Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Civilian-military disconnect?

Mary L. Dudziak has an interesting post titled "A Growing 'Civilian-Military' Gap, and its Consequences."  She cites a revealing poll from Pew Research:

"A smaller share of Americans currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces than at any time since the peace-time era between World Wars I and II," according to a new report from the Pew Research Center< (hat tip New York Times).
During the past decade, as the military has been engaged in the longest period of sustained conflict in the nation’s history, just one-half of one percent of American adults has served on active duty at any given time.1 As the size of the military shrinks, the connections between military personnel and the broader civilian population appear to be growing more distant.
The data reveals is "a large generation gap." According to the report, "more than three-quarters (77%) of adults ages 50 and older said they had an immediate family member –a spouse, parent, sibling or child – who had served in the military."  In contrast, for people under 50, "57% of those ages 30-49 say they have an immediate family member who served. And among those ages 18-29, the share is only one-third."
Her theory:
The Pew report suggests that various political opinions are correlated with connections to family members who have served in the military, but there are deeper implications of the disconnect between Americans and American war-making.  The more distant and isolated Americans are from their nation's wars, the less they are politically engaged with American war policy.

Legal scholars argue on this blog and elsewhere that the tendency of presidents to initiate military action without congressional authorization can only be reined in if Congress insists on playing its constitutional role.  But Congress will never play a more meaningful role in American war politics if the people aren't engaged.  The Pew Report helps us to see what appears to be a growing distance from the costs of war, potentially reinforcing contemporary political disengagement.


I argue that keeping the war powers in check requires a politics of war, and that requires a citizenry attentive to the exercise of military power.  Our ideas about "wartime" play a role in the current disconnect, as a cultural framing of wartimes as discrete and temporary occasions, destined to give way to a state of normality, undermines democratic vigilance over on-going wars.

As Americans become more isolated from the costs of war, military engagement no longer seems to require the support of the American people.  Their disengagement does not limit the reach of American military action, but enables its expansion.
My own experience, admittedly anecdotal, suggests her theory is badly flawed inasmuch as the vast majority of members of the military, both officers and enlisted, that I have known have generally (and privately) supported American military action.  They are typically not happy about going to war, but they are among the first to recognize a situation that requires it and the extent and nature of that need.  Indeed, as Dudziak suggests, members of the military and their families and friends tend to be more engaged with defense and foreign policy than others, but I believe the effect of that engagement is the opposite of what she thinks it is.

Now, I say the members of the military I have known have privately expressed to me support for American military action.  Why am I specific about that?  Because aside from voting members of the military are prohibited from involvement in political activities.  They are not supposed to take part in protests, for instance. 

This is why, I have always maintained, anyone who uses the term "chickenhawk" is really anti-military.  Demanding that someone who supports military action join the military is actually a way of eroding support for the military.  You can support the military politically only from outside the military.  Once you are in it, you can do nothing.  Those who use the term "chickenhawk" are thus, intentionally or not, trying to weaken the US armed forces.

A couple other points to make here.

First, the prohibition on military involvement in politics is part of our system of government and a guarantee of civilian control of the military.  But it also assumes that the US political system will not turn against the armed forces.  When the dominant wing of one of only two major political parties in America becomes fervently anti-military, that prohibition starts to seem unfair because the military cannot defend itself from outrageous charges that they are "murderers," efforts to deny them badly needed weapons and supplies and whatnot.  It especially seems unfair when members of the armed forces serving overseas are denied even their voting rights, whether through ridiculous mailing deadlines for absentee votes or court challenges to throw them out.  For that last one, I'm looking at you, Al Gore. 

This effort to denigrate the military by one of the major political parties actually increases the politicization of the military, which our system of government was supposed to prevent.  If it continues, we can expect to see an effort at repealing that prohibition or even "civil disobedience" by members of the armed forces who are outraged at their treatment and portrayal and decide to speak out in their own defense.

Second, I wonder of there is a simpler reason for the civilian-military disconnect: the closure of "unneeded" military bases.

It used to be that we always had an army, navy, or air force base of some sort near us.  In Indianapolis we had Fort Harrison.  Now, we don't.  We don't have those servicemen and women from Fort Harrison renting our apartments, shopping in our stores, eating in our restaurants.  We don't see those servicemen and women.  We don't get to know them.  They stop seeming like people and start to appear as something much more abstract.  If that.

And the area around Fort Harrison, never that great to begin with, has declined markedly.  The intersection of 42nd Street and Post Road, surrounded by apartments built for Fort Harrison personnel, is now among the worst neighborhoods in the city.  The apartments surrounding 42nd and Post are now havens for crime.

Probably the most pro-military city in the country -- and one of the reasons I love that city so much -- is San Diego.  Take a look at the bases it has: Camp Pendleton, NAS North Island, MCAS Miramar, for starters.  Those Navy and Marine personnel are a big part of life in San Diego. 

Compare with Orange County.  MCAS Miramar had been NAS Miramar, the Navy's "Top Gun" base.  The Marines took over Miramar when MCAS El Toro, located near Irvine, was closed.  El Toro was big.  Now, that's a lot of Marines who are no longer in Orange County.  It's not surprising that Orange County has moved much further to the left politically.

Repeat that experience across the country with places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Long Beach Navy Yard.  Grissom Air Force Base.  The Presidio.

For civilian-military relations, those closed bases were not so "unnecessary" after all. 

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