First Honorable Mention, Arleigh Burke Essay Contest
Many ideas have been floated, but conspicuously absent is any plan to reinvest the military in society through domestic operations. The military is an ideal starting point for a national service program.
The crisis, if it can be called that, is by no means new. Before the ink declaring our independence was dry, Sam Adams warned the infant nation: "Soldiers are apt to consider themselves as a Body distinct from the rest of the Citizens.... Such a Power should be watched with a jealous Eye." But lately the issue has received increasing attention. The demise of the Soviet Union, while ending one great conflict, had reopened countless other fronts, and the oldest of these, alluded to by Adams, is once again at the forefront of public debate. The "crisis" is the civil-military divide.
A value gap. A cultural chasm. A nearly unbridgeable divide. The warnings are getting louder and are coming from all quarters, but too few offer anything like a complete answer. The good ideas that have emerged do share a theme: the military cannot afford to insulate itself. To this end, several initiatives have been proposed. One deals with education—draw more officers from civilian schools; augment civilian quotients at the war colleges and academies. Another stresses social interaction—encourage community involvement by service members; reach out to civilians through air shows and open houses. A third addresses politics and the media—capitalize on renewed public interest in military history; train officers to deal better with congressmen and reporters. Conspicuously missing, and vital to any complete plan, are efforts to invest the military operationally in society.
The thought itself is anathema to most of us in uniform. We may allow superficial contact with society, through the media, academia, and volunteerism, but God forbid we conduct domestic military operations. Our mission is to wage and win war. Military operations other than war (MOOTW), we are led to believe, are a dangerous distraction. Indeed, many senior political and military leaders argue that increasing ancillary missions overseas have become the greatest stressor of civil-military relations. No telling what price we would pay for such commitments at home, they warn.
But those leaders are wrong. Their fears are not grounded in historical fact, or in the present reality of our security needs. They overlook centuries of domestic involvement by the military and ignore true threats to the American way of life. This abrogation of responsibility is not just misguided, it is immoral. We are abandoning our own countrymen for the sake of a paranoid dogma. A military that fails to prepare itself for anything but war becomes, in the words of one expert, "an ethically debased instrument of state."
Closing the gap is important. The civil-military divide has existed from our nation's beginning, and the United States has survived, but we now face a far greater danger, of which the gap is only a symptom. To generations past, duty to country was practically a requirement for citizenship. Not everyone joined the Army, but most people cared about what was "good for America," even if they disagreed on what that was. United by common experiences and endeavors, Americans understood the value of national identity. And the majority of our national leaders shared some experience, often military, that contributed to this identity. The electorate required a prior record of service. Sadly, most Americans today do not even care to vote.
Public apathy is by fare the greater threat to our military and to our country. Our generation has witnessed a quiet purging of military experience from national leadership—we are the first to live under a Congress in which veterans are outnumbered. Common sense tells us this cannot be good. Solid research tells us it costs lives, as civilian leaders become more inclined to exercise the military option, yet less able to understand the military mind. In closing the civil-military divide, we can help reignite the notion of "citizenship through service" and remind the nation that lives are at stake.
As a nation, we have forgotten the importance of common identity. A healthy democracy requires that its citizens contribute more than just taxes. And as a military, we are beginning to forget who we serve. We cannot continue to insulate ourselves from society and expect good leadership. The current civil-military debate offers an opportunity to address both problems with one plan. Our military is the ideal starting point for a voluntary national service program. As we create more opportunities for public service, we will bridge the civil-military divide while rebuilding citizenship in the United States.
More than Waging War
In his 1990 essay, "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012," Air Force Colonel Charles Dunlap invents a future battlefield on which a U.S. Army is crushed. He describes a U.S. military unprepared for war, so distracted by ancillary commitments—peacekeeping, disaster relief, drug interdiction—that it is decimated at the hands of a once inferior fighting force. "Military officers who concentrate on activities other than war eventually become something other than warriors," he warns. Colonel Dunlap's essay culminates in the overthrow of civilian government by a bloodied, fed-up military. While the coup idea clearly is more literary device than prediction, it caught the attention of prominent national leaders and did much to shape the current civil-military debate.
Other influential figures have joined in criticizing efforts to "civilize the military." John Hillen and Mackubin Owens have written at length about the military's functional imperative. A military culture, they argue, has evolved to maximize success on the battlefield, and "subordination of [this] functional imperative to social ones" threatens our warfighting ethos. Similar warnings echo from such diverse company as John McCain, Harry Summers, Barton Gellman, and T. R. Ferenbach.
Colonel Dunlap and his cohorts are right about one thing. A military that loses its ability to fight, regardless of accomplishments elsewhere, is a failure. But to argue that this responsibility obviates all others is absurd, especially when those other missions contribute to the common defense. As officers, we swear to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
War readiness and MOOTW need not be mutually exclusive. Too few of our leaders have thought to question the prevailing ideology of war making. As Gregory Foster remarked, "The military must question the deeply ingrained belief that the best, if not only, way to secure peace is to prepare for war."
Those willing to challenge the conventional wisdom have history on their side. Only since World War II has ours been "a distinctly warmaking military." Samuel Huntington, author of The Soldier and the State, has noted that "the American military ... during the 19th century and the early part of this century . . . performed a wide variety of what we would call non-military functions." Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps managed millions of young men and was administered by the Army. Thomas Jefferson used the military for road building and exploration. Louis Goodman, while respecting the "basic purpose of the armed forces ... to engage in combat," acknowledges the importance of ancillary missions. "For example, at different times in its history," he explains, "the U.S. Army has been engaged in economic development, scientific research, disaster relief."
The argument that nonwar operations automatically distract us from preparing for war doesn't make sense. Historically we have done both. Even today, only a fraction of us are trained for warfare, yet we get the job done. We have cooks, accountants, clerks, musicians, and thousands of others who engage in MOOTW on a daily basis, yet as a whole, the military maintains its ability to wage and win war. As long as those at the tip of the spear—the SEAL, the F-16 pilot, the Marine grunt—get the support and training they need, we can do both successfully.
Some will argue that nonwar operations must be avoided because they drain critical resources from war making. This is an issue of funding, not military culture or ethos. Of course we need more money, but that is no excuse for philosophical objections to nonwar operations. The war fighter must come first, but provided adequate resources, our armed forces are capable of carrying out nonwar missions.
Committed to Civilian Control
Almost half of all Americans worry about a military takeover. In their landmark 1999 study of the civil-military divide, Peter Feaver and Richard Kohn produced some frightening survey results: "Nearly half of the [civilian] mass (47%) ... express doubt about the safety and security of civilian control in the United States." Given incitements such as Colonel Dunlap's coup essay and John Hillen's description of the society he once defended as 11 victim-centered, nihilistic, and soft," it is no wonder the average American has doubts.
Increasing attention is being given to a growing sense of moral superiority among our troops. Gregory Foster writes of a "hypocritical hubris of many in uniform today, who consider themselves occupants of a moral high ground that overlooks an increasingly indolent, decadent, and even depraved society." Admiral Stanley Arthur voices a concern shared by many of his peers: "More and more, enlisted [men and women] as well as officers are beginning to feel that they are special, better than the society they serve."
Contempt for societal values—and the resultant disdain for civilian authority—is seen by some as the first step toward a garrison state. Blatant disrespect makes headlines these days: an Air Force general publicly ridicules his President as a "gay-loving, pot-smoking, draft-dodging womanizer"; crew members of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) heckle their Commander-in-Chief during a visit. When a dangerously insubordinate military is called on for domestic nonwar operations, some say the coup specter will be realized. Preventing this, the argument goes, requires withdrawing from society. But the logic is completely backward. "Stiff-arming the social imperative" can only make the problem worse.
The "self-anointed moral supremacists" within our ranks should worry us. But disengaging from the public will only exacerbate the value gap—indeed, how will we ever come to understand a culture from which we are totally isolated? The surest way to close the divide is to reinvest ourselves in society, and that means domestic military operations.
Fears that this may lead to militarism are misplaced. Feelings of moral superiority are one thing, but our military would never challenge the democratic ideal. The historian Andrew Janos considered the prospect "too fantastic to contemplate." Our professional military accepts unquestioningly the need for civilian control. Gregory Foster writes, "Anyone even remotely aware of how thoroughly any propensity for the military overthrow of government has been socialized out of the U.S. officer corps will be quick to see that this is an unfounded fear."
Even the most pessimistic commentators on civil-military relations discount the possibility of a coup. Mackubin Owens notes, "Concerns about a coup discount the degree to which the military profession in this country is committed without reservation to the principle that the military is subordinate to civilian authority. Even the most illiberal officer would find it hard to go against the Constitution, or to find many others who would go along with him."
Our military accepts unquestioningly the need for civilian control. We are sworn to obey the lawful orders of the President. Ultimately, we answer to the American public through him. Americans have no fear of suffering widespread abuse from a power-hungry military.
Critics of military domestic operations often cite the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits federal troops from conducting arrests, searches, and seizures of American citizens. The law was designed to protect Southern whites from vengeful occupation troops after the Civil War. Clearly, the social conditions that necessitated its passage no longer exist.
Mistakes still will occur, like the shooting of an armed goat herder by a Marine supporting the U.S. Border Patrol on the Texas-Mexico border. But would that death have been less tragic had it been at the hands of civilian law enforcement? When accidents happen, we do not pull our policemen off the streets. Likewise, we should not overreact when mistakes are made by the military. Posse Comitatus was intended to protect against widespread abuse of power. As a law, it has long since outlived its purpose. Systemic abuse of civilians is impossible from a military dedicated to the principles of a democratic state. So said John Hancock, on the eve of our Revolution: "From a well regulated militia we have nothing to fear; their interest is the same with that of the state."
Rebuilding an Ethic
The value gap exists because a majority of civilians cannot appreciate what it means to serve their country. Bridging this chasm must involve more domestic involvement by the military, not less. Should we instead "stiff-arm" this responsibility, we will pay with the blood of U.S. soldiers. Probably the most significant conclusion of Peter Feaver and Richard Kohn's study was this: "At least since 1816, there has been a very durable pattern in U.S. behavior: the more veterans in the national political elite, the less likely the United States is to initiate the use of force."
The inability of civilian leadership to empathize with those in uniform costs lives. In 1999, John Hillen and Mackubin Owens noted, "For the first time in history, none of the major foreign and defense policy makers, including the secretary of defense, the national security advisor, secretary of state, or any of their principal deputies have ever served in uniform." Fixing this will take time, but it must begin with broadening military responsibilities at home and increasing opportunities for public service.
Expanding our domestic role can help the United States deal with natural disasters, crumbling infrastructure, and failing schools—but we must accept the greater challenge of rebuilding citizenship. These increased demands should not be seen as a distraction from our mission or a threat to democracy. They should be welcomed as a chance to recreate a belief in public service. Want to assist overwhelmed emergency rooms? Join the Army Urban Assistance Team. Want to build shelters for flood victims? Sign on with the Navy Flood Response Unit. The possibilities are endless. Want to fight our enemies overseas? We still do that, of course, better than ever.
The military can do it all. In time, we could restructure our added responsibilities so other institutions could accept some of the burden. The Army Corps of Engineers is one example of how this has worked in the past. But for now, we must accept our unique role in providing more opportunities for public service. And a generation from now, when responsibility for such programs is shared across society, we may once again live under a Congress where all members have served—in a hospital, in a youth shelter, or on a distant battlefield. And we may once again live in a country where national identity means something, and where people care enough to vote.
Why the Military?
The military is the only U.S. institution with the organization, discipline, public respect, and political clout to pull this off. We still possess, in Richard Kohn and Peter Feaver's words, a "profound moral presence," and, as Sara Lister has noted, we "enjoy the highest respect of any professional group in our society." Most important, the military serves no single constituency—as an institution we answer to every citizen. Jim Fallows elaborates on this key point: "The military ... is the one government institution that has been assigned legitimacy to act on its notion of the collective good. 'National defense' can make us do things—train engineers, build highways—that long-term good of the nation or common sense cannot."
Those still unconvinced should consider the Coast Guard. Here is a military organization deeply involved in domestic issues—counternarcotics, immigration, search and rescue—that still maintains its ability to fight and does not threaten civilian leadership. No one worries about this massive domestic operation, simply because we are used to it. If changing an attitude is all it takes, we have no excuse not to try.
Samuel Adams did not trust soldiers. The professional military men he encountered were a breed apart, who did not care to mingle with civilians. George Washington had a different vision for his country's military. "When we created the soldier," he said, "we did not lay aside the citizen." This should be our charge, to rediscover the citizen-soldier that Washington emulated so well. The civil-military divide is not new, but the chance to rebuild Washington's notion of citizenship may never come again. We must act bravely, and we must act soon. Doing so, we may finally lay to rest Adams's centuries-old mistrust of the U.S. soldier.
Lieutenant Harbaugh is assigned to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron (VQ)-1 at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington. His essay, “Learning to Lead the DI Way,” won first honorable mention in the 2000 Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest.