America’s (Dis) Regard for its Soldiers and Veterans

Author: Michael C. Desch


The American people and their leaders have been swooning for years over the boys and girls in uniform. Our national crush on the armed forces reflects in part symptoms of lingering collective post-9/11 traumatic stress syndrome. The al Qaeda attacks represented the deadliest terrorist strike in American history, and that incongruous bolt of death and destruction from the blue skies of an otherwise lovely fall day compounded our terror. Our armed forces rushed to protect us after the attack and then quickly visited righteous retribution on the perpetrators and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan.

In addition to our gratitude for the military’s protection after 9/11, the public’s affection for our military is reinforced by the fact that we now regard it as one of the few truly functional sectors of our society. In a recent Gallup poll, 73 percent of respondents demonstrated confidence in the armed forces, compared with only 41 percent for organized religion, 18 percent for big business, and 9 percent for Congress. Another polling organization finds that 78 percent of the public holds our soldiers’ contributions in high regard, above the share that feels the same of teachers (72 percent), doctors (66 percent), and even scientists (65 percent). Not surprisingly, Pew detects a general, if diffuse, sense of gratitude among the 91 percent of respondents who declare they are “proud” of the military.


But there is a dark lining to this silver cloud that currently envelops our armed forces, not only for our society in general but also for the military itself. In many ways our national infatuation with the military is based on a sentiment that is a mile wide but an inch deep. Americans are happy to buy soldiers in uniform a drink at the airport bar and maybe even surrender our first-class seats to them on a plane. And we’ll “salute their service” not only at NASCAR races and college and professional football games but also at just about every other sporting event imaginable. It’s only slightly unrealistic to anticipate an Air Force fly-over at our daughter’s soccer match or a Navy SEAL parachute jump at our son’s swim meet.

But when it comes to doing the hard things involved in supporting the troops, most of America is AWOL. It is significant that, increasingly, few U.S. citizens actually have served in uniform. This is a far cry from most of the 20th century, when veterans from the two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam constituted a significant segment of society. Not even our leaders, for whom military service was once an almost essential milestone on the road to elected office, can boast significant war records. Consider: from Harry Truman to George Herbert Walker Bush, seven of eight presidents served in serious active service roles; of the four subsequent presidencies, only one of four served, and that was in a Reserve capacity that facilitated the avoidance of active service during wartime.

Ironically, or perhaps not, our decreasing direct experience with, and meaningful connection to, the U.S. military has made it easier for us to send those few who do serve to war with increasing frequency and without engaging in the hard discussion of whether doing so makes strategic sense or how we should actually pay for it. I call this paradoxical situation “liberal militarism” and maintain that it is bad not only for the country as a whole but also for the troops. I shall return to the concept of liberal militarism below.

But first it is worth noting that America’s surface celebration of the men and women in uniform can be seen in many manifestations throughout society. President Trump, perhaps reflecting his own relatively thin national-security credentials, has gilded his cabinet with brass, installing Marine Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense and John Kelly, another Marine general, first at Homeland Security and now as White House chief of staff. He has also placed in the White House, as national security adviser, Army Lieutenant Gen. H.R. McMaster, who has in turn positioned other officers on the National Security Council staff. Meanwhile, Marine Major Gen. Randolph Alles serves as head of the Secret Service.

Trump also has taken a hands-off approach as commander-in-chief. In matters ranging from the inconsequential (dropping the largest conventional explosive in the U.S. arsenal on ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan) to the operationally significant (increasing deployment of U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Syria), the president has given the senior military leadership a long strategic leash. And the Defense Department is one of the few agencies of government that he and other GOP budget hawks are enthusiastic about funding.

The nation’s respect for its troops in the midst of serial military misadventures reflects creditably on the American people. It shows that they can distinguish between ill-advised policies and the servants of the state charged with implementing those policies. Despite growing bipartisan sentiment that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have no serious strategic rationale and hence are no longer “worth the cost,” few blame the troops for this. The situation today stands in stark contrast with another failed war in which many Americans, ignoring the bipartisan responsibility of our civilian leaders for the Vietnam decisions, disproportionately blamed the military for that debacle.

There is also recognition, though not enough in my opinion, that those few of our fellow Americans who have rallied to the colors deserve the esteem they currently enjoy because their service increasingly imposes ever greater burdens on themselves and their families. Many of them have served numerous war-zone tours. The nearly 7,000 killed and at least 50,000 seriously wounded attest to the price paid by many—and the risks faced by so many more.

Which brings us back to liberal militarism. It may sound like an oxymoron, but the notion that the American public harbors a deeply ambivalent view of its military has a long and distinguished pedigree going back to one of the most astute observers of American political culture, Alexis de Tocqueville. During his early 19th century travels across our young democracy, this peripatetic French aristocrat compiled an encyclopedic treatise on the state of Democracy in America. Among his most telling observations were those chronicling Americans’ mixed emotions about their soldiers.

Tocqueville highlights the consequences of the incompatibility between American democracy and the martial spirit. “When the military spirit deserts a people, the military career immediately ceases to be honored, and men of war fall to the lowest rank of public officials. They are little esteemed and no longer understood.” The result, in Tocqueville’s view, is that:

It is no longer the principal citizens who enter the army, but the least. Men give themselves to military ambition only when no other is allowed. This forms a vicious circle from which it is difficult to escape. The elite of the nation avoids the military career, because this career is not honored; and it is not honored, because the elite of the nation no longer enters it.

Early Americans were grateful to the soldiers who protected them from enemies ranging from the British to the Indians, but they never thought that the troops fit comfortably in our commercial society, in which the yeoman farmer and prosperous merchant represented our civic beau ideal. For early Americans, soldiers were the source of pity more than affection. This has been well documented in excellent doctoral-thesis research by Notre Dame graduate student Caleb Hamman.

More than a hundred years after Tocqueville, Harvard’s Louis Hartz updated his assessment of our national culture in his classic The Liberal Tradition in America. The liberalism in Hartz’s book was not the modern American left-wing variety espoused by Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. Rather it is the classic variety embodied by such philosophers of political pluralism as Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, and especially John Locke. Classical liberalism, Hartz argued, produced a unique American political culture. This culture was optimistic that political and economic development would come easily, assuming that good things like democracy and prosperity were mutually compatible and reinforcing. But it was also a bit inconsistent in privileging democracy over political order while abhorring the radicalism and revolution for which democratization could open the door.

Because American liberalism never faced the ideological challenges of Europe from the right (monarchism) or the left (Jacobinism), Hartz worried that it contained a “deep and unwritten tyrannical compulsion.” It made us at once “excessively optimistic or utopian” but also “counter-revolutionary or reactionary” and fostered in us “a special kind of pretentiousness or arrogance.” We’ve seen the international manifestations of this liberal militarism since 9/11 in our perpetual wars for perpetual peace. The Iraq War epitomizes how this mindset led us to invade a weak despotic regime with no connection to al Qaeda and then ignore postwar imperatives as the place devolved into anarchy, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in the spirit of Marie Antoinette’s famous “let them eat cake,” insouciantly dismissing concerns by observing that “freedom’s untidy.”

Hartz’s junior colleague Samuel Huntington brilliantly applied the liberal-tradition concept to the recurring conflict between liberal America and its military institution. In his monumental treatise on American civil-military relations, The Soldier and the State (after 60 years still required reading at the service academies), Huntington showed how the heart of American civil-military tension was the clash of two very different mindsets.

In Huntington’s view, the military world view, what he called conservative realism, was antithetical to the dominant civilian liberalism. The former regarded violence as a permanent feature of world politics, focused on the material capabilities of potential adversaries rather than their ideologies or intentions, and was cautious about the use of force, reserving it as the last resort of statecraft but then employing it without restriction.

American liberalism, in contrast, was largely indifferent to the world outside our borders but when problems pressed on us from abroad we tried to apply domestic solutions to them by remaking the rest of the world in our own image. Central to American liberalism was what Tocqueville identified as a deep ambivalence about the military institution. At best, liberal America would treat it as a guard dog: A necessary evil but one you did not let sleep in the house. At worst, we tried to remake the military in our liberal image by using it as a laboratory for domestic social experiments (recall the infamous Project 100,000 of 1966, in which the military would dragoon the physical and mental dregs of society in order to simultaneously provide manpower for the war in Vietnam while waging the War on Poverty at home) or assign it to be an international social worker to recreate previously non-liberal nations around the globe in our own image, as we have done with increasing frequency since the end of the Cold War.

Thus it seems clear that liberal America’s support for the military is actually quite shallow despite our loud and frequent protestations to the contrary. If you want to ruin a nice dinner party, just suggest reinstating the draft. According to Pew, almost three-quarters of Americans oppose it. And the anti-draft sentiment is not just a vestige of left-wing, anti-Vietnam sentiment. Many on the right agree with conservative free-market economist Milton Friedman, who led the charge for the all-volunteer force in the 1970s, claiming that “abandoning the draft would almost surely reduce the real cost—because the armed forces would then be manned by men for whom soldering was the best available career.” The none-too-veiled implication here, which Tocqueville shows was long a part of American liberal culture, is that the market would steer cannon fodder to the barracks, freeing the rest of us for more rewarding careers.

More than 80 percent of Americans recognize that post-9/11 military service imposes a disproportionate burden on soldiers and their families, yet almost as many minimize it as just being “part of military service.” But how would they know since most haven’t served? During World War II, our military participation ratio (MPR), the percentage of the population in uniform, was nearly 9 percent. Not everyone was under arms but everyone knew people who were, and they were often closely related people, so the burden of military service was something most people felt directly.

Today, the MPR is less than half of 1 percent. No wonder we’re so cavalier these days about sending the troops off to war: neither we nor anyone we know is going with them or even likely to miss them while they’re gone. An intriguing paper by Boston University’s Douglas Kriner and Minnesota’s Francis Chen suggests that disproportionate wartime casualties may now be having some political effect.

Our president is no better than the rest of us in terms of inconsistent support for the troops. Showing thinly veiled contempt for the senior military leadership that had been at war for nearly a decade, our aspiring commander-in-chief tweeted during the Republican primaries that “I know more about #ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” Later, during the general-election campaign, Trump promised to issue different orders: “We are going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction …. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.”

It is difficult to shed the image of General Joseph Dunford and his Joint Chiefs of Staff colleagues sitting before the president like contestants on the TV show “The Apprentice.” They’re assigned a daunting series of tasks—eliminate ISIS once and for all, save Afghanistan, overthrow Assad without bringing to power Islamic radicals, contain Iran, and prevent North Korea from going nuclear without starting a major war. And when they inevitably fail at some or all of these impossible missions the president says, “You’re fired.” You don’t have to be a cynic to suspect that all this operational rope the president has given the generals may be used ultimately to hang them. And given the tightness of the federal budget the only place any additional billions for defense can come from is from higher taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses such as the Trump Organization.

The president and much of the American public are in the thrall of liberal militarism: They wax eloquent in their rhetorical support for the troops, but scratch the surface of this brassy patina and you find a deep ambivalence about the military that has characterized liberal America since Tocqueville’s visit almost 200 years ago. As Huntington explained (and the 2016 election confirmed yet again), liberal America ultimately prizes commercial, not martial, values. We love the troops, we just don’t know or really care very much about individual soldiers. Indeed, our incessant pro-military rhetoric seems to be mostly a sop for our guilty consciences rather than a token of sincere esteem for those in uniform.

Real, as opposed to rhetorical, support for the troops would look and sound very different from today’s perpetual campaign rallies and pregame demonstrations. First, the public and our civilian leadership need to have more skin in the game. To be sure, a return to the draft is not only politically unrealistic but also operationally unnecessary in the current strategic environment. Still, we need to ask our leaders, when they send troops into harm’s way, whether they would they do so if their sons or daughters were in the ranks. Also, promising gaudy sums of money to recapitalize the force at the expense of services for current veterans’ needs and bankrupting future generations is hardly a lasting tribute to our men and women in uniform. While our country is indeed fortunate to have one of the most capable militaries in the world, we need to be realistic about what we ask of it. Some missions (nation-building in Afghanistan) remain a bridge too far even for one of the most capable forces of all time. Finally, when the senior military leadership balks at non-military missions, we should not, like Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, ask, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” We ought instead to recognize that the successful art of strategy involves knowing not only when to pull the trigger but also when to stand down.

Supporting the troops is much more than lip-service, parades, or flyovers; it is consistent, deliberate, and engaged national-security decision-making at both the elite and mass levels and a willingness to make hard decisions about the expenditure of blood and treasure that may not be immediately popular. The latter is something that liberal America has always found challenging, but that’s the deep support that we owe our men and women in uniform.

Michael C. Desch is Professor of Political Science and Founding Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center. An earlier version of this essay was presented as the 2017 Ira C. Eaker Distinguished Lecture on National Defense Policy at the United States Air Force Academy.

This article was published in The American Conservative on August 31, 2017.