A Republic on the Edge


The latest flap over President Obama's firing of General Stanley McChrystal has brought to mind the old argument of the inevitable clash between civilian leadership and the military. We have been fortunate among nations that our tradition of civilian oversight has never been challenged. This is how the Founding Fathers envisioned it, and this is how it has been. However, I believe that we are at a crossroads at this point in time, and the danger lurks of a considerable disconnect between civilian authority and military responsibility.

As one who has served this nation in time of conflict, and who would do it again willingly, I am concerned, as are others, of what has been referred to as this "cultural divide" between those who serve in our military, and those who have not. This nation has always cherished the ideal of the citizen-soldier. It began at our inception when a bunch of rag-tag farmers took on the British Empire at Lexington. It grew to its apotheosis when citizen-soldiers fought to both sides, North and South, during the crucible of the Civil War. It happened again in both World Wars when citizens fought under the same banner against the evil of Fascism. In the defining struggle of my generation, Vietnam, despite the protests and upheavals, it was still a citizen army that bore the brunt of the struggle. There was one cultural leveller, and that was the draft.

The draft is no longer with us, having been rescinded years ago. What we have now is an all-volunteer army. Unfortunately, this has only exacerbated the chasm between America's military and its civilian population. In reality, what we have today is an armed force, by and large, composed of poor whites, blacks and minorities led by a predominantly white officer corps. The sons and daughters of the elite, of legislators, of the upper brackets (with, of course, some exceptions) do not have to put themselves in harms way. Those who can't find work when the economy is good (let alone when we're in an awful depression) or who do not have the wherewithal to go to college, or can't get access to advancement and even good health care, they are the ones who sign up. And they serve selflessly, one long tour after another while the rest of us can't even fathom what they are going through. Thus the military has become an arm onto itself, aloof, apart and, yes, resentful of a leadership that has no idea of what it is to face fire. C.E. Montague once stated, "War hath no fury like the noncombatant." And it is the non-combatants, like a recent vice-president who claimed six deferments during the Vietnam war so as not to serve, who now make policy for those who must put their lives on the line.

This is not a good scenario. When a military becomes estranged from the nation is must protect, dissension and chaos will follow, as occurred with the early Roman Republic when a dysfunctional and ineffectual government succumbed to the legions who despised it. I'm not claiming this is our fate as of yet. But if this becomes a generational pattern with a growing separation between the political leaders and the military, it won't be long before that military losses respect for the politicos. And if there is no longer any respect for distant, elite rulers, then why should the soldiers obey them?

The last President we had who served in the military (and I'm not talking about George W. Bush's stint in the Air National Guard protecting us from the Gulf of Mexico) was Jimmy Carter, who had been a naval officer. Now, being a veteran is not a requirement for being a good Commander-in-Chief. Franklin Delano Roosevelt never served in uniform, yet he was a superb executive during World War II. But as was shown during the last Bush administration, having a cabinet of "furious non-combatants" is not necessarily a good thing. Those who have never seen battle may be too readily willing to commit us to questionable military endeavors. If the Congress at that time knew that their sons and daughters might have to serve in a dubious war, I doubt they would have been so willing in committing us to a uncertain adventure in Iraq.

My humble view (and this may trouble both my liberal and conservative friends) is that the draft should be reinstalled. Some European countries have a unique method of conscription. Everyone serves either in the military or a comparable national service for one year, with no deferments for anyone. One year, when you come out of high school is not going to ruin your life or prospects For those who like the military, they can stay in. For those who want to pursue a civilian career, they can pursue that as well. An equitable system for all. Also, and I say this with great pride, we are fortunate to be Americans; it's only fair we should give something back, and not have one percent of the population having to bear the brunt of protecting us. Because, my friends, I despair that the way we are going, someday in our future we just may have some Caesar who may want to "save" the nation. And that would be the worst of all outcomes.

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