Recently, a number of policy analysts and scholars have raised the specter of a growing gap between the U.S. military and the society it is sworn to protect. Concern about this alleged gap has evolved into a regular part of the ongoing debate over the status of U.S. civil-military relations in the post-Cold War era.
The essence of this claim is that the U.S. military has become increasingly alienated from American society and that the officer corps, once apolitical, is growing both more conservative and politically active than ever before. A major scholarly study seems to confirm this view. Working under the auspices of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS), a consortium of universities in North Carolina, a number of highly respected scholars have concluded that a substantial gap concerning politics and values has opened over the last two decades between the nation's increasingly conservative military elite and prominent civilians without military service.
Many of the TISS researchers believe they have identified trends that ultimately will result in a large, semi-autonomous military so different and estranged from society that it will become unaccountable to the people it serves. They fear the expansion of the military's influence and that the military will become contemptuous of American society and unresponsive to civilian authorities.
The TISS study research is essentially sound. There are differences between the military and civilian society, and some of these differences have increased over time. But a danger is that policy-makers will misconstrue the findings of the TISS study and use them to justify actions detrimental to long-term U.S. military effectiveness.
The fact is that there are several gaps between the military and American society. A functional gap arises from the fact that the military must meet the hard requirements of the battlefield in order to succeed in war. To fulfill its functional imperative, the military must govern itself according to principles different from those of liberal society. This gap must exist if a liberal society's military is to be effective. Those who have experienced combat or at least have seen "Saving Private Ryan" can understand why.
To do its job, the military has adopted a culture that constitutes an evolutionary response to the unchanging nature of war. To maximize the chances of battlefield success, military organizations must overcome the paralyzing effects of fear on the individual soldier. Accordingly, the military places a premium on such factors as unit cohesion and morale. It stresses such martial virtues as both physical and moral courage, a sense of honor and duty, discipline, a professional code of conduct and loyalty. A workplace foreign to most civilians dictate these requirements.
Most of the other gaps follow logically from the functional one. For instance, the unique requirements of military culture create a legal gap the military justice system includes offenses that do not exist in civilian life. And because the military attracts individuals of a conservative bent, we should not be surprised that a values gap has arisen between the military and liberal society. The TISS study focused a great deal of attention on this values gap.
But of greatest concern should be the participation gap. The TISS study confirms a growing divergence between the attitudes of the military and the civilian elite that largely has forsaken the military in the all-volunteer era. In the long run, this participation gap constitutes the greatest threat to the long-term health of the republic because the American civilian elite, ignorant of the requirements of military culture, may seek to subordinate the military's functional imperative to a societal one at the cost of military effectiveness.
All too often, the American civilian elite sees military culture not as something that contributes to military effectiveness, but as a problem to be eradicated in the name of multiculturalism, sexual politics and the politics of "sexual orientation." At a minimum, elite opinion contends that the military is obligated to adapt to contemporary liberal values, patterns of behavior and social mores no matter how adversely they might affect the military's ability to carry out its functional imperative. Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-CO) epitomized a more radical version during the Navy's Tailhook trauma: that the service's problems represented "the sound of a culture cracking." That approach seeks destruction of the culture, not its reform.
The American civilian elite's assault on the military ethos undergirds the ongoing process of softening military discipline and reducing training standards within the U.S. military. The decision last year by Secretary of Defense William Cohen to reject, on the advice of the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force, his own hand-picked panel's recommendation to separate basic training by "gender" is a case in point.
Unfortunately, such attempts to "civilianize" the military are not new. After World War II, a review board under Gen. Jimmy Doolittle set out to strip away the harshness and sharp edges of military life. Training was made less demanding. Discipline was softened in conformance with civilian norms and standards.
The consequences of the Doolittle reforms were evident in the early days of the Korean War when many American soldiers threw down their arms, surrendered or ran in panic before the onslaught of the North Koreans. One result of the Doolittle reforms only recently cane to light: Panicky, undisciplined troops, paralyzed by fear, killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of refugees surging against their defensive positions in No Gun Ri.
Cohen's decision is reminiscent of the Doolittle reforms after World War II that contributed to the failure of U.S. arms at the outset of the Korean War. Could we be setting ourselves up for a repeat of that debacle?
Of course, some commentators argue that technology has transformed the "very nature of war" by eliminating what Prussian theorist of war Carl von Clausewitz called "friction" and the "fog of uncertainty" in war. Accordingly, they contend that there is now less need for the soldierly virtues associated with the traditional military ethos. But history and experience have taught the dangers of over-reliance on technology. Technology is no substitute for soldierly excellence, which is developed the old-fashioned way: through leadership, training, discipline and unit cohesion.
A liberal democracy such as the United States faces a dilemma when it comes to its military: to fulfill its functional imperative, the military cannot govern itself by the liberal principles it ultimately defends. As T. R. Fehrenbach wrote in his classic study of the Korea conflict, This Kind of War: "By the very nature of its missions, the military must maintain a hard and illiberal view of life and the world. Society's purpose is to live; the military's is to stand ready, if need be, to die." If we cannot count on the military to prepare itself for that eventuality, it will fail and if it does, the liberal American society that the military protects will go down with it.