Americans observe two anniversaries this year, neither one of them wanted. March marked eight years of combat in Iraq, and October, 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan. These are America's "long wars," a seemingly endless grind of combat.
These long wars invite comparison, and some recall the eight years of US war in Vietnam, but there is a more compelling distinction. It was a conscript Army that flew its Hueys over the jungles of the Mekong Delta; it is an all-volunteer force that drives its Humvees along the Tigris and in the shattered urban landscape of Kabul.
For nearly 40 years, these volunteers have defended the United States' national interests, and over time they have changed the nation's approach to warfare, foreign policy, domestic politics and even national character. Most often, these affects appear to be subtle, like the growing distance between the military and the civilian population, or the percentage of Americans who have relatives in the services. Still, the consequences have been profound, making it easier for the US to go to war with little public scrutiny.
The plans for this standing military were drawn up in 1969. The Big Think work was done by the President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Force, which came to be known as the Gates Commission after its chairman, Thomas S. Gates, Jr, an investment banker and former defense secretary. Nixon received the commission’s report (PDF here) in February 1970. And little more than three years later, in June 1973, the last man drafted into the US military reported for training.
The volunteers followed. While it's true that many young men and women have chosen to enlist for the four years of training, educational incentives and an $8,000 bonus, America has never had so large a standing military. At the dawn of World War II, the US Army and National Guard was 400,000 strong, plus another 125,000 in the Navy; the Gates Commission 30 years later planned for a force "somewhere between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 men." The volunteer force conceived in the 1970s to fight the Cold War has grown into a military geared to fighting what Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey, Jr calls an era of "persistent conflict." And that has turned a force of amateurs into professionals.
The distinction between volunteer and professional is crucial, because it best "… captures the significance of the changes that we've undergone in our approach to military policy since Vietnam," says historian and Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, a retired career Army colonel.
"The military is far more professional and capable than ever before," says Colonel Lance Betros, the head of the history department at the United States Military Academy at West Point. "There's a big difference between what we have now and anything we've had before."
Most important, the soldiers agree. They see themselves as professionals, as the recent documentary film "Restrepo" makes clear. Preparing for a deadly showdown with the Taliban in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, the soldiers psych for battle, telling themselves they are "professional tough guys."
These professional tough guys have had a direct and perhaps shocking effect on foreign policy, says Thomas Keaney, director of the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "They make it easier for Washington to go to war. You don’t need a special congressional action or the threat of a draft to send in the troops."
The professional military also makes it possible to sustain wars. Long wars become possible because the boots-on-the-ground can be deployed and redeployed. In the past, to fight wars like the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, "you would have had to institute a draft in order to sustain the action that’s been going on," Keaney says. "And that would have been a brake on any administration."
Vietnam is a vivid example of an administration hitting the brakes. In 1968, the draft focused public attention on the war. Protests shook the nation. Young people publicly burned their draft cards, and in a stunning about-face in domestic politics, President Lyndon Johnson declined to seek a second term in office.
But the professional military has taken the public out of the mix, something noted at the highest levels of government. Speaking at Duke University in September, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (no relation to Thomas) noted the disconnect: "Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] remain an abstraction. A distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally … warfare has become something for other people to do."
Bacevich goes further. "Americans," he said, "have forfeited any real sense of ownership or responsibility for the defense of the United States. One consequence of that is they have far less say over where and how US forces are deployed. To an enormously large extent, Washington makes the decisions about where and how to deploy US forces, and public opinion doesn’t matter in any significant way."
How does the public actually think about the military? The venerable Gallup Organization has queried this issue over the decade. It regularly asks the public to rate its institutions, and year after year, their polls show Americans have more confidence in the military than any other institution.
The public holds the military in high esteem, even "though warfare has become something for other people to do," as Secretary Gates pointed out. A 2008 USA Today/Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Americans see service in the military as patriotic.
But the public is less sure about sending its own children into combat. In 1999, The Associated Press asked parents if they would support their children if they wished to enter the military. More than 70 percent of respondents said they would support their children if they elected to go into service.
Six years later, after 9/11 and after Iraq, Gallup asked the same question. This time, less than half of the respondents said they would support their child's choice to go into the military. "This reluctance to support a military career is not a reflection on the military itself," Gallup reported. "… A more likely explanation probably lies in the realization that military service is more dangerous today given the ongoing war in Iraq."
Echoing this explanation for this public change of heart is an Associated Press/Roper Poll taken late last summer. Nearly two-thirds of respondents opposed the war (65 percent) and solidly more than half opposed the war in Afghanistan (58 percent).
Secretary Gates described part of the phenomenon when he said, "warfare has become something for other people to do." It does not affect them "personally," until a loved one goes to war.
Take Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and a major force in Republican circles. In March 2007, he left his job, disillusioned with the war in Iraq. He then had "skin in the game" — his son was about to deploy to Iraq as an Army intelligence specialist.
"If you have skin in the game — your investment is greater," says Lieutenant colonel Brenda Cartier, the first woman to command a squadron of covert operations AC-130U "Spooky" gun ships. She has spent five-and-a-half of the last 10 years in combat roles.
A great concern when the Gates Commission worked out the arguments in favor of an all-volunteer military was that the resulting force would become "ghettoized." The commission worried that "(1) an all-volunteer force will become isolated from society and threaten civilian control; (2) isolation and alienation will erode civilian respect for the military and hence dilute its quality; (3) an all-volunteer force will be all-black or dominated by servicemen from low-income backgrounds; (4) an all-volunteer force will lead to a decline in patriotism or in popular concern about foreign policy; (5) an all-volunteer force will encourage military adventurism."
That seems prescient. The percentage of forces enlisting from the populous Northeast, the West Coast and the big cities is in decline, according to Gates. What is more, the volunteers who do sign on are not from the wider public, but people who already have connections to the armed services. Most troops have grown up in or around military families, much like Cartier, whose grandfathers, father, brother and uncles all served in the Army, the Air Force or the Marines.
That sense of belonging has served the military well in these persistent conflicts. As the RAND Corporation noted in a research brief on the all-volunteer force, "Military commanders continually point to the outstanding job the force is doing in this nontraditional military conflict. Remarkably, while enlistments have fallen off, retention remains at historically high levels."
Meanwhile, the military has also grown physically remote from the wider public. Basing changes have moved a significant percentage of Army posts to just five states — Texas, Washington, Kentucky, Georgia and North Carolina. As Gates put it, the military is a "tiny sliver of America," significantly less than 1 percent of the population.
Because of the professional nature of the military, fewer and fewer Americans are connected to these long wars or to the military itself. "With each passing decade fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle," according to Secretary Gates." According to one study he cited, in 1988 about 40 percent of 18-year-olds had a veteran parent. By 2000, the share had dropped to 18 percent, and is projected to continue falling.
West Point's Lance Betros adds: "The military is losing contact with the wider society. And those who make the decisions about military force really don't have any skin in the fight. We've reached the point where you have to wonder how well policy makers understand the consequences of their actions when it comes to national deterrence."
When the Gates Commission signed off on its report, the 91st Congress had nearly 400 veterans, from World War II and Korea. The just completed 111th Congress had far fewer, 121. Only seven members of the 110th Congress had family serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The fear is not that the military would attempt to usurp the government. "The real danger," Betros says, "is that Americans reflexively move towards a military solution before they will try all the other elements of national power. For now, the country relies very, very heavily on its military, without asking if there is an alternative. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."