The men and women of the military have long been held in the highest regard, no matter the society, no matter the era. In the United States, it is no surprise considering that its first president was the military man who delivered independence from England. Yet recently I have heard people ask, “why is the country is so over-the-top in celebrating the military, treating them like they are sacred human beings? They signed up for this. They are doing a job.”
True enough, but the job they do, like the police and firefighters, can put their life at risk. That sacred duty is what separates the force from the civilians they represent and serve. But nothing occurs in a vacuum, and support for the military is no different. The current state of the military’s relationship with the greater society is a perfect example of how history can inform, and why understanding its arc can help bring differing sides into greater accord, if not full agreement.
During World War II, Korea, and Vietnam the U.S. conscripted its force from the population at large (though in Vietnam the system wasn’t fairly apportioned). WWII witnessed 12% of the population in uniform. Today, with an all-volunteer force, only 0.5 percent of U. S. citizens serve. A nation cannot go from, “we are all in this together” to “here, you guys just take care of it”, and not expect a corresponding spiritual reordering.
Samuel Adams warned of the consequences inherent in such a separation: “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.”
Recall how the president’s chief of staff General John Kelly spoke at the White House press briefing last Thursday (October 19th) defending the president’s condolence call to a Gold Star wife Myeshia Johnson, whose husband along with three other Green Berets died in an ambush in Niger earlier in the month.
“We don’t look down upon those of you that haven’t served,” Kelly said, belying the condescension he felt toward the White House press corps. “In fact, in a way, we’re a little bit sorry because you’ll never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kinds of things our servicemen and women do.”
If you are searching for the reason why we have the current dysfunctional government we do, look no further than the separation most citizens have from the responsibilities of shared service. When enough people stop paying close enough attention to politics in Washington and just let it ride year after year, election after election, as if it is somebody else’s responsibility to care rather than our own, this is the outcome. There are not just benefits, but burdens in a democratic society.
When you let somebody else take care of it long enough, you may wake up one morning to find the military existing in a parallel USA, while the moneyed class may well have gerrymandered the political system to its advantage until there is a schism given over to voice and fire.
Our politics are no different than our economics, which shows that only 24% of the country has saved anything for a rainy day and that credit card debt has risen above $1 trillion. Despite those alarming statistics, there is now a proposal to cap annual tax-deferred 401(k) retirement accounts at $2400 to help offset the president’s tax-cutting plan. Such a move would further decrease people’s ability to properly prepare for retirement. It’s one of those, “don’t look behind the curtain, Dorothy” moments of political wizardry. “Just trust the Great and Powerful Oz.”
The Greatest Generation believed in savings and service. In the face of the Nazi threat and Imperial Japanese attack, they signed up in patriotic numbers. And having lived through the Great Depression, they saved assiduously at a rate of 10% per annum. But their children, the Baby Boom generation, witnessed the duplicity with which the Vietnam War was started and the lies that were told in conducting it, and said, “screw that, we’re not going”. At the same time, they hereed the advice of the Grass Roots band and “Sha la la la la la live(d) for today, And don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, hey, hey, hey.”
The social unrest that attended the Vietnam War split the country and made it evident that continuing a military draft that drew from the entire socio-economic spectrum would only widen that gulf, especially when Congress no longer had to even declare war to put citizen-soldiers into battle. in 1973 at the conclusion of combat operations in Vietnam, an all-volunteer force was instituted – let somebody else take care of it – and to change the narrative from the harsh treatment that attended returning vets from Vietnam, the nation started thanking everyone for their service until today we celebrate military service as if it was a secular priesthood.
That lionization of service was part of a marketing strategy to ensure enough volunteers signed up. And everyone else who didn’t have to serve was only too happy to applaud that sacrifice. Add in a few million dollars from the Pentagon to NFL teams to showcase field-sized flags and stadium flyovers, and the deal was sealed.
The use of the NFL to glorify service is part of why there is such a strong backlash against the current take-a-knee players’ protest during the National Anthem, as fealty to the flag has obscured the real point of the protest, police violence against Africa-Americans.
But military separation from its citizenry carries many potential dangers, including the moral superiority shown by General Kelly toward the media. If you really want to know if a policy is politically supported, start sending business and political leaders sons and daughters into harm’s way. In 1975, 70% of Congress had military experience. Today, the number is below 20%. Yet it was George Washington‘s belief that “when we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.”
Until citizen and soldier and politician are brought into closer alignment, it will be more pomp and circumstance in the place of true patriotism where involvement and sacrifice might be spread more evenly like the Founders envisioned.