July 25, 2005

Citizenship and the Military

David Kennedy wrote an editorial in today's New York Times titled "The Best Army We Can Buy." He argues that military service in the USA is divorced from citizenship, a situation which many figures through history have warned against.

Kennedy begins:

THE United States now has a mercenary army. To be sure, our soldiers are hired from within the citizenry, unlike the hated Hessians whom George III recruited to fight against the American Revolutionaries. But like those Hessians, today's volunteers sign up for some mighty dangerous work largely for wages and benefits - a compensation package that may not always be commensurate with the dangers in store, as current recruiting problems testify.

Kennedy then goes on to argue that the privilegese of citizenship have been linked to military service for many countries throughout history:
Since the time of the ancient Greeks through the American Revolutionary War and well into the 20th century, the obligation to bear arms and the privileges of citizenship have been intimately linked. It was for the sake of that link between service and a full place in society that the founders were so invested in militias and so worried about standing armies, which Samuel Adams warned were "always dangerous to the liberties of the people."

What about the size of the US military? Technological advances have made soldiers much more deadly these days. In comparison to the country's total involvement during World War 2 (when 25 times as many people, proportionate to population, were in the armed forces, and 10 times as much of the GDP was spent on war), he writes:
The implications are deeply unsettling: history's most potent military force can now be put into the field by a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it does so. We can now wage war while putting at risk very few of our sons and daughters, none of whom is obliged to serve. Modern warfare lays no significant burdens on the larger body of citizens in whose name war is being waged.

This is not a healthy situation. It is, among other things, a standing invitation to the kind of military adventurism that the founders correctly feared was the greatest danger of standing armies - a danger made manifest in their day by the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Jefferson described as having "transferred the destinies of the republic from the civil to the military arm."

America is certainly involved in many more foreign affairs, including wars, then we were before World War 1, for example. We do not (yet), though, have a leader like Napoleon who would lead the country into wars of border expansion. It could be argued that America has engaged in wars of aggrandizement.
Some will find it offensive to call today's armed forces a "mercenary army," but our troops are emphatically not the kind of citizen-soldiers that we fielded two generations ago - drawn from all ranks of society without respect to background or privilege or education, and mobilized on such a scale that civilian society's deep and durable consent to the resort to arms was absolutely necessary.

I am not a historian. I would be interested to see a comparison of the fortunes (and longevity) of nations which used citizen-soldiers versus those that turned to mercenaries (e.g., was the hiring of mercanaries a factor or symptom of the decline of the British Empire?).
Leaving questions of equity aside, it cannot be wise for a democracy to let such an important function grow so far removed from popular participation and accountability. It makes some supremely important things too easy - like dealing out death and destruction to others, and seeking military solutions on the assumption they will be swifter and more cheaply bought than what could be accomplished by the more vexatious business of diplomacy.

The life of a robust democratic society should be strenuous; it should make demands on its citizens when they are asked to engage with issues of life and death. The "revolution in military affairs" has made obsolete the kind of huge army that fought World War II, but a universal duty to service - perhaps in the form of a lottery, or of compulsory national service with military duty as one option among several - would at least ensure that the civilian and military sectors do not become dangerously separate spheres. War is too important to be left either to the generals or the politicians. It must be the people's business.

Before reading this last paragraph, I had already been wondering about forms of service other than in the military. To defend my family, I would bear arms against an aggressor. I could probably expand that concept to war, in terms of joining the military to fight off invaders. But I do not see any of the wars the US has fought in the last couple of decades as being clearly and directly linked to defense of the homeland, except perhaps for the invasion of Afghanistan (and I'm not yet 100% certain of that one). But it is because the military is being used for both homeland defense as well as non-critical wars that I would not want to be in the military.

I do, however, feel that requiring people to perform some form of service to the country would be healthy, and I would not object if I had been "drafted" into some form of social service, as long as it wasn't the military. Back during the Depression, projects such as the CCC helped improve national infrastructure. Rather than focusing on economic development (as was the case for the CCC), adding other branches of mandatory service such as a parks and highway cleaning team, and a facilities construction team, and a home visit support and care for the elderly team, could all serve to bring home the experience of citizenship to all adults.

Posted by Tom Nugent at July 25, 2005 10:47 AM

Draftees tend to make poor soldiers. I expect that in general they wouldn't be great at non-military jobs either.

I think the author of the article just doesn't understnad soldiers. Sure, the compensation being offered is nice, but for most people who become soldiers I doubt it is their only motivation. I think he's discounting the fact that there are a number of people out their who are willing to take on the risks of military service for its own sake.

Posted by: Elizabeth Dew at July 26, 2005 06:06 AM

I agree with E.D. In this day and age, soldiers do not get rich at their job.

I have read conflicting research on students who were required to complete "service credit" toward graduation. One study showed a vast majority of students as being more willing to volunteer later and life, and found the experience worthwhile. The other study showed a more mixed reaction, where many students were turned off too volunteerism because it had been "mandatory".

In addition, it creates other problems: one student I know completed her service credit at the local church...the school was getting ready to bar her from graduation, claiming after the fact that the service had to be non-sectarian. Only after her mother (a colleague of mine) brought lawyers and the press to bear did the school relent (she wasn't upset that the school was accepting credit done for religious institutions...just that it had been "assumed" that this was out of bounds.

Would Mormons who are required to perform missionary work be given credit, would they be exempted, or would we trample the first ammendment? I have always thought that things like this work easier in countries that are less likely to guarantee personal freedoms, and are more willing to just tell its citizens what to do.

On the other hand, I agree in principal with the idea of some kind of service being strongly pushed for.

Posted by: Tom at July 26, 2005 12:45 PM
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