What does it say about America that the killed and wounded soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to hail from Prattville, Alabama, Lincoln, Nebraska, Mansfield, Ohio, or Klamath Falls, Oregon, than New York City, Beverly Hills or Cambridge, Massachusetts?
That’s an issue raised by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer in their new book, AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from the Military – and How It Hurts Our Country (HarperCollins). This is an important analysis that diagnoses a severe illness in our body politic, noting that the children of the cultural elite – whether from families involved in politics, business, academia or the media – have almost entirely abandoned the military, leaving the defense of our Country and our freedoms to the children of the working class.
What makes this work so important is that they present their case in a very non-political way, with the authors representing both sides of the Red State/Blue State political divide, with Roth-Douquet being a longtime Democrat operative and Clinton appointee, and Schaeffer a committed conservative Republican.
Another important element is that this book is not written as a dispassionate quantitative analysis published by some Washington D.C.-based think tank, but is a very personal story told by two individuals with loved ones who have served in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan: for Roth-Douquet, her husband, a career Marine pilot who has served two tours in Iraq; and for Schaeffer, his son, John, who served tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Both authors share a number of personal anecdotes and reflections as members of the cultural elite that reinforce their thesis.
The authors present several sobering statistics to help illustrate the problems associated with the cultural elite abandoning the military:
- Of the Princeton University Class of 1956, more than half of the graduates went on to serve in the military (400 of 750); in 2004, that number was less than one percent (9 graduates). Sadly, among Ivy League schools, Princeton is in the lead for ROTC participation.
- During the 1956 school year, Stanford University had 1,100 students enrolled in ROTC; today, there are only 29.
- In 1969, seventy percent of the members of Congress were veterans; in 2004, only twenty-five percent were, with that representation falling rapidly.
- The percentage of members of Congress with children serving in the military is only slightly above one percent.
- While the old political clans of the Kennedys, Roosevelts and the Bushes have had many family members previously serving in combat, none of these privileged families (Democrat and Republican alike) has any relative in the military today.
These statistics paint a bleak portrait of an entire class that has eschewed military service, which is problematic in itself, but particularly since this class comprises America’s opinion makers and cultural leaders. The authors identify several concerns raised by this almost universal trend:
We believe that the increasing gap between the most privileged classes and those in the military raises three major problems: It hurts our country, particularly our ability to make the best policy possible. It undermines the strength of our civilian leadership, which no longer has significant numbers of members who have the experience and wisdom that comes from national service. Finally, it makes our military less strong in the long run. (pp. 10-11).
What is most troubling is that this military desertion is neither an isolated nor a passive trend. The authors document a mindset amongst the cultural elite that is clearly anti-military. A testament to the outright contempt that many bear to our military is seen in the public response to an op-ed by the authors published a few weeks ago by the Boston Globe, A Call to Serve. The op-ed is a suggested commencement address that could be given by leaders of either political party promoting the virtues of military service.
But the Letters to the Editor to that op-ed demonstrate a virulent, almost rabid, reaction to the mere suggestion that Americans from all walks of life should feel compelled to serve in the military. One reader said that the innocuous op-ed was “sadly reflective of a seemingly ubiquitous primitive mentality”, and another attacked our civilian military leaders, saying “no clear-thinking, loving parents should entrust their child to these cynical ideologues.” These diatribes could easily be entries appearing any day on Daily Kos or the Huffington Post.
The Ivy-covered Halls of Anti-Military Academia
Undeniably, the most noticeable location where this military desertion and the cultural forces that inspire it can be seen is on college campuses, especially in the Ivy League. One organization calling for the reintroduction of ROTC at Ivy League institutions, Advocates for ROTC, maintains an extensive list of articles concerning the status of ROTC at these institutions, as well as the attacks on the program from within academia. As Jamie Weinstein chronicled last year for FrontPageMag.com, The Campus Left’s War on ROTC, many elite academic institutions express open contempt for the military and erect obstacles for students who want to serve their country through military service.
Columbia University, for example, requires their ROTC students to travel to Fordham College to receive their training, and students do not receive Columbia course credit for ROTC courses. When the issue was last put to Columbia students in 2003, 65 percent agreed that ROTC should be allowed back on campus. But that didn’t influence a Columbia ROTC Task Force from concluding that the college should boycott the program. This from a college that used to produce more naval midshipmen than the US Naval Academy.
One person to buck this trend in the Ivy League is outgoing Harvard President Lawrence Summers, former President Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, who has attended every ROTC commissioning ceremony for Harvard graduates during his five-year tenure and openly supported the program. At the 2006 event, Summers offered his thanks to the cadets and expressed admiration for their hard work:
“I thought there wasn’t anything more important that someone could do than to serve their country…so I admire your courage, your devotion as citizens in joining our armed forces at this crucial moment.”
It should be noted that Harvard had the first ROTC program in the country. Perhaps due to Summer’s boldness in confronting the anti-military atmosphere at Harvard, the week of the commissioning it was announced that a new Harvard alumni association had been formed composed of military veterans, the Harvard Veterans Alumni Organization.
One of Summers’ colleagues who has followed his lead is Bucknell University President Brian Mitchell, who spoke this year at the commissioning ceremony for the three Bucknell ROTC graduates. But clearly, Summer and Mitchell are in the minority among university officials in their support for ROTC, and many of our country’s most prestigious academic institutions actively supported the legal challenge to the Solomon Amendment, federal legislation that withholds federal funds from colleges and universities that deny access to military recruiters, a law which was upheld earlier this year by the US Supreme Court.
Many college authorities expressing their opposition to the reinstitution of ROTC and military recruiting on their campuses have cited the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and yet it is reasonable to ask if whether the military ever allowed open homosexuals into the military if academic officials would suddenly embrace the military. Is it really nothing more than politics that are holding the academic elites back from military service?
Political Implications of the Anti-Military Mindset
In their book, Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer note that policy issues related to the military – “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, the role of women in combat, and the implementation of affirmative action quotas for military promotion – are regularly cited by cultural elites as reasons for their opposition to the military. These political questions could very well be treated differently by Congress in the future as one troubling trend continues unabated: the declining presence of veterans in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
As recent as the 1990s, military veterans were over-represented in Congress. For instance, in the 1970s, more than three-quarters of the members of Congress had served in the military. But after 1994, the number of veterans serving in Congress began to rapidly decline. According to figures from the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, of the 535 current members of Congress, only 167 are military veterans – less than one-third.
There are several answers to why the downward trend in representation by veterans is occurring, but two stand out prominently: the increase of women members in Congress, and the retirement of the World War II-Korea generation: in the 108th Congress, there are 84 women (14 in the Senate, 70 in the House), and yet only one, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM), is a military veteran; and only 38 veterans from the WWII-Korea-era still serve. The latter trend of WWII-Korean War era veterans retiring can only continue when considering that only 10 current members of Congress began their military service in the all-volunteer era beginning in 1973.
With this trend in mind, a question should be asked: as the personal connections between members of Congress and the military grow more distant, are our elected officials more or less likely to send American forces into conflicts with no identifiable military outcome or absurd rules of engagement? And are they more susceptible to withdrawing our military from conflicts due to political pressure rather than strategic military reasons?
There are some additional statistics that should be observed from House Committee’s data on veterans in Congress:
- Representation of veterans in the Senate (39 percent) is higher than that of the House (31 percent).
- In the House, 49 veterans are Democrats, 72 are Republicans.
- In the Senate, the military service split is more evenly divided politically: 16 Democrats, 18 Republicans, and one Independent (who caucuses with the Democrats) – mirroring the political representation of the Senate.
- Overall, 31 House members and 10 Senate members are combat veterans. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) is the only Congressional Medal of Honor winner currently serving in Congress.
- Only 14 Congressional members have retired from the military, and only 6 from active duty.
The authors of AWOL identify several cultural problems that have begun to develop that have significant political ramifications. One is that those currently serving in the military are rapidly flocking to the GOP.
In 1976, most of the military identified themselves as Independent, while 33 percent identified as Republican (still a larger proportion than the general public). But the members of the armed services have since abandoned this neutrality. Now 56 percent consider themselves Republican, and only 15 percent consider themselves Independent. (pp. 152-153)
Meanwhile, the cultural leaders in the US vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, which has created a glaring gap in the electorate:
The divide between military and civilian life is self-reinforcing. And it is becoming increasingly political. The majority of military personnel identify themselves as Republicans. And a disproportionate number of academics and those in the media identify themselves as Democrats. In other words, our nation’s defenders mostly vote one way and those who shape opinion (and educate our elites) mostly vote another way, at a time when the political and cultural divisions in our country are deeper than ever. (p. 142)
According to the authors, this self-perpetuating political divide between the mostly conservative military versus a vastly liberal cultural elite and their dominance in political and cultural institutions could have potentially catastrophic implications down the road:
Our elected leaders and our cultural leaders depend on the health of the military to protect a huge array of vital interests. A military that distrusts the decision making of those civilian leaders could potentially undermine their leadership, by withholding information, tailoring actions, or otherwise acting too independently. One can hardly image a worse scenario in a democracy than to have an unbridgeable gap develop into an us-and-them mentality between the military and the civilian culture and leadership. (p. 173)
To their credit, Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer pull no punches in presenting the flip-side of this marked political divide. They charge that this rift breeds “military exceptionalism”, where the members of the military begin to believe they are better than the rest of the country they are charged to defend. One study they cite (p. 150) states, “More and more, enlisted as well as officers are beginning to feel that they are special, better than the society they serve.”
Another serious problem they identify is that the striking political shift amongst those serving in the military is that the military itself may be abandoning political neutrality, which in the long-term could undermine the civilian control of the military – one of the most notable hallmarks of American democracy and what has given our republican political system very uncharacteristic longevity. A clear delineation between civilian and military must be maintained in order for our political system to work:
Whether or not to use military action is an important issue. And it is crucial for society to engage in asking hard questions. But that questioning has to be done by civilians, not soldiers (who should consider the legality of their individual actions in war, but not “Is this the most successful policy?”). And some civilians have to be willing to relinquish the perquisites of a citizen for a space of time and become soldiers. This act ties the military back to the citizenry and makes action legitimate. To abandon either the citizen’s connection to the soldier or the soldier’s traditional faithfulness is to undermine our nation’s ability to act. (p. 138)
According to the authors, there is only one way to reverse these potentially devastating trends:
The only credible way to alter perception and begin to depoliticize the military is for Democrats, liberals, and others to being to publicly, consistently, and loudly advocate for broad participation of their own in military service. If they do not, they can hardly complain that the military is alienated from their values and politics. And if Democrats do not follow words with actions – in other words not just talk about it but actually serve and encourage their children to serve – the trend of the military representing one political party will harden into a fact. And that fact will change the American landscape in what seems to us to be a very dangerous way. (p. 154)
The Rise of the American Anti-Military Culture
Perhaps the strongest element to Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer’s book is their discussion of the cultural trends that have driven the cultural elite from military service. According to the authors, the dramatic shift seen in attitudes of the elite during the 20th Century can be traced to a combination of cultural factors.
The development of what the authors call “rights consciousness” is one factor to blame for the cultural shift by the elite against military service. As the Supreme Court applied a radical interpretation of the Constitution, identifying a long list of individual rights never mentioned before by the Court, an expansion of legal rights ensued, which would have implications for perceiving the duty of Americans to provide for the country’s defense.
As a result, individuals felt they had a right (among other things) not to be forced to go to war; they had a right not to be drafted (although the courts did not agree with them on this point). For the first time, citizens in large part felt fully entitled to their citizenship separate from duty such as military service. (p. 117)
One cultural area where this new “rights consciousness” was seen was in the mid-century development of a new social grouping – “teenagers”. No longer were adolescents expected to rise to adulthood and seize personal responsibility as adults, but to wallow in their adolescence free from responsibility but with increasing levels of personal freedom. The result has been a social disaster.
Parents, too, bear responsibility for this development, as many have taken extraordinary measure to isolate their children from the real world and insulate them from the consequences of their poor individual choices. In many cases, children are rarely prepared by parents to handle the momentous choices that society thrusts upon them. Relating this development to the military, this is seen in the “Not My Child” syndrome, where America’s military forces are supposed to be comprised of someone else’s children, a phenomenon personified by America’s Griever-in-Chief, Cindy Sheehan.
America’s involvement in Vietnam plays a large role in cultural perceptions of the military. Beginning in the Vietnam era, not serving in the military came to be seen as a virtue, not a vice. While all American wars have been controversial to some degree, in no way had anti-war sentiment been so widespread or become so embedded in our political, academic and media institutions.
Never before in American history had the moral certainty with which opponents of the Vietnam War expressed their view been as widespread. And those protestors won – the war ended with a U.S. withdrawal, and the protesters’ version of the war is the one that has held the most sway in the post-Vietnam understanding of that period, at least among our educated urban classes. As a result, many of the protesters’ premises about the war have remained firmly in place for them as they’ve aged, and even as certain facts have come to light that might arguably undermine some of the antiwar movements certainties. (p. 119)
The cultural dominance of the anti-war narrative after Vietnam is acute in academia, which many anti-war protestors never left, but is perpetuated as well in our entertainment and media industries. Hollywood’s version of the Vietnam War can be seen in a long string of anti-military films, such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Full Metal Jacket, while Mel Gibson’s pro-military We Were Soldiers is the rare exception. The anti-war narrative still reigns in Hollywood, as seen in the recent film, Jarhead, and emboldens many A-list entertainers, who feel free to openly criticize the military and the current administration’s war policy, despite the fact that virtually no A-list celebrity criticizing our war effort against terrorism or complaining of abuses by members of our armed service has ever served in the military they are quick to deride.
The media have also embraced the anti-war narrative. Ignorance of military affairs, if not open contempt for them, severely limits the abilities of the media to accurately portray the many dimensions of military actions. Instead, media coverage of conflicts is extremely myopic, focused almost exclusively on corruption or casualties. One only needs to pick up any major newspaper or watch network news to see that these types of corruption or casualty stories overwhelmingly dominate current media coverage. And while most mainstream media reporters in Iraq huddle in the relative safety of Baghdad’s Green Zone, only a few intrepid reporters – mostly independents and freelancers, such as Michael Yon – are actually engaged in first-hand coverage of current combat operations.
The anti-war narrative has also had a profound effect on our nation’s military policy. Post-Vietnam conflicts are expected to be short-term, relatively bloodless affairs, characterized by remote push-button warfare. Boots on the ground and flag-draped coffins are to be avoided at all cost. But as we’ve seen in the post-9/11 world, this military policy is unrealistic and our national reluctance to engage in any conflict beyond in-and-out operations has actually resulted in the escalation of threats against America internationally, which is perceived by its enemies as lacking the will to fight.
But the shift in perceptions against the military is not just the result of merely cultural factors; it has been birthed from an entirely new worldview fueled by both theological and philosophical presuppositions.
The authors identify a significant theological shift that occurred in the early 1900s, when a liberal or “modernist” theological movement began to take over the major Christian denominations in America. Rooted in radical criticism of the Bible and embracing the implications of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, a new cultural vision was birthed based on the inevitable triumph of man and the deprecation of old Puritan orthodoxies that assumed the depravity of man.
The main point of modernist theology was the notion that the divine will of God was going to be seen in the secular progress of man on earth rather than in terms of theology, let alone divine intervention. We were to no longer think in terms of good and evil but in terms of progress from a less enlightened state to a more enlightened state. In the future mankind would not only have progressed technologically but morally. We were going to become better people. We would outgrow things like crime and war. In fact we would outgrow the need to have countries. And in that new and better world who would need a military? (p. 115)
According this new improved vision of mankind, good and evil were antiquarian concepts considered by the cultural elite to be held only by the ignorant, unwashed masses. In our thoroughly secular age, it is easy to dismiss religious factors in shaping cultural trends, but the proof of what the authors are identifying is seen in the formation of the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact developed by France and the United States after World War I, which outlawed war altogether.
By 1933, sixty-five nations had signed on to the treaty banning war, including Germany, Italy and Japan. And yet, by the end of that decade, the world would be engulfed in yet another world war that would claim the lives of tens of millions of soldiers and innocent civilians. That notwithstanding, the theological vision of an enlightened evolutionary humanity was not abandoned after World War II, but reinvented, as seen in the birth of the United Nations.
Part of that post-World War II reinvention was the rise of postmodernism. No longer was there any belief that could be identified as objective truth; the concepts of good and evil were said to be constructs used by the privileged classes to preserve their power. According to the postmodernists, mankind needed to be freed from objective truth to usher in a new era of anarchism:
Americans have always been individualists. But this individualism, which became more robust in the 1960s, has since been reinforced by the postmodernist movement of the late 1970s and the 1980s. This movement argued that truth is relative, that those who win the power struggle get to define the truth, and that new or different “truths” can be equally valid to different people…And there certainly is no national truth that overrides individual preference. In this context the call to national service is hard to make. There are no national let alone universal truths, just individual experiences. So the military has to be pitched as just one more personal choice. (pp. 127-128)
The consequences of this new worldview have been catastrophic for the military. In psychology, character traits inculcated by military training are deemed slavish, intended for weak-minded individuals prone to an authoritarian personality.
In fact, the requirements of military life demand a rejection of the postmodern worldview. The postmodern ego that withholds all commitment and demands a perpetual veto, stands in stark contrast to the life-and-death necessities of military service, which demands all soldiers to take responsibility for others serving with them and to put collective interests ahead of personal ones. Military training itself is intended to push recruits well beyond their own expectations, which runs counter to the lowest common denominator system exemplified by our government-run education system, where personal strengths are restrained and weaknesses indulged to ensure “fairness”.
Sadly, even military recruitment today is predicated on the postmodern worldview. The familiar recruiting slogans of “Be All That You Can Be” and “An Army of One” are expressions of the radical individualism that is antithetical to the realities of military life. Then again, this is probably a concession by military leaders to the audience they must recruit from who have been seeped in the new postmodern worldview most of their lives.
Confronting the Problem
Overall, this book is successful because they stick to the topic at hand – the cultural elite’s abandonment of the military and the consequences thereof. They resist the temptation to get into the larger, more political, public policy issues that are very important, but not germane to their thesis.
However, Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer don’t dismiss that there are real military policy issues that must be addressed apart from the cultural problem they identify. For instance, they note the chronic understaffing of the military and the overall decline in military spending, but it is relegated to a footnote:
Since 9/11 we have not had a national war effort. Our military is 0.4 percent of the population, and though it seems to be terribly understaffed, there is no serious political effort to increase the size – so that a tiny proportion of the population bears an enormous burden in this war. At the same time, the military budget is a smaller proportion of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) than it was at any time from the 1940s to the mid-‘90s. We spend about 3.7 percent of our GDP on military activities today, compared to about 4.4 percent in 1993 (post-Cold War, pre-War on Terror), or to 9.2 percent, in 1962, between Korea and Vietnam. (p. 169)
In our day and age when everybody has an opinion on every topic, whether they are informed or not, it is easy for writers to wander off the path. Not here. The authors stay on target and they should be commended for their discipline.
There are many positive things to say about this book. The writing is very accessible and non-technical, and the personal experiences of both authors resonate on virtually every page. It should be required reading for military and political leaders alike.
The one weakness of the book, however, resides in the book’s conclusion. Having spent two hundred pages of insightful, informative, compelling and quick reading, the authors’ suggestions for correcting the cultural problems they identify falls flat.
First, they rightly recommend a shift in national policy related to the military:
The grunt on the ground is best equipped, best trained, and best served when the opinion makers have a personal stake in his or her well-being. We submit that the best planning for warfighting is not done by political leaders who are in a hurry to “get it over” before the political winds shift, because support for a war in not deep and shared by all. It is time for a midcourse correction in the policy of the all-volunteer military and how it recruits. (p. 201)
They also make several nip/tuck policy solutions, but the only real substantive suggestion they make for addressing the abandonment of the military by the cultural elite is a national service draft. On this recommendation, the authors diverge as to whether this draft should be mandatory (Schaeffer) or voluntary (Roth-Douquet). Unlike previous drafts, they agree that exceptions that favored the elite (college deferments, etc.) should be very limited, if not eliminated altogether, to increase the fairness of the process.
In her discussion on this proposal, Roth-Douquet notes that the political will for a compulsory program of national service does not exist, and is not likely to be a viable political option anytime soon. Schaeffer responds by saying, “It will take strong medicine to break the self-reinforcing cycle of selfishness presently endemic to this culture.” (p. 230). Admittedly, both arguments have merit.
Leaving aside the issue of a mandatory vs. a voluntary draft, they suggest the creation of a “National Service Gateway”, which would combine recruiting for all four branches of the military, along with AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and even the Red Cross, with both males and females required to register with the Selective Service System. Existing college aid programs would be replaced with tax credits, loan forgiveness, etc. contingent upon service in one of these programs. Taken at face value, this seems to be an efficient concept; but the authors are intending to increase participation in the military, and making it just one option among many robs it of its unique position in protecting our society and puts military recruiting into an even more competitive environment.
Furthermore, it seems that the last thing needed in our country is yet another federal program where hundreds of thousands of “volunteers” are placed on the federal dole. Are AmeriCorps and “volunteer” programs like it something that we as a nation should be perpetuating, let alone expanding? And what, if anything, does this proposal have to do with resolving the cultural problem they identify – the absence of the elite from the military?
Understandably, the bipartisan authorship of this book – one of its strengths – limits from the beginning the policy prescriptions made at the end. As a result, their primary recommendation – the “National Service Gateway” – seems to have the all the flaws, convolutions, and enormous price tag for taxpayers as most pieces of the bipartisan legislation passed by Congress. And if our authors can’t even agree whether it should be voluntary or mandatory, can we really expect 535 members of Congress to reach a consensus? But since the authors do such a good job of identifying the cultural and political trends, and diagnosing the cultural causes, in the end they can be forgiven for falling short on their proposals for solutions. The authors admit that they intended to initiate a conversation, not to solve it.
The most prominent implication of Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer’s AWOL is that the abandonment of the military by our cultural leaders demonstrates a loss in faith in democracy itself. That is a problem that extends well beyond discussions of national security, military service demographics and how we recruit. That America’s cultural elite have gone AWOL from military service is a problem that should be the topic of conversation by both major political parties and media commentators of all stripes. With the increasing rise in influence of these same cultural elites while the demands on our military are higher than at any point since the Vietnam War, this book and the discussion it hopefully engenders arrives none too soon.
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