Why it is hard to build up America's defense

Vincent Davis is director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.

The main constraint on expanding the size and missions for the united States armed services is a longstanding set of public attitudes that neither larger budgets nor any other remedies can adequately fix in the short run -- if ever. Simply stated, it comes to this: Americans generally do not like to serve in the military, particularly in the ground forces, and most particularly in combat. If apparently compelled to serve, Americans have found many ways to avoid or resist -- often through politics.

This does not mean that Americans are pacifists. On the contrary, most have been either enthusiastic about or indifferent to wars -- as long as personal participation seemed remote. Nor does this mean that Americans are cowards. IF ultimately caught up in combat, Americans have been effective fighters, including committing exceptional acts of heroism.

Explanations must be sought elsewhere. The Declaration of Independence is the only sacred government document in the world promising "happiness" as a birthright, using the term several times -- and it is a word not typically found among lawyers and constitutionalists. Further, happiness was defined in terms of "prosperity," and individual effort was the indicated route. This credo built the great American economy. But military organizations are inherently founded on collectivist rather than individualist values and are not able to promise more than average prosperity.

As industrialization and urbanization advanced, the gap widened between civilian and military life-style expectations. Because this made military service even less attractive, the US tried to minimize the need for personnel by maximizing applications of technology -- basically the same approach followed for essentially the same reason in the civilian economy: using machines to do work that people did not like to do. Alas, trying to substitute technology for people meant a military need for recruits with higher qualifications -- precisely the kind not much attracted to military life, and in demand in the civilian sector. The situation is the reverse in most of the developing countries, where military service can often mean a substantial life-style improvement.

Whatever the explanations, American history is unarguable. Most of General Washington's troops abandoned him at Valley Forge. So few promptly rallied to the colors in the War of 1812 that the White House was burned. Many of General Scott's men straggled away in the War with Mexico. The Congress did not pass a Civil War conscription bill until the last urgent moment -- and even then a loophole permitted affluent youngsters to but their way out of serving. Those who eagerly volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War -- our shortest (only three months) and most popular war -- were on the embarkation piers in Tampa rioting to be sent back home within weeks after getting there.

The magnitude of catalytic shock required for what Forrestal called the "psychological mobilization" of the American public in support of war efforts has grown steadily larger in this century. In 1898, the sinking of a single US warship in Havana harbor was sufficient. Europe was aflame in war for more than two years when Wilson got reelected in 1916 promising to keep the US out -- and then the sinking of several ships with American passengers in the Atlantic turned around public opinion by April 1917.

Europe was again engulfed in war for several years, and FDR's hands had been largely tied by neutrality legislation and other laws, when the Pearl Harbor attack knocked out most of the US fleet and reversed public opinion.

No adversary has conveniently provided a sufficiently large catalytic shock since World War II, and American military involvements after 1945 have quickly embittered public opinion. A nice question is precisely what kind of shock would now be required to galvanize sustained approval, short of major attacks and combat within the United States itself. Presidents might wish to use force in lesser circumstances, but sustained public backing would be questionable, particularly in that chief executives probably could not successfully follow the Wilson and FDR methods in enlisting media and entertainment industry support for war efforts.

The "all-volunteer force" is a misnomer, and has failed. It has civilianized the military in that recruiting is now no different from what any large civilian employer does when penetrating the national labor pool -- offering various monetary and other incentives and benefits. Military service has become just a job, in competition with other jobs. It works, when it works at all, only when a lagging economy reduces job opportunities. It has allowed the broad middle classes to "buy out" with taxes to pay the lower classes to serve.

Most important, it cannot compensate for the unavoidable discrepancies between civilian and military life styles, including much unremunerated "overtime," long separations from family and friends, and ultimately the risk of combat injury or death. Conscription would not escape these problems while adding new ones. Other possible measures would carry high monetary and/or political costs. And these same attitudes discouraging military service are found in all modern industrial societies in the West.

These constraints impose severe limits on expanding US armed forces, and any strategies for their use, in the absence of dramatic and sustained shifts in public attitudes n ot now clearly foreseeable.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.