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.

The Triangle Institute of Security Studies has tracked the growing disconnect between the military and the leadership class, and it finds evidence of a growing distrust of both groups toward one another. The group in America that reports having the lowest opinion of the military is the elites: The elites are almost six times more likely than those in the military to say they would be "disappointed if a child of mine decided to serve."

In past wars, the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Sulzbergers of The New York Times -- in other words, the elites -- served. Sure, there were always shirkers, but many did join their middle-class and working-class compatriots. Today narrow self-interest, a sense of other priorities or a misguided sense of moral preference means most of the upper class never considers military service.

In my own travels to talk about this issue, the most problematic comment I've come across is an idea expressed by many, including many in the upper classes, that it is somehow more moral to refrain from military service than to serve, because that way one can avoid an "immoral" war.

There are so many problems with this statement. It certainly shows a misunderstanding of military service. Military service is not about our political opinions, which can after all be wrong. The oath given at the "pinning on" ceremony for a second lieutenant or a general involves not a promise to fight a particular war or support a given president but to protect and defend the Constitution. Young men and women who join the military do not know what future conflicts or engagements will bring. They even know that some of the decisions that flow from the deciders will be flawed, because people are flawed.

But service members also know that Americans will be sent to do the nation's bidding. And we want those who are sent to act with skill, judgment and integrity. Many of those who serve see that Americans are being sent to act in the interests of our country and say, as the famous sage Rabbi Hillel said, "If not me, who?"

Military service is not a political statement. Democrats did not rush to sign up when Clinton became president, and wealthy Republicans didn't suddenly join when Bush was elected. Military service is service to the country, and even more perhaps, service to your fellows.

But how can we expect privileged young people to do military work? Military work is dangerous. You could be asked to kill or be killed. It is fraught with the risk of being sent into an unpopular conflict, as many now understand Iraq to be. Why should the children of our leadership classes or those ambitious for leadership chose such a path, when there are so many better options available to them?

In World War I, one of Congress's stated reasons for proposing a draft was that without it, too many of the upper-class children would rush to service, and we'd lose the leadership class of the country. In 1956, a majority of the graduating classes of Stanford, Harvard and Princeton joined the military, and most were not drafted. Leadership was then understood to have a moral dimension. The cry "follow me" was more convincing than "charge!" Those who aspired to future leadership saw military service as necessary to their credibility.

As a country, we have stopped viewing military service as a way to make a principled statement. We sell it instead as a job opportunity, one from which those with better options are excused. We need to revisit our stance on who should serve, and why. All members of our elite class need not serve, just a representative number, enough to bring the country's leadership in line with the rest of the country. With such leaders, with such a military, we will be a stronger, fairer, better country. With such leaders, the enlistment plans of young Jimmy McCain need not seem so surprising.

Kathy Roth-Doquet co-wrote "AWOL, The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service and How It Hurts Our Country" (Harper Collins, 2006).