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Ben Alpers: A Memorial Day Thought on David M. Kennedy

Benjamin Alpers received his PhD in history from Princeton University in 1994. He joined the faculty of the Honors College at the University of Oklahoma in 1998.

In today’s New York Times, retired Army Lieutenant General and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and the historian David Kennedy published an op-ed entitled “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart.” Eikenberry and Kennedy identify a very real problem: the increasing social distance between our increasingly high-tech, all-volunteer military and the rest of American society.   Today’s military, they argue, presents “a disurbingly novel spectacle”:

a maximally powerful force operating with a minimum of citizen engagement and comprehension. Technology and popular culture have intersected to perverse effect. While Vietnam brought home the wrenching realities of war via television, today’s wars make extensive use of computers and robots, giving some civilians the decidedly false impression that the grind and horror of combat are things of the past. The media offer us images of drone pilots, thousands of miles from the fray, coolly and safely dispatching enemies in their electronic cross hairs. Hollywood depicts superhuman teams of Special Operations forces snuffing out their adversaries with clinical precision.

Eikenberry and Kennedy’s proposed solution to this problem is a return to some sort of military conscription. I think they’ve identified a very real problem but have, in a crucial way, misdiagnosed it.

Until 1940, the United States never had a peacetime draft.  And that first peacetime draft, in very sort measure, became a wartime draft.  Though peacetime drafts returned during the Cold War era, the draft became massively unpopular during the Vietnam Era.  Our current all-volunteer force was, in large measure, crafted in reaction to that unpopularity.

Since then, the military has grown into, far and away, our most popular institution. Gallup polls suggest that three quarters of the public now have either a “great deal” or “quite a lot of” trust in the military. Small business rates at around 66%, the police at 56%, and every other institution — including organized religion, the medical system, the Supreme Court, public schools, and many others — garner less than 50% such support.

Our Memorial Day celebrations reflect this popularity. Facebook is filled with images that tell us that we are “the land of the free because of the brave.”  Our baseball teams dress in uniforms trimmed in camo.

But while Eikenberry and Kennedy think that the problem with this picture is that, despite its popularity, the military is distant from most of our lives, the problem I have with this picture is that the military has become so popular and so central to Americans’ understandings of both our country’s place in the world and the legitimate role of the state…even at home.

Eikenberry and Kennedy approvingly quote Samuel Adams’s warning that “a standing Army, however necessary it may be at some times, is always dangerous to the Liberties of the People. Soldiers are apt to consider themselves as a Body distinct from the rest of the Citizens.”  But they somehow don’t take Adams’s actual concerns seriously. Instead they draw the mistaken conclusion that a conscripted standing army responds to Adams’s worries.

In fact, the era of conscription was hardly a golden age for the place of the military in American life.  Indeed, the draft tore this country apart in the 1960s and 1970s. The very problems that Eikenberry and Kennedy describe have enabled much of American foreign policy in the decades since. In a very real sense, the separation of the military from American society is the price that we pay for our militarized foreign policy.

I suspect that Eikenberry and Kennedy are much more at peace with that foreign policy than I am. From where I sit, the problem is not the separation of the military from American society, but rather the exaggerated role that the military has come to play in American policy, society, and culture. We don’t need to reinstitute the draft. We need to demilitarize our state and society…though doing so seems like a truly impossible dream.

“The civilian-military divide erodes the sense of duty that is critical to the health of our democratic republic, where the most important office is that of the citizen,” write Eikenberry and Kennedy. Yet the office of citizen is not, or at least should not be, principally a military one.  Even as we memorialize our military dead on this holiday, we should be concerned about our tendency to reduce our notions of civic duty to the taking up of arms.  There are far more productive and valuable ways to fulfill one’s office as a citizen.

Read entire article at S-USIH Blog