06/01/2010 09:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Remembering What a Military Is For

Yesterday was Memorial Day. Here in Washington, the National Mall was packed with Americans paying their respects. The motorcycles of Rolling Thunder echoed through the streets. Sunday night featured a concert in front of the Capitol. At dinner parties, everyone was talking about the President's new National Security Strategy. And today, I received a note -- the fifth one in two weeks -- from a friend leaving for Afghanistan.

I look at the masses on the Mall and I look at my friends. I wonder how much they know about each other. And I worry.

We've got about a year now -- in Afghanistan -- to achieve some kind of measurable progress. The stakes are rising. Congress will soon be voting on a supplemental funding bill for the war and just passed a record breaking $726 billion dollar defense authorization. And, whether you agree with troop withdrawal timelines or not, Senator Russ Feingold's amendment reflects a thoughtful expression from Capitol Hill: We support a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, just not with military troops. It received 18 votes. Representative James McGovern has a companion bill coming up in the House.

Two of my friends going over will be in uniform -- but all 5 of them will be helping Afghans establish self-governance. Monitoring the criminal justice system, setting up communications infrastructure, teaching. In the policy world, these sorts of activities are lumped under "peacebuilding." The US rationale for being in Afghanistan gets more complex by the day: It seems fair to say that most of the warfighting has become peacebuilding.

Having taught Peace studies in California and West Point cadets, I'm not surprised. Strategies that acknowledge basic human behavior are a core lesson, and much of the subject matter is about preventing violence and managing conflicts peacefully. These are vital lessons for global security today. Simply put, security is about people.

British General Rupert Smith put it well when he described today's wars:

All the people, anywhere -- are the battlefield. Military engagements can take place anywhere in the presence of civilians, against civilians, in defence of civilians. Civilians are the targets, objectives to be won, as much as an opposing force.

So I wonder, do the crowds on the Mall looking at the World War II memorial understand how vastly different today's world is? That in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we've finally figured out that power is not equivalent to force but, instead, that our strength is found in the ability to influence change? The President's new National Security Strategy brims with this soaring vision. But do we Americans get it? Are we ready to craft a new plot about where we're going in the world and how we'll get there? Most importantly, do we understand that this change can't be led by those in uniform or at the end of a gun? The military itself keeps telling us this.

The President's strategy is a welcome rhetorical change. Now we must put some legs underneath it. Much of the non-military security infrastructure should already exist. Yet Instead of running toward the future in 1991, American civilian leaders looked backward and continually threw the military at problems. Those in uniform have since become a domestic and international 911 service. In the 90's we had Somalia and the Balkans, but more recently uniformed public servants have been tasked with rebuilding Iraq, rebuilding Afghanistan, Haiti relief logistics, and the New Orleans rescue. There have even been calls to send in the military to fight crime at the Mexican border and plug the BP oil disaster. Each of these crises deserves a response, but when does it end? Congress and the Executive Branch started bolstering non-military capabilities five years ago, under George Bush. Elected leaders know this is not a partisan problem.

However, the problem for all of us, as Americans in a democracy, is that we live in a country where popular buy-in to the notion that citizens and their civilian elected leaders are the primary authorities on all policymaking, is vital to sustain the system. That civilian supremacy in setting strategy is the cornerstone of our success and credibility in the world.
Our failure to achieve this balance is manifesting all over the place right now, in Afghanistan in particular. We keep telling everybody else to do things that we no longer are able to do ourselves.

Tea partiers and residents of the Gulf Coast take note: could it be that we've so scorned and dismantled our government that the only loved and well-functioning institution left is the military? Americans love it for a reason, and I agree with them. It is the only place where unabashed service to a collective outcome is allowed anymore.

We need a national conversation about this imbalance. Because the more we add to the notion that the people who have the most to say, the most authority on national security, the superior opinions, are wearing or have worn a uniform, the more we go down a murky, and unhelpful path. One way to shift this perception next Memorial Day would be to give thanks to all those who have risked themselves or died for our country -- with uniform and without.

Its not too late today, even.