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The American Soldier at the End of History

In the racket of post-midterm exegeses, one line of analysis was missing—a lament for the paltry number of veterans serving in Congress. Of course, there were a couple high profile victories by veterans in this election, making up a colorful, if not altogether nutty, cast of characters (how much can one actually belabor a swine castration metaphor? I guess we’ll find out). But the overall number of vets serving in Congress is near the lowest it’s been since the Second World War.

That shouldn’t be shocking; different wars have different armies. For instance, counter to common perception, only 12 percent of The Greatest Generation served in World War II. Only half of 1 percent of Americans have answered the call of duty in our most recent wars. So veterans simply make up a smaller portion of the general population than they previously have. But that disparity doesn’t exist because kids today are less patriotic than their grandparents. It exists because of both how we structure our military and how we as a society choose to relate to it.

We’ve come a long way from the citizen armies of America’s past, when everyone knew someone who was overseas, and the nation was galvanized by a sense of shared sacrifice during brief periods of wartime. Instead, we’ve abolished the draft, and now have a small, quasi-elite, professional fighting force perpetually deployed around the globe. We have a military that is mythologized by the Right, misunderstood by the Left, and culturally severed from the country that it protects. How did we get here?

It might be easy to lose the thread of history in the miasma of the moment, but America hasn’t traditionally favored a large standing Army. Nearly every founding father warned against it as a particularly expensive threat to national liberty. It was always our custom to grow and shrink the size of the military, based upon current realistic assessments of threats to our national security. The Union Army was composed of roughly a little over 1 million men by the end of the Civil War. A year later, troop levels had been reduced to around 11,000.

Even after the Second World War—it’s often conveniently forgotten—our force was reduced to one-sixteenth of the size that it had been at its high water mark in 1945. A military composed of predominantly nonprofessionals seemed to work: America was so wildly successful fighting wars with a military made up of citizen soldiers, in fact, that this became a venerable tradition, a hallowed sacrifice deeply connected to citizenship itself. Until Vietnam.

As Vietnam veteran and retired Army Colonel (and contributor to The Baffler) Andrew J. Bacevich writes in his book The New American Militarism, “Whereas previously Americans had recognized a link between citizenship and military service…Vietnam all but severed that relationship.” Vietnam was devastating and confusing. American citizens weren’t quick to claim ownership of an ill-fated “political war,” a war many recognized as not having all that much to do with national defense, except in perhaps the broadest definitions of both words. And, as Bacevich explains, that cynicism about the origins and value of the war translated into a lot of Boomers suddenly seeing military service as something more like a statement of personal than a necessary aspect of being an American. Perhaps the politicians who made the Vietnam War possible in the first place were, in their own way, guilty of the same thing. They didn’t choose a war of necessity, but a war that they wanted; it was a war of preference.

After Vietnam, the military found itself in a crisis. The morale of the troops was almost nonexistent, perhaps only equaled in measure by the public’s utter lack of faith in “hearts and minds” interventions. Officers returning from Asia rightfully felt betrayed by politicians. In their estimation, politicians had nearly destroyed the military as an institution by dragging it kicking and screaming through the jungles of Vietnam, based on the ill-conceived containment strategies hatched by an aloof Liberal establishment elite (David Halberstam’s “best and brightest”). So officers decided that they had to take it upon themselves to save the military from both feckless politicians and public that was ambivalent at best. To do this, they’d need to have both the troops they wanted and the wars they wanted.

From then until the fall of the U.S.S.R., the United States military was in a long restructuring process. The year 1973 saw the implementation of the All Volunteer Force, ensuring that only those who wanted to would serve. It seemed to make everyone happy at the time; officers got (at least somewhat) willing soldiers, and a generation that had come to define itself as “anti-establishment” was able to avoid spending time in a particularly hierarchical institution. But it was also the beginning of the rift that would form between average Americans and their military.

Photo by Stig Nygaard
Photo by Stig Nygaard

No longer would we field an Army composed of something resembling a cross-section of American society. The enlistees that were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan were overwhelmingly poorer, less educated, and less white than their fellow Americans. And the Officer Corps was more religious than the population at large. Specifically, Evangelical Christians seemed to find a haven in the military, seeing it as an institution cut off from a morally corrupt popular culture and more conducive to what one might call “traditional values.” In short, military service was no longer an obligation felt by young, well to do, non-Evangelical, politically Left-leaning Americans.

As for getting the wars that the officers wanted, the Post-Vietnam shift in strategy favored a focus on “winnable” wars. During the Cold War, that meant a showdown with the Soviets in Central Europe and the High Seas. No longer would we slog through long, protracted guerilla wars in the backwaters of the world. Taking pages from the playbooks of the Israeli military—and, ironically enough, the German blitzkrieg campaigns of World War II—we would now have a military that would use technological advantage and offensive capability to overwhelm the enemy in quick and decisive victories. From Gen. Creighton Abram’s Airland Battle Doctrine, through the Weinberger Doctrine (named for, not the creator, but the promoter of the philosophy, Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger), to what came to be known as the Powell Doctrine, the military favored massive shows of force in narrowly defined battles with a clear enemy and all leading to a definite goal. Since then the military has been structured specifically to fit this purpose.

With the fall of the U.S.S.R. we found ourselves in the “unipolar moment” as the sole global power. The Army we had built specifically to go “eyeball to eyeball” with the Russians in the Fulda Gap had lost its enemy. Francis Fukuyama infamously declared the “end of history” in the pages of The National Interest—a smug proclamation that, somehow, the Soviet collapse meant that market capitalism not only reigned supreme, but would also do so indefinitely.

Instead of reveling in victory, a consensus formed between neoliberals and neoconservatives that we should should continue to project American military strength unto the world, in ever-increasing frequency. The list of our military obligations and responsibilities grow, and even with no major hegemon to threaten our military superiority, it suddenly seems that we have enemies everywhere. Neoconservatives are apocalyptic. Neoliberals are lengthening the to-do list. And with depictions of the military in popular culture becoming increasingly divorced from the reality of military experience, the public is well sheltered from anything resembling sacrifice. They just have to be afraid, and vote.

I deployed to Iraq twice as an enlisted Infantryman. Which one of the two most frequent responses I get when my service comes up in conversation depends on where I am. When I lived in Brooklyn, where I moved after my time in the Army, the usual question I got was “Why did you join the Army?” I never knew how to answer. Because it’s everyone’s responsibility? To serve my country? The cultural rift between me and the person asking felt so wide that an answer of that sort would have seemed naïve at best, quasi-fascist at worst. The connection between military service and civic responsibility has been severed. Like everything else, my choice has been reduced to the cultivation of identity.

The response in my midwestern hometown is usually a solemn “thank you.” It’s repeated in hushed and reverential tones, like a cult mantra. The most fervent gratitude, of course, comes from people who have never served, despite having every opportunity to do so. They are cut off from the seriousness of military duty as well, and in a way that feels more hypocritical than that of their coastal counterparts. But the “whys” and “thank yous” share a continuity in my mind. In both cases, I was a cipher that people were projecting their own identities onto. Both responses exemplify the problem, that the military has been changed from a civic organization—a shared burden meant to protect national existence and sovereignty—into a policy toy and a cultural cudgel.

Twenty-five years after Fukuyama pronounced history over, it seems in retrospect more like a declaration against memory, with each failed policy dressed up as simultaneously a new end and a new beginning. Clinton promised the end of government as we know it. Bush declared “mission accomplished.” Obama declared the war on terror over. And yet the responsibilities of our military grow each year, while we run frenetically from new threat to new threat, policing this border and shoring up that failed government. We ask more and more of our troops while understanding them less—a tiny warrior class set apart from the country it serves, charged with the impossible tasks of midwifing neoliberal fever dreams and making sure that history stays dead.