A Symposium on Citizenship and Military Service

By Abrams, Elliott; Bacevich, Andrew J. | Parameters, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

A Symposium on Citizenship and Military Service


Abrams, Elliott, Bacevich, Andrew J., Parameters


In October 2000, we served as co-chairs of a conference titled "Citizens and Soldiers: Citizenship, Culture, and Military Service." [1] The inspiration for this event can be stated briefly: a decade after the Cold War, the United States is finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the all-volunteer force, the foundation on which American military power rests. Although problems with recruiting and retention are commonly attributed to a booming economy, it was our belief that other factors could well be of equal or even greater importance. Among the additional factors meriting consideration, in our view, were a narrowing definition of citizenship and its responsibilities, changes in American culture, and changes in the purposes for which the United States employs its military power.

In convening a small group of scholars, military experts, and policy analysts to address these matters, we identified three sets of issues for detailed examination:

* The American tradition of the citizen-soldier. What is the essence of that tradition and how has it changed over time? What has been the value of that tradition? How has the establishment of the all-volunteer force affected it? Given the cultural, technological, and geopolitical changes of recent decades, does the tradition retain relevance today?

* The identity of the all-volunteer force. Are members of today's military professionals? Are they citizen-soldiers like the G.I.s who fought the major wars of the last century? A hybrid of both? Something altogether different? What are the political and civic implications of "contracting out" national security to a small cadre of long-service volunteers?

* Prospects for and alternatives to the all-volunteer force. Apart from the greater economic opportunity currently available in civilian life, what other factors may be contributing to the difficulties that the Pentagon faces in recruiting and retention? What policies should the Administration consider to sustain, modify, or replace the existing all-volunteer force?

The essays that constitute this symposium derive from the presentations made at the conference. In addition to those presentations, the conference featured extensive give-and-take among participants of diverse background, experience, and outlook. Although the conference was not intended to reach a consensus--nor did it do so--the discussion did bring to light certain insights that we offer here as informal "findings." In doing so we emphasize that we speak strictly for ourselves, not for other conference participants.

Two convictions underlie our views. The first is that if American military institutions cannot and should not be isolated from American society, neither should they be treated as a sociology laboratory or a handy venue through which to transform that society in accordance with either a liberal or a conservative agenda. In short, there is a compelling need to extract the services from the ongoing Kulturkampf in which they have become increasingly enmeshed since the end of the Cold War.

The second conviction is that an era of high-tech warfare has not obviated the need for a traditional combat ethos-the mix of physical and mental toughness, discipline, raw courage, and willingness to sacrifice that was the hallmark of effective militaries in the wars of the 20th century. Granted, not all American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines in the present century will be required to manifest such qualities in the course of accomplishing their assigned duties. Indeed, over time the proportion of soldiers who spend their tours of duty staring at computer screens will continue to increase while the proportion of those expected as a matter of course to venture into harm's way will dwindle. But when called upon to fight, that combat remnant will be required to manifest qualities not dissimilar from those of the soldiers who landed at Omaha Beach or went to war in the Ia Drang.

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