Tradition Abandoned: America's Military in a New Era

Tradition Abandoned: America's Military in a New Era

Mini Teaser: American civil-military relations will remain vexed for some time.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

A Shrinking Enclave

But who are the people? The end of the twentieth century finds
American society sharply divided and American culture in the midst of
tumult. Most important to our purposes, the cutting-edge forces of
cultural change--radical individualism, multiculturalism, the
politics of gender and sexual orientation--are fundamentally
antipathetic to military institutions and the military profession
itself as traditionally conceived. This is the second great source of
civil-military dissonance in the United States today.

A shrinking enclave within American society, the military subculture
has become something of an oddity. Military "society" is
undemocratic, hierarchical, and quasi-socialistic. It prizes order,
routine, and predictability. It resists change. America as a whole
has none of these qualities.

Traditional military professionalism--rooted in the ideal of the
warrior as the embodiment of soldierly virtue--has also become an
anachronism. It celebrates the group rather than the individual. It
cherishes virtues such as self-sacrifice, self-denial, and physical
courage that are increasingly alien to the larger culture. It clings
to a warrior spirit that is deeply and perhaps irreducibly masculine.
In short, orthodox notions of what it means to be a soldier clash
head-on with the imperatives of political correctness.

The thrust of postmodern politics is to tear down old boundaries and
to discard once sacrosanct distinctions. This has been true in art
and in a wide range of academic disciplines. It has been truer still
in matters related to gender and sexual morality. The military has
not been immune to this assault. Progressive thinkers, abetted by
allies in the media, question the necessity or justification for the
boundaries that set the military profession apart from society at
large. The ferocity with which the traditional soldierly ethos has
been attacked has repeatedly taken military officers by surprise.
Having themselves taken that culture for granted, they have been slow
even to recognize the importance of mounting a defense. As Tailhook
has made painfully obvious, their response when offered has tended to
be either obtuse or simply lame.

The upshot of cultural divergence has been an unhealthy estrangement
of the military from other influential sectors of society. In a
sense, American elites have gotten what they asked for; the
journalist Thomas E. Ricks puts the matter succinctly: "The end of
the draft, in 1973, ratified the separation between American elites
and the military." As a result, according to former Secretary of the
Navy John Lehman, since Vietnam, "We have created a separate military
caste." In times of stress--and for soldiers the immediate aftermath
of the Cold War era is laden with stress--that separation can harden
into alienation and disdain.

Despite such separation--or perhaps because of it--civilian elites
clamor loudly for the military to quit dragging its heels on the
leading social issues of the day. The remedy for such recalcitrance,
enthusiastically supported by critics such as former Representative
Pat Schroeder, is "culture cracking": subjecting military folkways to
ridicule, harassing the armed services to submit to the dictates of
political and cultural fashion. Ritualistic humiliation of male
officers, the more senior the better, figures prominently in such
endeavors. But the true motive is not simply sexual retribution;
rather it is to use the military as a wedge to allow the aggrieved to
advance a larger political agenda. In this respect, advocates of
women's rights and gay rights who engage in "culture cracking" are
following the example of civil rights leaders for whom the
desegregation of the armed forces was a pivotal event. Leading
practitioners of culture cracking--few of whom possess any firsthand
military experience--cannot grasp and thus do not sympathize with
claims that a distinctive identity and distinctive values might
contribute to military effectiveness.

Among soldiers, civilian intrusions into matters once reserved for
the military itself arouse fierce resentment. Worse, distaste for
what they perceive to be the unruliness and decadence of civilian
life breeds contempt for the society that soldiers are sworn to
protect. As a result, the American military finds itself today
standing not only apart from but dangerously at odds with the society
it is pledged to defend. As a spokesman for the U.S. Naval Academy
put it in rejecting any institutional responsibility for an outbreak
of criminal activity by "a small number of miscreants" among
midshipmen, the real fault lies with society. There, "a great
reversal has taken place", a de-emphasis of character. As a result of
that reversal, "the academy, standing as it does for decency, honor,
[and] honesty . . . is now the counterculture."

The notion that the military has become a bastion of rectitude in a
society awash with evil is as misguided as it is bizarre. Among its
unfortunate effects, it encourages the belief in some quarters that
the military might serve as an agent for rejuvenating a society
fallen into debauchery. Typifying this school of thought is Major
Ralph Peters, an army officer and a writer of pulp fiction that
features incorruptible military officers as the good guys, and oily,
ambitious civilian officials as villains. The U.S. Army, Peters
recently advised the Wall Street Journal, is "a noble institution
from which the rest of society could learn a great deal--the ideas of
duty, honor, and country, the idea of putting responsibility before
rights"--this comment appearing precisely as the army's sexual
harassment scandal at Aberdeen was erupting.

In many respects, the army and the other armed services are indeed
noble and admirable institutions. Yet when they entertain fantasies
of serving as agents of moral renewal, soldiers stray into areas that
should remain strictly out of bounds. Armies preserve their nobility
by serving as effective instruments of policy, leaving to others the
task of social transformation.

Given the burdens accruing to the World's Only Superpower, that
Clausewitzian role should prove sufficiently arduous. When it comes
to keeping the United States atop the international order, the most
onerous tasks will inevitably fall to soldiers. As civilian elites
awaken to that fact, they may come to recognize the utility of
nurturing values within the ranks that are conducive to toughness,
discipline, and cohesion--and that provide, not so incidentally, a
firewall against praetorian inclinations. Such enlightened attitudes
might lay the basis for a new compact between the military and
civilian elites, delineating in a way acceptable to both the
responsibilities that soldiers will undertake and the prerogatives
that they will enjoy. Negotiating the terms of such a compact will
demand concessions from both sides. Almost inevitably, it will
require a reformulation of the warrior's calling, adapting and
updating its externals in order to preserve its essentials.

The penalty for failing to devise such a compact will be protracted
and intensifying discord. Uninformed politicians, journalists, and
intellectuals will continue their ill-advised campaign to civilianize
the military. Responding with indignation and disgust, soldiers will
flirt with the notion that they are called to save America by
militarizing it. The result is unlikely to be conducive either to
effective hegemony or to healthy democracy.

For now, however, whether such enlightened attitudes will take root
remains an open question. With other Somalias, Haitis, and Bosnias
lurking in the nation's future, this much seems beyond dispute:
Pursued indefinitely, efforts to strip the military profession of its
characteristic ethos will render the prospects of maintaining a Pax
Americana problematic.

Technological Change

In military journals, civil-military relations seldom appear as more than an afterthought. Technology, on the other hand, regularly attracts enormous attention. Yet the two are intertwined. To the extent that it may be reshaping the conduct of future warfare, technology is itself the third issue destabilizing American civil-military relations.

In the new international order, the United States pursues a strategy in which the soldier's role incorporates many tasks once left to diplomats and relief workers. In the midst of culture "wars" at home, venerable distinctions between civilian and military life become contentious. Similarly, the information technologies pointing to what some have described as a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) threaten other distinctions - between warrior and non-warrior, between officer and NCO, and between service claims of proprietary rights regarding certain modes of warfare.

According to RMA visionaries, the coming revolution will transform the nature of war. It will render obsolete (or at least marginalize) weapons that define service identities: tanks, aircraft carriers, and manned aircraft. Familiar organizations such as battalions, brigades, and divisions that have long characterized armies will become superfluous.

The prospect of change on this scale inevitably gives rise to civil-military complications. Past efforts to reorganize the American military establishment according to the dictates of some "revolutionary" concept have triggered tumultuous fights both among the services, and between them and civilian authority. The passionate advocacy of strategic bombing by airmen of the interwar period is one example. Similarly, the infatuation with nuclear weapons to which military planners succumbed after the Second World War provoked bitter disputes both within and among each of the services. Thus, despite its trappings of radicalism, the RMA is nothing new. It is rather the latest expression of a deep-seated yearning for, and a recurrent effort to find, an absolute technological guarantee of American security.

Essay Types: Essay