National Defense

An article in the January-February issue of The Atlantic by James Fallows entitled, "The Tragedy of the American Military," is causing quite a stir in Washington. I would commend it to any and all interested in defense.

In his thoughtful article, which I assume will soon receive full book treatment, Fallows follows a long, well-trodden indictment of our military establishment which consumes ever larger chunks of the nation's treasury in pursuit of wildly unrealistic objectives that make little sense and offer scant opportunity for success. We have heard it all before and know that most of it's true, but nothing is done about it.

Fallows covers a lot of ground in his diatribe, but a critical point he stresses over and over, and one I have often lamented, is the loss of connection between the American people and the military. He points out that at the end of World War II, 10 percent of Americans were in uniform, Today it is less than half of 1 percent. "We love the troops but we'd rather not think about them," Fallows writes. We are all too eager to go to war "as long as someone else is going."

He quotes newly-elected Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), a former Marine officer and combat veteran, who entered the political fray primarily because of his concern about the frayed connection between the public and the military. "Moulton told me, as did many others with Iraq-era military experience, that if more members of Congress or the business and media elite had had children in uniform, the United States would probably not have gone to war in Iraq at all," Fallows writes.

Fallows also quotes the recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen who says the military is "professional and capable" but "I would sacrifice some of that excellence and readiness to make sure that we stay close to the American people. It's become just too easy to go to war." But perhaps the most disturbing quote is from military historian William S. Lind:

The most curious thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War -- Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan -- is the utter silence in the American officer corps. Defeat in Vietnam bred a generation of military reformers. Today, the landscape is barren. Not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful, meaningful change. Just more money, please.

So how do we reconnect the American people to their defenders? The Fallows article includes a tribute by Joseph Epstein to the military draft, but Fallows does not recommend one. It would never fly politically. Rather, he offers some rather lame (in my opinion) suggestions about changing the way we decide to undertake endless conflicts. But there are ways short of a draft to forge a stronger bond between citizens and their defenders. I would suggest an aggressive Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps in secondary schools similar to that now available in many universities. It would be an excellent way to introduce young people to the military life, and attract patriotic young people into military service at a time when they are often considering career opportunities.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.