During this presidential campaign, voters will hear much about the divergent economic realities between "the rich" and "the middle class." Yet there is another partition in America that is less visible, but no less troubling. The great divide between the civilian and military communities leaves the nation and its electorate ill-equipped to make informed judgments about military and international affairs.
I recently returned from a trip to San Diego, during which I toured the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and spent two days at sea with the officers and crew of the USS Nimitz. To say the least, it renewed my respect for the professionalism, competence, dedication, and sacrifice of America's men and women in uniform. I was deeply impressed by the vigor and apparent confidence with which they attend to their duties.
A quick glance at the troops I met immediately revealed a broad representation of America's ethnic groups – a diversity that's typical throughout America's armed forces. Statistics reveal high standards of educational attainment and the near nonexistence of illegal drug use or criminal backgrounds. Many come from families in which military service is a common experience. Yet I can't help concluding that the upper and upper-middle or "elite" social classes seem to be conspicuously absent.
A Navy admiral told me, "America is not at war. Its military is." He was acutely aware that a prominent segment of society had little but tax money invested in the outcome.
The civilian leaders with whom I traveled to the ship were clearly surprised by their exposure to young Americans who were seriously and stoically preparing to deploy to a war from which some might not return. Concepts of duty, honor, and sacrifice were simply not central to the life experiences of these civilians. America's elites don't necessarily lack patriotism, but precious few of these leaders have engaged in military service themselves. They simply lack reasonable reference points.
In the middle of the 20th century, military service was near universal for American men. While some used their privileged status to escape arduous or risky duty, society as a whole came together in the common cause of national defense. As a result, America was full of veterans who could place "news from the front" in context for friends and neighbors.
For example, to the extent that the American family received accurate estimates of casualties from the Normandy landings in 1944, a nearby uncle or father would have been able to put those figures in context by declaring, "I was on the Western Front in the Great War; we could have lost many more on Omaha Beach. All things considered, it seems that they managed that campaign as well as could be hoped."
A society with veterans represented at all levels of the community is better equipped to interpret accounts of inadvertent civilian casualties, interrogation interpreted as torture, or prisoner abuse. With the abdication of the upper classes from military service, most elites in the media, private sector, and government service don't have the intimate human context for the realities of war.
The debate about US engagement in Iraq is at its core an estimate of whether America is winning – or indeed can win, given the circumstances. The fourth estate long ago declared this war unwinnable. But how do we know that? How can they?
No electorate can make informed decisions about the exercise of military power in a far-off theater if it lacks a reasonable measure of collective experience with military matters. And any society that restricts its information and analysis to the sound bites of "embedded" journalists and political pundits will find itself highly susceptible to the manipulations of partisan politicians and interest groups at either extreme of any debate. It is simply too difficult to separate hope from fear and fiction from fact.
What can we do to correct course? To begin, America must find a way to reengage the nation's elites with the satisfactions and sacrifices of military and national service. Leading colleges should reinstate ROTC programs. Corporations should emphasize postmilitary recruiting. Likewise, professional organizations such as bar associations and business trade groups must seek opportunities to attend military expositions and demonstrations.
Just as America responded to the Soviet Union's Sputnik launch some 50 years ago with a vigorous effort to strengthen math and science education, America today must overhaul its school history curricula to engage students in military culture. And it must equip them to effectively and skeptically evaluate future military and political issues in the context of past experience.
It is only with an experienced and knowledgeable citizenry that we as a nation can prosecute sound strategy to achieve US policy goals while avoiding the pitfalls of failure and their attendant human, financial, and diplomatic costs.