Magazine article Commonweal

The Great Divide: The Crisis of U.S. Military Policy

Magazine article Commonweal

The Great Divide: The Crisis of U.S. Military Policy

Article excerpt

Regardless of who wins the presidency in November 2008, rethinking the premises of U.S. military policy will be an urgent priority. Grasping the scope of the problem requires an appreciation of three overarching themes that have shaped the narrative of American military experience since Vietnam.

The post-Vietnam narrative began with the "Great Divorce," engineered in the early 1970s by President Richard Nixon. When Nixon abolished the draft, he severed the relationship between citizenship and military service. Although that was not Nixon's purpose, it was one very clear result of ending conscription. Contributing to the country's defense now became not a civic duty but a matter of individual choice. That choice carried no political or moral connotations.

The Great Divorce gave birth to a new professional military with an ethos that emphasized the differences between soldiers and civilians. Out of differences came distance: after Vietnam, members of the officer corps saw themselves as standing apart from (or perhaps even above) the rest of society. More than a few members of the public endorsed that view. In the lexicon of the Founders, the nation now relied on a "standing army," although Americans during the last quarter of the twentieth century chose to call it the all-volunteer force.

The second narrative thread emerged during the 1980s. This was the "Great Reconstitution," largely the handiwork of Ronald Reagan. Throughout his presidency, Reagan lavished attention and funding on the armed forces. Over the course of that decade, soldiers shed their post-Vietnam malaise and gradually recovered their sense of self-confidence. New weapons, revised doctrine, and improved training techniques endowed U.S. forces with an unusually high level of competence, at least in the arena of conventional conflict.

Above all, the Great Reconstitution converted the officer corps to the view that technology held the secret to future military victories. The ultimate expression of this view was the "Revolution in Military Affairs." According to this concept, information technology was transforming the very nature of war itself, with the United States uniquely positioned to exploit this transformation. By the end of the 1980s, the United States had achieved military preeminence; something like outright and unchallengeable supremacy now seemed to lay within its grasp.

By the time of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the restoration of U.S. military might had captured popular attention and gained widespread public approval. Citizens again professed to admire soldiers. They certainly admired the missile-through-the-window capabilities of advanced military technology. Although admiration did not annul the Great Divorce brought on by the end of the draft, it made the separation more amicable. Expressions of public support for the troops became commonplace. Yet "support" in this context was akin to what sports fans provide to their local professional baseball or football franchise. Offered from a safe distance, it implies no obligation and entails no risks. It is more rhetorical than real.

During the 1990s, the first two narrative threads combined to produce a third. This was the theme of "Great Expectations," which found members of the political elite looking for new ways to tap the potential of this technologically sophisticated, highly professional military. Armed force accrued positive connotations: hitherto employed to wreak mayhem, it now became an instrument for fixing things. One result was the discovery of new missions like peacemaking, peacekeeping, and "humanitarian intervention." Another result was to remove any lingering reluctance about employing military force abroad.

During his single term as president, George H. W. Bush made substantial headway in dismantling the inhibitions implied by the Vietnam Syndrome. Bill Clinton completed the task: during his eight years in the Oval Office, armed intervention became so frequent that it almost ceased to be newsworthy. …

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