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Joe Winkler: Military Hyper-Efficiency at What Cost?

August 13, 2013

A review of David M. Kennedy's The Modern American Military, reveals the trade-offs we've made for our super-efficient, all-volunteer forces.

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Image from Flickr via The U.S. Army

By Joe Winkler

According to the new and at times frightening compendium of essays, The Modern American Military, American society finds itself in a civic crisis. Edited by David M. Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Stanford historian, these essays detail and document the economic, social, and technological changes that have created the most efficient army known to man, but also an army increasingly aloof from its civilian population—a situation that raises fundamental questions about the duties of citizenship and the moral price of efficiency. The essays, written by a diverse group of writers (military academics, heads of think tanks, historians, policymakers, former ambassadors, defense consultants, and a therapist) represent a wide spectrum of expertise and political orientations. Despite the diversity of viewpoints, the essays largely agree with each other in their historical approach to analyzing today’s military, as well as in the conclusion that despite the unparalleled efficiency of our army, we face a crisis in the increasingly powerful and self-contained military world.

Less than 1 percent of families in the U.S. have a family member in the military, and less than 20 percent of the men and women in Congress have served in the military: under these circumstances, sending our army to war requires little understanding or sacrifice from the overwhelming majority of the populous and our lawmakers. We spend more on the military than the next ten countries combined, which last year roughly amounted to $700 billion, or 20 percent of our federal budget and 4 percent of our GDP. This number does not include the cost of private contractors, at least $177 billion since 2001. The military now contracts 1.4 soldiers-for-hire for every 1 member of the armed forces.

In other words, the American military has never been less American in terms of its demographics. In addition to relying more heavily on contract soldiers than ever before, the military is also comprised of a non-representative sample of the population. The makeup of the military places the burden of sacrifice onto specific communities, and not the American population as a whole; for example, African Americans make up about 20% of the Army, but only 12.6 in the similar cohort in civilian population. How did this happen, and perhaps more importantly—what do these changes mean? At first glance, these statistics should raise endless red flags (What does it mean to pay for and support an Army that answers to no one but itself, does it not contravene our civic duties to live in such ignorance of our powerful military, and will it not lead to a reckless use of our power?) At the same time, we’ve created a considerably more efficient, powerful military: the military’s weapons kill faster and with more accuracy; its practices (better and faster triage, the use of drones) reduce fatal injuries to our soldiers; its psychological advances—while still lacking, to be sure—seek to address the trauma concomitant with military life both more effectively and with greater care and attentiveness than the past.

The changes in the military echo the American obsession with efficiency and economic wisdom as the essential measure of all our decisions.

The true import of all of this can only be understood in the appropriate historical context, to which the book repeatedly returns. Most of these authors point to the country’s shift from the draft to an all-volunteer service (AVF), which occurred in 1973 under President Nixon In response to anger over the draft for the Vietnam war, the AVF to forgo the need for conscription. The creators of the AVF faced numerous challenges. They were forced to increase the efficiency of their smaller force, instead of relying on overwhelming numbers from the conscription. Moreover, because we now chose to rely on volunteers, the government needs to allocate more and more money to incentivize enlistment. The AVF now consists of a permanent standing army which consumes more resources and intellectual capital. Previously, while the military relied on some full-time personnel, our wars were fought by temporary armies composed of draftees. In the AVF, career soldiers by necessity replaced citizen-soldiers: soldiers would be better trained, spend more time in the military; the result is that the divide between soldiery and citizenry has become some deep that Robert L. Goldich, a military historian and defense consultant, notes:

The armed forces, both in peace and in war, are now composed mostly, if not almost entirely of people who accept the social legitimacy of violence and the infliction of pain, suffering, death, and anguish on other human beings. In contrast, civilian society increasingly takes the attitude that any form of physical coercion, or even exertion of influence on, of human beings by other human beings is morally wrong.

These conclusions seem a bit exaggerated, though the fact that they are not absurd says enough. Even if you don’t take it as far as Goldich who sees the American military turning into a self-contained empire, you can see the problem in supporting a standing army that feels little to no connection to the civilian society it purportedly protects and fights for. Moreover, that most civilians tend to feel differently about war and violence from the average soldier should lead us not to apathy and ignorance, but towards a more active role in the use and deployment of our power.

***

The advent of the AVF produced many unintended consequences, one of the more controversial being the military’s increased reliance on private contractors. These private contractors, or soldiers-for-hire, raise a whole host of moral and legal problems. Who do these contractors work for and answer to? Must they abide by the same American laws as regular soldiers? Private contractors occupy a strange amorphous legal and moral category in which they are hired by Americans, but don’t always best represent American interests. From an economic standpoint, we can inquire into the wisdom of spending millions of taxpayer dollars on non-American ventures. Recently, Reuters reported that over $150 million taxpayer dollars are going to government contracts given to supporters of the Taliban, including the Haqqani network and al Qaeda, as part of the security and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. The government responded that not enough proof was substantiated to formally ground these complaints, but the insanity of this potential situation highlights the problems of contracting out jobs generally set aside for the American military. Here, economic expediency appears to overtake simple common sense.

All of which highlights the disconnect between civilian life and knowledge and military excursions. We need to ask ourselves what it means that the American military stands so distant from regular society that the average citizen not only doesn’t know a soldier, but doesn’t know anything about how our military works or what it actually does.

This need for economic wisdom and efficiency seeps its way into even our most ardent civil rights discussions.

David. M. Kennedy, in his introduction to the collection, describes the situation in stark terms:

The United States, in short, has developed an armed force that can be sent into battle on behalf of a society that scarcely breaks a sweat—demographically, economically, or financially—when the force is deployed. In vivid contrast with the experience of almost all other societies throughout history, the U.S. today can wage prodigiously effective warfare without asking the great mass of its citizens to make any contribution—let alone sacrifice—whatsoever.

But what do we sacrifice for the efficiency of this military? It’s not hard to see how this situations leads to as many problems as it solves. The less our society knows about and takes part in the military, the less critical we will be, both as a government, but also as common citizens of the actions of and toward our soldiers. It is much easier to send someone else’s child into wars, especially into wars that are not technically “defensive,” namely wars for “freedom.” As war becomes increasingly abstract to most of the government and citizens, the more divorced our political arguments become from any understanding of the cost and violence of war. This disconnect, this apathy creates a vicious cycle of misinformation and naiveté. The less we care about war and our military, the more we will take other peoples’ word for what actually happens. We don’t actually know anyone who fought in the war so we need to rely wholly on what we read or hear from think tanks or journalists or the government all of whom themselves don’t actually fight or experience war. All of the information you receive about the military and the war, even this article, even this book, is somewhere between third- and fourth-hand information.

***

While the analysis in these essays does a compelling job of delineating the problems facing the modern military, they do little in the way of synthesizing this information into larger cultural and historical shifts and patterns. While expansive in scope, the book’s focus solely on the nature of problems in the military tend to occlude the fact similar challenges have arisen in other facets of American life. On the most basic level, many of the changes in the military echo the American obsession with efficiency and economic wisdom as the essential measure of all our decisions. Our government’s stance towards big money captures this strange disconnect between ostensible economic wisdom and moral foolishness. We all realize the lack of morality in big business, but despite the moral corrosion of too-big-too-fail banks, economically we must continue to support them. We watch the world’s climate change at rapid paces, and hear the warning of scientists, but conclude not with our moral obligation to nature or to the world, but in economic considerations.

To not see these issues in their larger context—all are consequences of over-valuing economic efficiency—corrodes our ability to think our way out of them. Even if we managed to fix certain issues in the military, the deeper festering wounds would persist.

If a true cross-section of the population is called to participate and sacrifice in the military, we can better know the true costs of war.

Our recent economic crisis, its underlying foundations and our reactions to it highlight our obsession with the wisdom of economics and efficiency. With the economic recession, we worried more about the return to American prestige, and less about how our irresponsible spending affected the world, or about how perhaps we need a change of values. This need for economic wisdom and efficiency seeps its way into even our most ardent civil rights discussions. Often, you will see people discuss women’s, LGBTQ rights in the context of how it benefits the economy, as if the morality of these issues weren’t enough to be convincing. In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address, he couched many moral issues in economic rationalizations and reasoning. After he grounded immigration reform in economic wisdom, “Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants,” he explains that similarly, “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, our mothers, our daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence.” Our politicians, even potentially progressive presidents, justify many policy decisions based on their economic boon. To that extent, the book paints a familiar picture of an American society more bothered by the economic cost of war than its moral toll.

Arjun Appadurai captured this obsession in the wake of the previous economic recession:

Who are we now? We have become (in our fantasies) entrepreneurs, start-up heroes, small investors, consumers, home-owners, day-traders, and a gallery of supporting business types, and no longer fathers, mothers, friends or neighbors. Our very citizenship is now defined by business, whether we are winners or losers.

This focus on the efficiency of the machine that has become American politics ties in with a second fundamental question facing Americans today: What is nature of citizenship today? In his posthumous novel, The Pale King, David Foster Wallace highlights the childish nature of citizenship in America where, “We infantilize ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens–parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities.”

As we focus more and more on efficiency, we necessarily abdicate our moral power to big entities like governments, big corporations, and a self-contained expert military. If we see our political aspirations lying in these gargantuan machines, what hope can individuals have at input? Ironically, we set these machines in motion then criticize them when we don’t like their output. In this context, then, it should come as no surprise that we feel comfortable letting other people “spread freedom” for us, or that we don’t even care to learn about the people and institutions spreading that freedom. This system, we assume, is not only efficient, but also necessary in such a globalized world.

The situation with the military ought to force us to reconsider the nature of modern citizenship. George Washington once said, in a manner not meant to shock anyone of his time, “that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defence of it.” Today, I think Washington’s idea would sound basic in the abstract and completely knotty on the ground. What do we believe about the obligations of citizenship? Carrying this logic through to its logical conclusion—the draft—brings back horrible memories of the Vietnam War. But that might be the point. If a true cross-section of the population is called to participate and sacrifice in the military, we can better know the true costs of war. The draft, though far away, demands a real discussion or alternatives because it serves as a great check and balance on military might.

We’ve become so inured to our status as spectators to the military, that we have no say in what our military or who they fight and even worse, it’s become increasingly clear that we don’t care. The military, especially in its currents wars, fights less than it builds societies, which, on a structural level smacks of imperialism. We don’t need to go so far as to say we must bring back the draft to realize that the people of American need more of a say and must care more about the military (though it wouldn’t hurt). Countless options exist between the extremes of the draft and complete apathy including: taking an active and more skeptical stance towards military policy, following Senator Gillibrand’s lead to have military personnel answer in civilian court for certain crimes, creating civilian panels set in place to investigate military actions, and even the extreme option of implementing some form of universal military training, which requires training for all and deployment for some. We need to open the conversation on what civic duty entails, on what we want from our military, and what we’re willing to give up in order to get it.

Joe Winkler is the Online Coordinator at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and a contributing editor at Vol1brooklyn.com He began his writing career after he quit a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology because he realized that he likes people more in the abstract than in reality.

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