The Profession of Arms

Via CDR M at Ace of Spades

The detachment of the military from civil society is a real problem. In fact, it was the initial impetus for this blog. I’ve always tried to help non-military readers understand the service. I usually try to stay away from jargon and frame the discussion so that civilians can grasp what the issues are. How successful I’ve been is debatable.

I haven’t really digested this article, part one of a three part series. The author raises some valid concerns with our all volunteer force.

For nearly 40 years, these volunteers have defended the United States’ national interests, and over time they have changed the nation’s approach to warfare, foreign policy, domestic politics and even national character. Most often, these affects appear to be subtle, like the growing distance between the military and the civilian population, or the percentage of Americans who have relatives in the services. Still, the consequences have been profound, making it easier for the U.S. to go to war with little public scrutiny.

I think the author is largely correct that the All Volunteer Force has changed our approach to war and foreign policy to some degree. But a bit further down, he says:

Vietnam is a vivid example of an administration hitting the brakes. In 1968, the draft focused public attention on the war. Protests shook the nation. Young people publicly burned their draft cards, and in a stunning about-face in domestic politics, President Lyndon Johnson declined to seek a second term in office.

I think we need to be very careful making to direct a comparison between Iraq and Vietnam. While there is some separation between civil society and the military community today, the big difference between Vietnam and Iraq in terms of public perception is not solely attributable to that. There is an enormous difference in the rate of casualties, and let’s be honest, casualties are the most likely cause for public disaffection with a military venture. By 1968, there were half a million US troops in Vietnam, and they were suffering about 1000 killed per month (very roughly).  In Iraq, and Afghanistan, the total number of troops deployed was about one fifth of that, but the casualties are at a much lower rate.

I strongly suspect that if we deployed the same size force, and suffered the same rate of casualties, public support for Iraq and Afghanistan would suffer much the same fate as in the war in Vietnam, whether that force was volunteer or draftee.

8 thoughts on “The Profession of Arms”

  1. I don’t think Iraq lacked for public scrutiny, and our interventions in Korea and Vietnam didn’t appear to be hampered in the least by a reliance on draftees.

    Do you believe this?:

    “The real danger,” Betros says, “is that Americans reflexively move towards a military solution before they will try all the other elements of national power. For now, the country relies very, very heavily on its military, without asking if there is an alternative.”

    Where exactly did that happen? Look at Iran and North Korea, for example. Our “reflexes” seem awfully slow, and we seem to be bogged down in an endless cycle of “alternatives.”

    The only part of the article that I agree with is the improved capability of the military. The competence of the all-volunteer force of the US has never been equaled on this planet.

  2. *still working to get beyond side story on retired lawyer William G. Halby*

    Um. Ok. There seems to be no easy way to compare costs and troop strength in an effort to arrive at some magic number that informs us when it’s time to cut back or build up our military. Simple comparisons do not take into effect the notion that we are protecting our interests beyond our own borders, or attempting to defend those who cannot defend themselves. The latter would be called the cost of ‘goodwill’ on the balance sheet of a major corporation. But we are NOT a corporation. We are a people in a nation with a culture and values that we chose to define in our Constitution. Decisions are not made in corporate boardrooms. Those who are elected and serve us in Washington swear to take our Constitution seriously and to defend it. Guess I’m just saying that it’s tough to make these decisions about military strength. And some obviously need a refresher course on the Constitution. *sigh*

    The only part of the article that I agree with is the improved capability of the military. The competence of the all-volunteer force of the US has never been equaled on this planet.

    ^ Spot on, Geoff!

  3. A comparison of Iraq and Vietnam would not be valid on many levels. The difference in intensity of the conflicts is only one example.

    The problem with Vietnam, from the political angle is it was a policy war. Roosevelt and Truman handed us a bad situation at the end of WW2 that the country would not have handled by the one means it could have been handled, war with the Soviet Union. Ivan had, by far, the largest Land Army the world had ever seen. It was battle hardened and had excellent equipment, even if not handled all that competently by the Officer Corps, and backed by a very backward country. The naivete of Roosevelt and Truman shocked Churchill who saw the danger Stalin represented. When the US demobilized, the opportunity to deal with Stalin in the way he understood was lost. The policy of containment came about as a result of the situation.

    Containment, however, required policy wars. Policy wars are also a characteristic of imperiums, which the US citizenry has never reacted well to (although Lincoln’s war is a very large exception because of the way he approached the creation of his casus belli). First it gave us Korea, which caught Truman flat footed, Cuba and then Vietnam. We let Cuba go because of simple ignorance (a lot of it intentional, in my opinion), but could not afford to let Vietnam go. Our prestige, and SE Asia are still suffering for Vietnam. But the little Chilluns didn’t want to get shot at and leftists that had taken over the academy by then were also agitating for their own reasons.

    Some of us could see the need to fight Vietnam (and Cuba before that), even if we didn’t want to get shot at (what sane man does?) You do what you have to do.

    I would disagree with the relative competence of our military vis a vis the Wehrmacht of 1939-1943 (many military historians rate the Wehrmacht as the most proficient Army the world had ever seen to that time) . The German Army destroyed a French Army with inferior equipment (the Char tank could not be penetrated by any main gun the Germans had, for example). They also pushed a Soviet Army to the wall with much the same inferior equipment and a much smaller Army. Only space saved Ivan. Fritz did it on grit and determination. Our Army has fed on the heritage we acquired fighting them. We owe a lot to the German Martial Heritage. Many of our officers trained at the German General Staff School before WW2 and brought those attitudes home where we still benefit today. The German Military still demonstrates many of those same traits today. However, just like us, their political leadership isn’t worth much.

  4. 2/3 of the Soldiers who fought in Vietnam were volunteers. There’s a lot of myth that perpetuates about Vietnam and about the military in general…the aithor does himself no favors in spreading and perpetuating those.

    There’s a line in that article about how if we continue to have totally voluntary service that the military could become a ghetto and almost 100% minority. Yeah, I suppose that’s possible. But last time I looked a lot of fields were primarily Caucasian, and not because they couldn’t find another job.

    I think the family business aspect of what the military has become is something that should be looked at and efforts to get people beyond that core group need to be undertaken…but some of the conclusions are just downright wacky.

  5. There’s a line in that article about how if we continue to have totally voluntary service that the military could become a ghetto and almost 100% minority. Yeah, I suppose that’s possible. But last time I looked a lot of fields were primarily Caucasian, and not because they couldn’t find another job.

    Glad you brought that up, Outlaw. His prediction appears to have little scientific basis or reality. And when I ask myself on what basis one would make such a statement(?) I wonder if this writer judges others by his own values and standards of behavior and thinking, No one would serve his country out of a sense of duty, privilege or opportunity… so only ghetto folk, minorities, or desperate people will volunteer. People who project like this rather than seek the facts are kinda sad, really. Anybody else wonder if this guy is a closet racist?

    1. To be fair, the concern over ghettoization was that of the Gates Commission in 1969, not the author’s. And the status of race relations then wasn’t what it is now, nor was the military held in anything like the regard it is today.

      But I feel I was remiss in not raising a point that Outlaw himself raised, that 2/3 of the force in Vietnam were volunteers (and in fact, that percentage was usually higher in the combat arms, not counting the “draftee brigades” like the 199th). In fact, in spite of the concern about sending black men to be cannon fodder, the most likely contingent to be killed in Vietnam were middle class white men.

  6. Thanks for the clarifications, Xbrad. Went back and read that entire article that was linked and see now it was NOT the author’s comment. Yea. I remember the Gates Commission. Things were waaaaaay different in the late 60s early 70s. Hahaha. Some things like attitudes and the quality of the military have substantially improved.

    My husband had a student deferment and was lucky to miss getting drafted by one lovely year. His draft number was 13. Those years were some very trying times for us. We had a few contemporaries who were war widows, and a handful of close friends come back from Vietnam requiring a lot of therapy.

  7. I took his use of “ghettoization” to be in the older context of the word, that is in isolation a certain segment of the populace; i.e. the traditional Jewish ghettos found in European cities, and not the modern sense of the word. If you read the concerns, it is clearly not restricted to race. If you look at the current composition of the army, it has become more reflective of several demographic groups. These include not just what the Gates commission envisioned in poor and minorities, but also college-bound; patriotic; etc. All of these groups fall within a broader characterization of generally more Southern, more conservative, more fit, more this-and-that, etc.
    I don’t view the fact that “we” in the military are isolated from civilian society with as much alarm as do others, including the author. Given that the active force has shrunk immensely, as well as the fact that the population of the US has also grown considerably, who would be surprised that there is less engagement by civilians with the military? The military has always been a tradition in families. This is not a new idea, and is not evidence of some alleged warrior class arising that is isolated from society in general. Stop with the alarmism.

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