The Atlantic has a rather depressing article on The Tragedy of the American Military. Here’s the kernel of the story: the knee-jerk idolatry of the military by the American public is leading to a decline in its effectiveness and to wasteful expenditure of human lives.
If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.
Another interesting point: we’re mostly out of touch with the reality of the military, and despite the fact that we spend ludicrous amounts of money on it, many of us lack any real contact with the human beings sucked into it.
Now the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public. As a comparison: A handful of Americans live on farms, but there are many more of them than serve in all branches of the military. (Well over 4 million people live on the country’s 2.1 million farms. The U.S. military has about 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the reserves.) The other 310 million–plus Americans “honor” their stalwart farmers, but generally don’t know them. So too with the military. Many more young Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist in the military—nearly 300,000 students overseas, versus well under 200,000 new recruits. As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once.
That’s something I hadn’t considered before, and I wonder if that disconnect is also a matter of class. I have a son in the army, and many nephews who have served or are serving; all of my uncles served in the army or the navy (my father enlisted, but was quickly mustered right back out for medical issues); my grandfather was in the Army Corps of Engineers. I suspect that it’s the working poor who are most likely to enlist, creating another reason for misuse of the military — the wealthy who make the decisions do not have a personal stake in any war, other than the profits they gain from their investments in military contractors.