The Reinvention of Military Service as a Right

by Reihan Salam

Though it’s rare that I agree with Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and author of a number of provocative critiques of U.S. national security strategy including The New American Militarism and American Empire, I always profit from reading his work. Bacevich draws on the work of scholars like William Appleman Williams to explain America’s grand strategy of achieving “a preponderance of power” as a product of economic imperatives, and like John Lukacs he sees the political celebration of military values as a corruption of America’s republic ethic. So it is in this context that he reflects on the “transformation of military service from collective obligation to personal choice” in a recent Boston Globe op-ed:

Current arrangements have allowed and even encouraged Americans to disengage from war at a time when war has become all but permanent. Rather than being shared by many, the burden of service and sacrifice is borne by a few, with the voices of those few unlikely to be heard in the corridors of power.

Relieving citizens of any obligation to contribute to the country’s defense has allowed an immense gap to open up between the US military and American society. Here lies one explanation for Washington’s disturbing propensity to instigate unnecessary wars (like Iraq) and to persist in unwinnable ones (like Afghanistan). Some might hope that equipping women soldiers with assault rifles and allowing them to engage in close combat will reverse this trend. Don’t bet on it.

One of my disagreements with Bacevich is over how to understand the demographic composition of the U.S. military, an issue that Tim Kane and Bruce Berkowitz, among others, have explored in detail. Kane’s work suggests that the military is best understood as a middle-income institution, with a cultural skew towards families with a military tradition. Berkowitz has observed that the military’s recruiting standards are such that a majority of young Americans are ineligible for service, and that the all-volunteer force successfully recruits a significant share of the eligible population.

This doesn’t challenge Bacevich’s claim that the kind of students who go to Harvard and other elite institutions don’t represent the bulk of the armed forces. But one wonders if we shouldn’t be just as concerned about the fact that many Americans from low-income backgrounds are ineligible for service due to low levels of educational attainment. This obviously doesn’t fit Bacevich’s framework — the implication of which is presumably that those who are eligible, particularly those drawn from the most privileged strata of the population, should feel more of a sense of duty and obligation than they do — but I can’t help but think it’s at least equally important, and a sign of an even deeper problem.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.