Veterans Day Thoughts 2011   (November 11, 2011)

Some Veterans Day thoughts on the widening gulf between our Armed Forces and a distracted civilian populace ruled by self-serving civilian Elites.

For most Americans, the U.S. Armed Forces are out of sight, out of mind. Those who live around major installations are aware of their little corner of activity, but with only 1.44 million active-duty personnel in a nation of 312 million people, an increasing percentage of the civilian population has no idea, and little interest, in what the Armed Forces are doing beyond the 10-second video clips on TV of Predators and forward bases in Afghanistan--what I call the "videogame" aspects.

I don't think this civilian ignorance and disinterest serves the nation's best interests. Since this blog has many readers who are active-duty or retired U.S. Armed Forces, I am keenly aware that I have a tough audience.

I am a civilian, with all the blind spots that go with being a civilian. I was one of the last Americans subject to the draft via the Selective Service Lottery in 1972. (I was number 31.) About 1.7 million males were drafted during the Vietnam War, and the Armed Forces became an all-volunteer force in 1973.

My stepfather was career Air Force. He joined as a young man, i.e. prior enlisted, and rose through the ranks during a 30+ year career to Lt. Colonel. He was an extremely bright and dedicated individual, traits which also characterize a great many current career personnel of all ranks.

As a result of his experiences and worklife, I learned a few things, and I continue to learn things from my active-duty and retired readers.

Veteran's Day is heavy on the remembrance of those lost at the tip of the spear and light on the everyday aspects of duty in the Armed Forces. While it is our duty as citizens and a good and right thing to honor those who lost their lives or suffered grievous wounds as a result of their duty, we can spare a few moments, I think, for everyone who serves behind the tip of the spear.

It is worrisome to me that the warfighting services and the civilian population they serve are drifting apart, partly through official policy and partly due to civilian disinterest. A democracy protected by an all-volunteer force is intrinsically fraught with potential disconnects: a democracy must extend civilian control over its warfighting machinery, but it must also generate enough volunteers to maintain the warfighting machinery.

If the two drift apart, the civilians have no idea what going to war even means because they have become distanced from its consequences. This is true of the civilian leadership and the voters/taxpayers who extend nominal control over the civilian leadership.

I am not alone in my worry; many people both civilian and military worry about this disconnect.

Part of this drift is the result of demographics and changes in warfighting. In the 1950s and 60s, the active-duty force was much larger than it is today, and most able-bodied young men served a two or four-year hitch. Thus most families had some exposure to the Armed Forces, and most of those serving in Congress were veterans.

Now that's changed. Few people have direct exposure to service and the number of veterans in Congress has dwindled to a handful.

I have no statistics to back this up, but my impression is that there are roughly three groups of young citizenry who volunteer for military service: 1) idealists who want to serve their country; 2) adventuresome youth, some of whom are infused with the warrior spirit, and 3) those for whom military service is the only escalator out of town, that is, the only pathway of what we call upward mobility, the opportunity to better one's place in the world.

What this leads to is a small cadre of idealistic people who gravitate to leadership, a cadre of what I call the warrior class, and a much larger cadre of people with few other opportunities--the "have-nots" in a society of ever-widening opportunity and wealth disparity.

So the young Elites go to their Elite universities and get their law degrees, and gravitate to Congress or the higher eschelons of civilian power, and then they send the have-nots out to do the dirty work their own kids will never see, much less do.

The era of "cannon fodder" and eight-week training has passed. Two years is no longer enough time to train and get some use out of personnel. What you need to know has expanded, and so the service needs people who will re-enlist or devote themselves to a career, especially in the critical "middle-management" enlisted ranks such as chief petty officers and the lower officer ranks, where the rubber meets the road. If you lose your experienced enlisted and middle-rank officers, you've lost an absolutely vital asset.

As a result, there's a pervasive divide between civilians who aren't part of those three groups of volunteers and those who are. Those who aren't potential volunteers tend to know essentially nothing about military service; their "understanding" is based on videogames or movies.

How can a nation that is ignorant about its own military deploy it wisely? How can those who volunteer avoid being chewed up by policies developed by ignorant civilian leaders?

This too is worrisome, and it's a topic that I have discussed in several contexts, including When Belief in the System Fades (March 12, 2008). If you mis-use and mistreat your middle management ranks and the warrior class, they quit, and the nation is thus endangered.

The presence of a warrior class in a politically-correct, me-me-me consumerist society makes a lot of people uncomfortable. People shy away from exposure to the wars and the people being chewed up because it makes them uncomfortable. They even shy away from the entire warfighting machinery, and so their ignorance and emotional distance widens further.

If you want to actually avoid war, then you have to provide potential enemies with a deterrent to even considering conflict as a "solution" to their perceived problems. If you actually want to win a war, then you must have the machinery in place and a warrior class with a place in that machinery. If they've been shunned or sent down because they didn't keep their head down and they opened their mouth too often, then you will lose the next war.

It's that simple. A warrior class makes us uncomfortable, and some of this is understandable. They stand apart in key ways, and I think most are born that way. They exist for a reason, and we should be careful about sending them out to be chewed up in "optional" wars. We need to conserve them, give them room to breathe, and not waste them.

Not everyone who serves is in this class, and this is good because most of the machinery is beneath the surface, and much of it is boring and repetitive and bureaucratic. (Recall that Lord Nelson spent 99% of his time, energy and genius on logistics, political feather-smoothing and the other essentials of keeping the fleet operational.) As with any large bureaucracy, there is tremendous waste and political infighting and too many meetings that accomplish little to nothing. But there is also resistance to all that bureaucratic squandering of time and resources.

From what I see, the vast majority of the civilian population that isn't actively laboring for the DoD (Department of Defense) or its multitude of contractors does not understand the size and scope of the Armed Forces and its civilian machinery. It is truly a nation within a nation, with its own airlines, its own towns, its own legal system, its own medical system, its own esprit de corps, its own elite universities, its own media, and so much more, beyond most civilians' imagination.

One of my readers served on the carrier group that helped northeastern Japan recover from its devastating tsunami. The resources which the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were able to put on the ground, air and sea in a matter of hours/days was almost beyond belief--it truly staggers the mind. And this was only the visible activity; there was all sorts of aid being extended at other levels--nuclear energy expertise, for example.

The full size of the warfighting machinery--and pardon me if this offends any sensibility--it really is about warfighting, not "defense" or other bland-sounding slipcovers--extends far beyond the videogame/movie level, to thousands of civilians working in shipyards, tens of thousands working in intelligence, thousands more in the nuclear weapons complex, and all sorts of contractor work that beggars description: special ships for pumping fuel offshore, for example--the list is basically endless.

This shadowy nature serves official policy perfectly, of course; the less we know about what goes on, the fewer questions will get asked. The ideal scenario for Elite civilian leaders is two-fold: a compliant, volunteer military that's ready to go enforce policy, even bad policy, at the cost of lives and treasure. (No problem, it's not my kids getting chewed up.)

The second part is a distracted, ignorant civilian populace who not only doesn't know anything about its military, it no longer cares: the wars are distant and "small," and much of the dirty work has been shoved under the carpet, performed by contractors, many ex-active-duty. The losses of life are "modest" and the cost in treasure hidden by borrowing from future generations. The civilian Elites have a free hand.

This may be the ideal scenario for the leaders, but it is the nightmare scenario for the Armed Forces and the democracy they serve and protect. Citizenship is not "free," and it is our duty to hold our elected and non-elected civilian Elites accountable for how they use the Armed Forces, and that requires knowing what they're doing despite their efforts to hide everything from us.

It is our duty to know who is serving, and what they're experiencing, what their families are experiencing, and what the entire machinery is costing in national treasure. It is our duty to insist the warfighting machinery is maintained, and not ground down or squandered to protect political "face" or Elites who dare not admit their policies have been disastrously wrong.

I don't have any grand answers to the widening gulf between those who serve and those who prefer distraction to awareness, and between the idealists and have-nots who serve and those who have "better prospects." We as a nation will be infinitely poorer if the gulf widens further.

There are 23 million veterans in the U.S. Here is the official Veterans Day Department of Veteran Affairs website.

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