A Dangerous Separation: The Schism between the American Society and Its Military

By Wrona, Richard M., Jr. | World Affairs, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

A Dangerous Separation: The Schism between the American Society and Its Military


Wrona, Richard M., Jr., World Affairs


   Make haste to reassure me, I beg you, and tell
   me that our fellow-citizens understand us, support
   us and protect us as we ourselves are protecting
   the glory of the Empire.

   If it should be otherwise, if we should have to
   leave our bleached bones on these desert sands
   in vain, then beware of the anger of the
   Legions! (1)

Since its return to an all-volunteer military force in the wake of the Vietnam War, the United States has faced an increasing cultural tension within its borders--that of the growing schism between the American society as a whole and the military that supposedly represents it. Particularly as the result of trends during the 1990s, the study of this "civil-military gap" has been renewed in certain academic circles. For the most part, however, this study has limited itself to the "what" and the "why" of the gap, rather than its ramifications for the future. Although the former questions are essential to a better understanding of this growing disparity, investigating the future implications of an American military divorced from its polity helps to indicate the ability of the United States to maintain its preeminent position in the present international environment. More important, these implications aid in addressing older, more fundamental issues concerning the balance of individual rights and responsibilities in a liberal democracy and whether a liberal democracy can ever adequately function as an imperial power.

Any discussion of the contemporary culture gap between the American military and American society must include a variety of facets. First, on a level broader and more fundamental than that of the United States itself, we must discuss the very different values that sustain a liberal democracy and, alternately, an effective military. In many cases, the two are fundamentally at odds, raising special concerns for the military of a liberal democracy. Second, we must look at the gap from an American perspective. Is it a newfound phenomenon, or one that plays an integral part in the United States' political and social histories? Third, no discussion of the American civil-military gap would be sufficient without addressing the deleterious effects of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Fourth, what is the contemporary status of the gap? How have social and political changes inside and outside the military changed the tension? Finally, given all of these considerations, what possible predictions can we make about the future of the gap? Are there alternatives to the predicted future, and, if so, what avenues must American society and its military take to prevent this continuing tension from emerging as conflict?

Before addressing any of these facets, however, we should frame our discussion by emphasizing the danger of any societal civil-military gap. Throughout history, many states, recognizing the fundamental differences between civilian and military environments, have attempted to divorce the two, allowing each to develop in its own sphere. Unfortunately, such a course of action forgets two important aspects of the proper functioning of a society and, in the present day, of a nation-state. First, a military employs and manages one of the defining traits of the state--the monopoly and use of organized violence. It is this monopoly, this ability to answer to no power higher than itself and to impose its will on subordinates, members, and citizens, that provides the state with one aspect of its legitimacy. When a state loses control of or forfeits this monopoly, its very future is in doubt. One path toward such forfeiture is to vest a military that is unresponsive to the needs or wants of the society with the monopoly of the use of organized violence. An important indication of an unresponsive military may be a large gulf between the values and priorities of the military and its society. In effect, such a gap can lead to either a proactive military--one that defines (and, therefore, protects) its own interests as society's interests--or an apathetic and ambivalent society that, unable to control its military, abdicates the use of the military as a political instrument. …

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