On Monday, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff lamented that “America doesn’t know its military and the United States military doesn’t know America.” I could not agree with him more.
Less than one percent of Americans currently serve in the military. Based on Department of Veterans Affairs and Census projections, military veterans represented just over seven percent of the population in September 2010. Yet, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, veterans represent one out of every five homeless people. America has turned its back on its veterans whether it is intentional or not.
Rather than seeing them as a national asset, the government treats veterans as a potential threat. Two years ago, the Department of Homeland Security published its belief that many of them posed risks to American security – the same group of people who have so selflessly dedicated their lives to protecting American interests around the globe. The report argued, “Returning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to rightwing extremists.” Yet the report started with the warning that the “DHS/Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) has no specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence, but rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues.” Yet, the agency chose to spend valuable organizational resources to generate an entire report on the topic.
To be fair, veterans do receive hiring preferences for certain government jobs and benefit from government contracting guidelines that often favor veteran-owned businesses. However, unless a veteran plans for lifetime government service or starts an aerospace or defense business, he or she does not benefit from these programs.
The American public’s disconnectedness from the military has not always been the case. In Defense Secretary Gates’ September speech at Duke University, he remarked,
“A prominent military historian once noted that of his roughly 750 classmates in the Princeton University class of 1956, more than 400 went on to some form of military service – a group that included a future Harvard President, a governor of Delaware, and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times. That same year, more than 1,000 cadets were trained by Stanford University’s ROTC program.”
By the time I was an undergraduate at Stanford in mid-90s, the University had long ago banned the ROTC program from campus. Initially, the excuse was opposition to the Vietnam War and later it was because of the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. When I graduated at Stanford in 1998, fewer than five Stanford cadets participated in Santa Clara’s ROTC program. To fund my education at Stanford, I commuted 45 minutes each way to Santa Clara University three times a week at five in the morning after working all night on engineering problem sets. My minor inconvenience pales in comparison to those currently serving multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are separated from their families and whose lives are constantly in mortal danger. Some of my friends have never returned.
The lack of American participation in military service coincided with the decision to transition from a military draft to an all-volunteer force in the 1970s. While the all-volunteer program has resulted in the most powerful and effective military in history, the downside of the program is that fewer Americans serve and a disproportionate number of them come from working class backgrounds. As such, the country’s elites are increasingly disconnected from the military that keeps the country safe at night.
A positive aspect of the military draft was that it forced people of all backgrounds to work together. Liberals and conservatives, rural farmhands and the scions of the elite, Jews and Christians, and blacks and whites, all found a common purpose in service to our country. Today, society has become increasingly factionalized with like-minded people retreating into their own tribes, which reinforce their own deeply held views. Television and radio networks feed these biases by catering to partisan desires in the pursuit of profit.
The solution is not to bring back a military draft. Such a move is impractical – the military simply cannot absorb that many personnel overnight. However, there is something to be said for a national service program for adults, in which they spend two years in the military, Peace Corps, State Department, a public safety organization, or as a teacher, serving the country in causes greater than themselves. Adults could have the option to do this service at any point in their careers. While the program would not be mandatory, until someone performs their service, they would be ineligible for any tax exemptions, credits, or deductions whatsoever. Therefore, the program would remain voluntary, but provide strong incentives for Americans to participate. It would also benefit government from the experiences of more seasoned professionals.