The Growing Chasm Between Citizen and Soldier

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While the Pentagon’s top military leader spoke of a rash of weekend suicides over breakfast Wednesday, its civilian boss warned in a late afternoon talk at Duke University that the nation and its military are growing apart.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said suicides and war’s other post-combat problems are on the rise. Defense Secretary Robert Gates focused on the rest of us, and how and why the defenders and defended increasingly are going their separate ways (sounds like he read our post on thisĀ  topic last week).

Gates encouraged Duke students to consider a military career, after detailing the expanding gap between citizen and soldier. He didn’t have any answers — beyond calling on those attending elite schools to consider donning a uniform — but it’s great that he’s asking the question:

For most Americans the wars remain an abstraction, a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally. Even 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.

In fact, with each passing decade, fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or socials circle. According to one study, in 1988, about 40 percent of 18-year-olds had a veteran parent. By 2000, the share had dropped to 18 percent and is projected to fall below 10 percent in the future.

In broad demographic terms, the armed forces continue to be largely representative of the country as a whole, drawing predominantly from America’s working and middle classes. There are disparities when it comes to racial composition of certain specialties and ranks, especially the most senior officers, but all in all, the fears expressed when the all-volunteer force was first instituted — that the only people left willing to serve would be the poorest, the worst-educated, the least able to get any other job — simply did not come to pass.

…the nearly four decades of an all-volunteer force has reinforced a series of demographic, cultural and institutional shifts affecting who is most likely to serve and from where. Studies have shown that one of the biggest factors in propensity to join the military is growing up near those who have or are serving. In this country, that propensity to serve is most pronounced in the South and the Mountain West, and in rural areas and small towns nationwide — a propensity that well exceeds these communities’ proportion of the population as a whole. Now, currently, the percentage of the force from the Northeast, the West Coast and major cities continues to decline. I’m also struck by how many young troops I meet who grew up in military families, and by the large number of our senior officers whose children are in uniform, including the recent commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq whose son was seriously wounded in the war.

The Marines’ own — the military’s own basing and recruiting decisions have reinforced this growing concentration among certain regions and families. With limited resources, the services focus their recruiting effort on candidates where they’re most likely to have success with those who have friends, classmates and parents who have already served. In addition, global basing changes in recent years have moved a significant percentage of the Army to posts in just five states: Texas, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky, and here in North Carolina. For otherwise rational environmental and budgetary reasons, many military facilities in the Northeast and on the West Coast have been shut down, leaving a void of relationships and understanding of the armed forces in their wake.

This trend also affects the recruiting and educating of new officers. The state of Alabama, with a population of less than 5 million, has 10 Army — has 10 Army ROTC host programs. The Los Angeles metro area, population over 12 million, has four host ROTC programs. And the Chicago metro area, population 9 million, has three.

It makes sense to focus on places where space is ample and inexpensive, where candidates are most inclined to sign up and pursue a career in uniform. But there is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.