If you’re as old as I am and remember the Vietnam War era, you have to be constantly struck by the radical change in public sentiment towards active-duty military and veterans these days. Scarcely an opportunity is passed up to “respect the troops” and “honor their service.” It’s become an obligatory part of every public event, from football games to television specials. And while it provides a refreshing contrast to the indifference and quick amnesia Americans so often displayed towards Vietnam War participants and vets, it often feels over-the-top, strained, and formulaic, reflecting a guilty conscience and a lack of genuine interest.
It’s this phenomenon that WaMo Contributing Editor James Fallows uses as a launching pad for an extensive analysis at The Atlantic of the dangerous separation of military and civilian perspectives that has marked the transition from the conscription-based armed services of the World War II, Korea and Vietnam eras to the All-Volunteer Military, which has enabled Americans to support or oppose wars fought in their name and vast expenditures made of their dollars without much if any direct experience of military life.
It showed up to an alarming degree, says Fallows, in a September 2014 speech by President Obama on Iraq and Syria, delivered at a Florida Air Force base:
Obama gave his still-not-quite-natural-sounding callouts to the different military services represented in the crowd. (“I know we’ve got some Air Force in the house!” and so on, receiving cheers rendered as “Hooyah!” and “Oorah!” in the official White House transcript.) He told members of the military that the nation was grateful for their nonstop deployments and for the unique losses and burdens placed on them through the past dozen years of open-ended war. He noted that they were often the face of American influence in the world, being dispatched to Liberia in 2014 to cope with the then-dawning Ebola epidemic as they had been sent to Indonesia 10 years earlier to rescue victims of the catastrophic tsunami there. He said that the “9/11 generation of heroes” represented the very best in its country, and that its members constituted a military that was not only superior to all current adversaries but no less than “the finest fighting force in the history of the world.”
If any of my fellow travelers at O’Hare were still listening to the speech, none of them showed any reaction to it. And why would they? This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money. A somber moment to reflect on sacrifice. Then everyone except the few people in uniform getting on with their workaday concerns.
All civilians, from the president on down, are getting in the habit of offering the military this “overblown, unlimited praise” instead of the kind of detailed and sometimes critical scrutiny–the investment of attention–they deserve. And so we continue to throw money at the Pentagon for missions we barely understand or acknowledge, and only become alarmed when U.S. casualties occur, which ratchets up the sense of guilt while creating grievances among career military members that their fellow-citizens have no idea what they experience, which is true.
We have become, says Fallows, a “Chickenhawk Nation,” one that wages and ends wars via remote control and without a whole lot of debate.
What to do about it? Some people (myself included) think a restoration of the idea of national service–not a draft, and not universal military conscription, but well-funded opportunities for most young Americans to spend a brief period of time in civilian or military service as a quasi-universal right of passage–would help enormously. Barring that, a reassertion of the idea that civilian control of the military is essential to civil health should replace the sort of cringing and begging a lot of politicians now express when addressing the armed forces, which undermines real respect on everyone’s part. And just as importantly, Americans need to take the military and its often violent role seriously enough to pay close attention to it–respectfully, but not superficially–even when they are not directly and personally affected by its triumphs, failures and risks. That’s more difficult in an age of shadowy limited wars waged by special forces and drones. But it’s the only way to avoid waking up some fine day and realizing we’ve created, authorized, and ritualistically praised a war machine we barely recognize as our own.