Citizen-Soldiers and Defending the Constitution: The Ideal versus the Reality

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The Minuteman Ideal (Photo by Sean Kraft)

W.J. Astore

Ten years ago, I gave a talk on the ideal of citizen-soldiers and how and why America had drifted from that ideal.  As war looms on the horizon yet again, this time with Iran, we’d be well advised to ask critical questions about our military, such as why we idolize it, how it no longer reflects our country demographically, its reliance on for-profit mercenaries, and the generally mediocre record of its senior leaders.

My talk consisted of notes that I hope are clear enough, but if they aren’t, please ask me to elaborate and I will in the comments section.  Thanks.

 Today [2009] I want to discuss the ideal of the citizen-soldier and how I believe we have drifted from that ideal.

The Ideal: Dick Winters in Band of Brothers; E.B. Sledge in With the Old Breed; Jimmy Stewart.  Until recent times, the American military was justly proud of being a force of citizen-soldiers. It didn’t matter whether you were talking about those famed Revolutionary War Minutemen, courageous Civil War volunteers, or the “Greatest Generation” conscripts of World War II.

Americans have a long tradition of being distrustful of the very idea of a large, permanent army, as well as of giving potentially disruptive authority to generals.

How have we drifted from that ideal?  In six ways, I think:

  1. Burden-sharing and lack of class equity

Historian David M. Kennedy in October 2005: “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”

Are we a true citizen-military if we call on only a portion of our citizens to make sacrifices?

All-Volunteer Military, or All-Recruited Military? Our military targets the working classes, the rural poor, young men (mostly men) who are out of work, or high school dropouts, for enlistments.  (Officer corps is recruited somewhat differently.)

With few exceptions, societal elites not targeted by recruiters.

Anecdote: NYT article by Kenneth Harbaugh on exclusion of ROTC from Ivy-League college campuses

“At Yale, which has supplied more than its share of senators and presidents, almost none of my former classmates or students ever noticed the absence of uniforms on campus. In a nation at war, this is a disgrace. But it also shows how dangerously out of touch the elites who shape our national policy have become with the men and women they send to war.

Toward the end of the semester, I took my class to West Point. None of my students had ever seen a military base, and only one had a friend his age in uniform.”

“Support Our Troops” – But who are our troops?  Why are they not drawn from across our class/demographic spectrum?

  1. Estrangement of Progressives and Growing Conservatism/Evangelicalism of the Military

If the operating equation is military = bad, are we not effectively excusing ourselves or our children from any obligation to serve — even any obligation simply to engage with the military? Indeed, are we even patting ourselves on the back for the wisdom of our non-choice and our non-participation? Rarely has a failure to sacrifice or even to engage come at a more self-ennobling price — or a more self-destructive one for progressive agendas.

Example: Evangelicalism at the Air Force Academy versus separation of church and state.

Is our professional military a society within our larger society? 

  1. Many “troops” are no longer U.S. military: They’re private contractors. Instead of citizen-soldiers, they’re (in some cases) non-citizen mercenaries and non-citizen contractors.

Blackwater (Xe), Triple Canopy, Dyncorp, KBR: there are more contractor personnel in Iraq than U.S. military, and many contractors are providing security and doing tasks that our military used to do, like KP, for a lot more money.

Profit incentive: privatizing military is like privatizing prisons.  You create a profit motive for extending military commitments, and perhaps wars as well.

In other words, citizen-soldiers like Sledge and Winters want to come home.  Private mercenaries/contractors want to stay, as long as they’re making good money.

  1. Cult of the warrior: Reference to American troops as “warfighters.” This is contrary to our American tradition of “Minutemen.”  It’s a disturbing change in terminology.

I first noticed the term “warfighter” in 2002. Like many a field-grade staff officer, I spent a lot of time crafting PowerPoint briefings, trying to sell senior officers and the Pentagon on my particular unit’s importance to the President’s new Global War on Terrorism. The more briefings I saw, the more often I came across references to “serving the warfighter.” It was, I suppose, an obvious selling point, once we were at war in Afghanistan and gearing up for “regime-change” in Iraq. And I was probably typical in that I, too, grabbed the term for my briefings. After all, who wants to be left behind when it comes to supporting the troops “at the pointy end of the spear” (to borrow another military trope)?

But I wasn’t comfortable with the term then, and today it tastes bitter in my mouth.

We must not be “warriors” – we must be citizen-soldiers.  And note how the word “citizen” comes first.

Aside:  Warriors may commit more atrocities precisely because they see themselves as different from, and superior to, civilians.

  1. Deference of civilians to military experts, instead of vice-versa. Why I wrote my first piece for TomDispatch.  Idea that President George W. Bush couldn’t make the final decision on the Surge in Iraq until we heard from General David Petraeus.

In a country founded on civilian control of the military, it’s disturbing indeed that, as a New York Times/CBS poll indicated recently (2007), Americans trust their generals three times as much as Congress and 13 times as much as the President.

Also, abdication of responsibility by U.S. Congress.  Our country is founded on civilian control of the military.  But Congress afraid of being charged with hurting or abandoning our troops.

Georges Clemenceau: “War is too important to be left to generals.”  Why?  “Can-do” spirit to our military, no matter how dumb the war.  And militaries seek military solutions.

So, “supporting our troops” must not mean putting blind faith in our military:

In “A Failure in Generalship,” which appeared in Armed Forces Journal in May 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling argues that, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, our generals “refused to prepare the Army to fight unconventional wars” and thereafter failed to “provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.” Put bluntly, he accuses them of dereliction of duty. Bewailing a lack of accountability for such failures in the military itself, Yingling memorably concludes that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

  1. Oath of Office: Supporting the Constitution of the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Oath of allegiance is to the Constitution and to the ideas and ideals we cherish as Americans.  But how are the “long wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan advancing these ideals?  Are they consistent with our defense and our ideas/ideals of citizenship?

Breaking News:  President Obama just decided to send another 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan.  Meanwhile, today in the NYT, U.S. generals are already predicting that 50K+ U.S. troops may need to stay in Afghanistan for the next five years.  In other words, this is not a temporary surge.  [How true! Ten years later, we’re still in Afghanistan with no end in sight.]

So, how do we reverse these trends and reassert our ideal of a citizen-military?

  1. Not with a draft, but perhaps with National Service (AmeriCorps, Green Corps, Peace Corps, Military).
  2. Renewed commitment by Progressives to engage with the military.  To understand the military, its rank structure, its ethos.
  3. Reduce/eliminate dependence on mercenaries/private contractors, even if it costs us more.
  4. Eliminate the “cult of the warrior.”  Replace warfighter rhetoric with citizen-soldier ideal.
  5. Deference to military experts for tactical/battlefield advice is sensible, but ultimately our military is commanded by the president and wars are authorized by the Congress, i.e. our elected representatives
  6. Oath of office: Every time we deploy troops, we must ask: How is this advancing our national ideals as embodied in our Constitution?  How are we defending ourselves?

Permit me to quote a passage from James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution.  He noted in 1795 that:

“Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few… [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

And Madison’s idea of continual warfare = our military’s “Long War” = Forever War?  What is our exit strategy?  Do we even have one?

Thank you.

4 thoughts on “Citizen-Soldiers and Defending the Constitution: The Ideal versus the Reality

  1. W.J., me old spoon, you are asking people to embrace the long-term view, to acknowledge there is something greater than themselves, and to understand that what is worth living for is worth dying for.
    The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew this.
    (See also Leslie Howard in “The Petrified Forest.”)

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  2. Another good column on military matters! I am a little hazy about point #2, however. What kind of ‘engagement’ are you referring to – social, political, or ? And in what ways hasn’t that been happening heretofore?

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    1. Hi Eddie: “Engagement” may come in many forms. One is simply educating oneself about the military and its wars. The second is reaching out. Speaking to troops, for example. Asking them questions. Perhaps participating in military “fun runs” and similar activities in one’s community.

      Engagement should go beyond simply thanking the troops. Indeed, engagement may take the form of anti-war marches in which veterans often participate.

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