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McChrystal's Disdain: Symptom of a Mercenary Force With Few Ties to Civilian Leaders

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The Obama/McChrystal debacle is symptomatic of a wider divide -- the widening estrangement between our civilian elites and our military. McChrystal deserved to be fired and has been. But this event is a symptom of a bigger problem.

General McChrystal's disdain for President Obama did not arise in a vacuum. The context is: 1) the disconnect between our "all-volunteer military" -- that is now really a professional mercenary force by another name -- and the civilian political leadership with less and less personal military service experience. And 2) the fact that the Republican Party has wrapped itself in the flag while the Democrats have had a harder time distancing themselves from some voices that have been perceived as offensively anti-military within their big tent.

The real reason that Rolling Stone was able to quote so many highly placed military people's disdain for members of the Obama administration is because the military sees itself as more moral and better -- and certainly more conservative -- than the types who serve in civilian roles today, especially within a Democratic administration.

Disclosure: I'm someone who has experienced this "disconnect" first hand. When my son volunteered for the Marines it was a shock to me. As a typical member of the white upper middle classes, as a writer living in Boston and as someone who never served, I was shocked by his choice.

My son John and I wrote a book describing our journey together to a place where I came to value the military and he came to understand my post-Vietnam parental anxiety: Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps. What we both discovered is that class warfare is part of the equation. Our "kind" just don't volunteer much these days. I then co-authored another book (this time with former Clinton appointee Kathy Roth-Douquet) on this problem, AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service -- and How It Hurts Our Country.

The political polarization between the so-called red and blue states has spilled over and helps reinforce the sense that from an upper middle class and often Democrat view point those who serve are the "other." And from the military point of view, the fact that most officers define themselves as Republicans these days means that they see the non-serving upper classes "the Hollywood Democrats" as alien politically as well as in other ways.

In 1976, most of the military identified as Independent, while 33 percent identified as Republican (still a larger proportion than the general public). But the armed services have abandoned this neutrality. Now 60 percent considered themselves Republican, and only seventeen percent considered themselves Independent. (The first figure is from data in the Foreign Policy Leadership Project conducted by Prof. Ole Holsti. The last year of the Holsti study was 1996. In that year, about 67 percent of military identified as Republican.)

Partly, the preference for Republican over Democrat results from the actions of the parties. The military felt betrayed by the Democrats in Vietnam. The Democratic Party in fact sent them in to Vietnam in the first place. But the protestors who spit on them when they returned home were not Republicans. At the same time, the Republican Party reached out to and courted the military.

Perhaps more importantly, the evangelical Christians -- now a force for reactionary Far Right politics -- created an alliance between themselves, the Republican party, and the military beginning in the 1970s -- something that's been well documented by political scientist Andrew Bacevich -- and this strategy has borne "fruit" in the current era, where the ties between the three groups -- weak a generation ago -- are now very strong.

Politics has become pervasive in society. It is perhaps inevitable that the military too would become affected by this social development, another casualty of the culture wars rooted in the upheavals of the sixties.

With the end of conscription, especially for the large segments of society who chose not to serve, military duty ceased to be something one did for a greater good -- what the British call "doing one's bit." Military service was no longer seen as a part of citizenship, seamlessly connected to other duties like paying taxes, respecting the rule of law, serving on a jury or voting. Now it was just another "lifestyle choice."

Today, the decision not to serve is also justified because service is seen through the lens of politics, and not citizenship. Many who choose not to serve -- or who discourage their children from volunteering -- seem to believe that they are even morally superior to those who do volunteer or who encourage their children to serve.

Their thinking goes something like this: I don't approve of this or that conflict and I did not vote for the president who is leading it, and since the decision to volunteer is a personal choice I believe that my personal feelings about any given conflict are relevant. I don't like this war so I won't serve my country, and not only that, I don't have to feel guilty that someone else is doing what I won't do. In fact I am more enlightened than they are because I will not volunteer.

The current system suits many just fine. The privileged classes are content to be excused from interrupting their pursuit of making and keeping money and having fun. Many people in government find it convenient to have a military relatively free of the pesky opinionated children of the upper classes, of Senators or New York Times editors, whose direct lines to their influential parents could affect their parent's attitude toward what the government might ask their children to do. Some in the military establishment have told us that they feel that their mission is smoother without having to assimilate short-timer citizen-soldiers, or those who may feel more entitled to try to change the system, those whose opportunities and ambitions more or less guarantee that they will not "re-up" but just serve a minimum time then hurry back to the good life that awaits them. Yet is the country really better off?

At any given moment Americans of all political persuasions are calling for America to intervene in world affairs. Liberals and conservatives may differ on where our military should be used but both camps call for it to be deployed on a regular basis to stop genocide, fight terror, provide humanitarian relief, stop ethnic cleansing, spread democracy, interdict drug traffic, rescue American civilians from danger, and yes, let's be honest, undo foreign policy messes of our own making from time to time. The list is as endless as there are American political leaders with causes. However that the military is asked to "do something" in a myriad of crises is commonplace.

And yet, increasingly, those most influential in making, supporting, or protesting defense policy have no direct experience with the military and no direct stake in getting it right. If they embroil us in some fiasco it is not their sons and daughters who will be shipped home in coffins. They have no personal stake, what has been called "skin in the game."

There is a strange and unintended symbiotic relationship between the "leave it to us professionals" attitude expressed by some leaders in our military today, and the "leave me alone" or "not with my child" attitude shared by many in the upper classes when it comes to military service. It is natural for military leaders to want to focus most narrowly on their immediate mission. That is their job. But civilians are the bosses of the military. The military does not exist to maintain itself perpetually. It exists as the expression of the American people as to how we want to defend ourselves and how we want to change, or not change the world to suite our long-term security interests.

The federal government is the place where the leadership class and the military leadership colide. There is no sense within Washington's marble halls either that we need to change. The upper classes, the government, and many in the military seem satisfied.

The lack of contact between the military and members of America's leadership -- its local and national politicians, academicians, media and cultural elites, and professionals -- is not the only cause of the decline in young people's service. There are two other principal reasons. First, we Americans have become people who increasingly see our country in terms of raw politics. Second, we have become extreme individualists. The lack of personal contact with military people, the politicization of American life and extreme individualism have combined to create a perfect storm militating against certain classes from volunteering for service.

As I said, General McChrystal's disdain for President Obama did not arise in a vacuum. The context is the long simmering resentment by the class of Americans who serve of those who don't. Had Obama served the flavor of this debate would be different.

America needs to understand that we have a professional military that increasingly looks on the culture it serves as morally inferior. And speaking as the father of a Marine who had plenty of neighbors who went shopping as my son went to war, I understand this feeling!

The resentment of the civilian world crops up in the publications of various military or veterans organizations. For instance in the American Legion Magazine there is a recurring theme on the need for veterans to constantly remind the public and legislators of their existence lest they be forgotten. In a special issue on veterans' benefits Congressman Lane Evans, Vietnam vet and advocate for veterans was asked: "What role do you see veterans fulfilling in the effort [to protect vet's benefits from budget cuts]?" He answered, "Veterans' groups should get out there and raise holy hell against what's happening." (American Legion Magazine, June 2005). In other words, vets have to raise "holy hell" to just get what is rightfully theirs from civilians and their civilian leaders, less and less of whom have served.

What you saw now between the White House and the general being fired is the tip of an iceberg.

New recruits are increasingly second generation military. This is especially so in the officer class, a nation within a nation. We now have a military "class." And face it they don't trust or like the people outside that class who tell them what to do but with no skin in the game.

Our system was set up to have a civilian led military of mostly civilian non-professionals serving for a time then returning to civilian life. We now have a civilian leadership with no military experience in charge of a mercenary professional force with few personal (let alone empathetic) ties to our leaders.

And that force is no longer protecting America only but rather projecting imperial overreach that will lead to more and more loss of American lives for no reason. Expect more trouble.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back

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