflicts lie ahead -- or what party will be in power when they hit -- these findings should matter to all of us.

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