Memorial Day warning: Americans too distant from those they send to war

The number of Americans who serve in the US military – especially those sent to combat – has gone down dramatically in recent years. Critics say civilians need to assume more responsibility for the moral burden of war as well as for the other costs of fighting.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama greets Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Eilene Henderson in the Arlington National Cemetery during his Memorial Day visit there Monday.

At Arlington National Cemetery today, President Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, calling upon the nation to keep in mind those fighting in Afghanistan and elsewhere, especially as nearly 12 years of war winds down.

“Regardless of reason, this truth cannot be ignored that today most Americans are not directly touched by war,” Mr. Obama told a crowd of dignitaries and military families gathered to mark Memorial Day. “As a consequence, not all Americans may always see or fully grasp the depths of sacrifice, the profound costs that are made in our name, right now, as we speak, everyday.”

“Made in our name” may be the most relevant phrase here – especially as the percentage of Americans serving in uniform declines in the decades following the end of the Vietnam War and an end to military conscription.

“Fewer Americans are making the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan and that’s progress for which we are profoundly grateful,” Obama said. “This time next year, we will mark the final Memorial Day of our war in Afghanistan.”

Still, he noted, more than 60,000 GI’s still serve far from home in Afghanistan.

“They’re still going out on patrol, still living in spartan forward operating bases, still risking their lives to carry out their mission,” he said. “And when they give their lives, they are still being laid to rest in cemeteries in the quiet corners across our country.”

For better or for worse, “their mission” is really “our mission,” at least in terms of national policy crafted and carried out in a democracy with elected leaders. This was Obama’s implied message, not only on Memorial Day but in his commencement speech Friday at the US Naval Academy and a day earlier in his comprehensive address at the National Defense University outlining continuing (and new) efforts in fighting terrorism.

In a piece headlined “Veterans need to share the moral burden of war” in the Washington Post last Friday, war correspondent, author, and documentary filmmaker Sebastian Junger argues that the entire nation shares that burden.

“Soldiers face myriad challenges when they return home, but one of the most destructive is the sense that their country doesn’t quite realize that it – and not just the soldiers – went to war,” Mr. Junger writes. “The country approved, financed and justified war – and sent the soldiers to fight it.”

“This is important because it returns the moral burden of war to its rightful place: with the entire nation,” he goes on. “If a soldier inadvertently kills a civilian in Baghdad, we all helped kill that civilian. If a soldier loses his arm in Afghanistan, we all lost something.”

“When soldiers come home spiritually polluted by the killing that they committed, or even just witnessed, many hope that their country will share the moral responsibility of such a grave event,” Junger writes.

“Their country doesn’t. Liberals often say that it’s not their problem because they opposed the war. Conservatives tend to call soldiers ‘heroes’ and pat them on the back. Neither response is honest or helpful.”

That may be a harsh judgment on the vast majority of Americans who never served in Iraq or Afghanistan – or in the armed forces at all, for that matter.

But it’s essentially the same point made this weekend in the New York Times by retired Army lieutenant general Karl Eikenberry, US commander in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and the ambassador there from 2009 to 2011, and Stanford University historian David Kennedy.

“The greatest challenge to our military is not from a foreign enemy – it’s the widening gap between the American people and their armed forces,” they write. Less than 0.5 percent of Americans serve in the military today, and “even fewer of the privileged and powerful shoulder arms.”

In addition, Eikenberry and Kennedy write, “technology has helped insulate civilians from the military,” and “the military’s role has expanded far beyond the traditional battlefield.”

“Together, these developments present a disturbingly novel spectacle: a maximally powerful force operating with a minimum of citizen engagement and comprehension,” they warn.

The decorated general and the Pulitzer Prize-winning professor make several controversial recommendations:

• Instituting a draft lottery, “activated when volunteer recruitments fell short, and weighted to select the best-educated and most highly skilled Americans, providing an incentive for the most privileged among us to pay greater heed to military matters.”

• Mandating that Congress take a greater role in war-making, including a requirement that the president consult with lawmakers before going to war (and not afterwards, as is the case under the 1973 War Powers Act).

• “Congress should also insist that wars be paid for in real time,” they write. “Levying special taxes, rather than borrowing, to finance ‘special appropriations’ would compel the body politic to bear the fiscal burden – and encourage citizens to consider war-making a political choice they were involved in, not a fait accompli they must accept.”

• Eikenberry and Kennedy would also reduce reliance on civilian contractors “so that the true size of the force would be more transparent,” integrate military and civilian hospitals and other facilities, and reduce isolated military base housing “so that more service members could pray, play, and educate their children alongside their fellow Americans.”

As the US prepares to disengage from Afghanistan, this may be too much to ask of a war-weary body politic. But it’s an argument certainly worth making.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.