06/05/2013 05:50 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

Citizen Soldiers

Down through the ages, great nations have struggled with the challenge of maintaining military forces comprised mainly of citizen-soldiers who fairly represent the populace being defended. Not only do citizen-soldiers demonstrate solid values of patriotism and honorable service, but their presence in the ranks provides political leaders with strong incentive to husband their lives carefully. Historically, a great many of the people in uniform have themselves been the children of political leaders. That creates an honorable bond between political and military personnel that serves our country well.

Part of the unfortunate legacy of the Vietnam War is the volunteer army that has become almost a separate population representing a miniscule percentage of the overall population. Today, less than one half of one percent of the population serves in the military. In 1975, 70 percent of members of Congress had some military service; today only 20 percent do.

In recent years, I have often heard former military colleagues say that the nation is not at war -- the Army is at war. We have forged a self-perpetuating professional military caste that is largely distinct from the overall population. They tend to be overrepresented by disadvantaged groups and rural populations. Over the past 12 years of seemingly endless warfare, these people have been called upon to return to the battlefield time and time again. This takes a toll reflected in high rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide.

The estrangement between the citizenry and military is aggravated by new whiz-bang technologies that enable drone operators many miles from the combat zone to conduct military operations like kids playing computer games. This conveys a false image of sterile warfare in which the combatants are not real. But while the new technologies give us a distinct advantage, the real fighting is where it has always been -- on the ground. The steady stream of wounded heroes coming back home missing arms and legs underscores that reality.

But perhaps the most unconscionable misuse of our people in my book has been to transform the Army Reserves and National Guard units into full-time soldiers. Many of them are middle-aged professionals with children, leaders of their communities. They signed up to serve as backups to the military, not front line warriors. I know many of them feel they have been betrayed by their leaders. We will find it increasingly difficult to replenish their ranks.

We need to create a universal service system in which every young person is expected to serve our country for a period of two years in the military or some form of community service. We need to get back to the basic concept of patriotic service as a core component of citizenship. Our unity and security will be greatly enhanced when we all have some skin in the game.

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.