The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

America’s Military Moves Rightward

The Daily Escape:

Bruarfoss, (Bridge Falls) Iceland – 2018 photo by ParticleEngine

There was some controversy on Memorial Day when Trump visited the USS Wasp before returning to the US from Japan. He was greeted by service members wearing unofficial uniform patches with the words “Make Aircrew Great Again”. Here is a photo of the patch:

Military personnel often wear unofficial unit patches as part of an effort to build unit cohesion and morale. Such patches are officially barred by uniform regulations, but may be approved by the service members’ chains of command, who are responsible for ensuring that the unofficial patches do not violate military regulations. Those regulations say:

“…active duty personnel may not engage in partisan political activities and all military personnel should avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DOD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign, or cause.”

This means that service members are prohibited from exhibiting political messages while in uniform.

This is the second controversy involving a visit by a member of the administration to a Navy vessel in the past month. At the end of April, a TV reporter overheard the USS Harry S. Truman’s senior enlisted sailor instructing crewmen to “clap like we’re at a strip club” during a visit from Vice President Pence. He later resigned from his post.

So, to be clear: twice in four weeks Navy personnel have gotten themselves in hot water during public events in easily-avoidable ways. In sports, we call these screw-ups “unforced errors.” And in what universe does it make for our military to venerate a commander-in-chief who faked a medical condition to avoid serving?

Naturally, the Navy is reviewing whether service members on the USS Wasp violated Defense Department policy by wearing the patches.

So let’s think about a couple of things: The prohibition against political advocacy while in uniform isn’t about denying service members their 1st Amendment rights; it’s about maintaining good order and discipline. Imagine the chaos and conflict which could potentially result from men and women in uniform actively engaging in divisive political activity? Could we count on our military defending each other, or the homeland, if they’re fighting with one another?

Second, these two incidents remind us that there is a decided tilt in the military toward conservatism, and in some cases, the far-right. The US military, particularly its officer corps, leans Republican, and its younger, more recent veterans, are even more so.

There have also been plenty of problems from far-right military members: In February, a Coast Guard officer was arrested after an investigation discovered he was stockpiling weapons and preparing to attack liberal politicians in Washington, DC.

In the 1990s a white supremacist gang formed in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Brigade, stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In 1995, two members murdered a black couple. In 2012, a member of the Missouri National Guard was arrested for providing weapons for and running a neo-Nazi paramilitary training camp in Florida.

In Georgia, two soldiers were arrested after murdering a former soldier and his girlfriend in an attempt to cover up their assassination plot against then-President Obama. A 2014 Vice News segment showed the KKK was actively seeking to recruit US military veterans, and some were answering their call.

Andrew Exum, former Army Ranger and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East policy during the Obama administration, wrote about the US military becoming a political-economic entity focused mainly on its own interests.

An apolitical military has been a bulwark of our democracy, but that is under pressure.

It’s been made more difficult by Trump actively working to weaken the apolitical nature of the military. He talks about “My generals”, but has given the military a freer hand on the rules of engagement and targeting decisions. He suggested that service-members lobby Congress for a military budget increase.

The demographics of the military has changed since we ended the draft in 1973. It skews southern, western and rural, all conservative-leaning parts of America. One study at the National Interest shows that over the last generation, the percentage of officers that identifies itself as independent (or specifies no party affiliation) has gone from a plurality (46%) to a minority (27%). The percentage that identifies itself as Republican has nearly doubled (from 33% to 64%).

This shift is dangerous for our democracy. Sadly, it is unclear what might reverse the trend.


Transformative Ideas, Part II – Reestablish Compulsory Military Service

This is Part II of a continuing series in 2015, bringing forward for your review, ideas that have the potential to transform and end the ossification of our country. Part I was about ending our love affair with the unregulated free market.

In Part II, we argue for re-establishing compulsory military service. In response to the anti-military opinion during the Vietnam War, Nixon replaced the compulsory military draft with an all-volunteer force in 1973. This facilitated our ability to make decisions about conducting wars without worrying about who fights them.

Registering for the draft (as differentiated from compulsory service) is still the law for young men in America. If you were born in 1996 or earlier, that means you’re potentially on the hook if America runs out of professional military during wartime.

There are two problems that compulsory military service will help to ameliorate. First, the permanent state of war that our politicians and defense contractors have fostered in the past 40 years. Charles F. Wald, retired Air Force general who oversaw the start of the air war in Afghanistan in 2001 told the WaPo in September:

We’re not going to see an end to this in our lifetime.

Second, a professional military has dangerously skewed the demographics of our professional military compared to our society at large.

We have a permanent state of war because the price we pay is opaque, or meaningless to most citizens, despite some estimates that Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan cost more than $4.4 Trillion, including future obligations for the disabilities of American soldiers. Reinstating the draft would compel the American public to have “skin in the game” for the wars we fight. James Fallows in a very important article for The Atlantic gives us some perspective relative to when we had the draft and what goes on today: (brackets and parenthesis by the Wrongologist)

At the end of World War II, nearly 10% of the entire US population was on active military duty—which meant most able-bodied men of a certain age (plus the small number of women allowed to serve).

[Today] the US military has about 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the reserves.

(Out of a population of 310 million, or about three-quarters of 1%, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many, many of them more than once)

Since 1970, the population of the US has grown by about 50%, from roughly 200 million to 300 million. Over the same period, the number of active-duty armed forces has fallen approximately 50%, from 3 million to 1.4 million. Fallows quotes Admiral Mike Mullen, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George W. Bush and Barack Obama: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

My concern is this growing disconnect between the American people and our military…I would sacrifice some of [our military’s] …excellence and readiness to make sure that we stay close to the American people. Fewer and fewer people know anyone in the military. It’s become just too easy to go to war.

Moving to the demographic differences between the professional military and American society at large, Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a retired Air Force major general who is at the Duke Law Schools says: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

I think there is a strong sense in the military that it is indeed a better society than the one it serves…In the generation coming up, we’ve got lieutenants and majors who had been the warrior-kings in their little outposts…They were literally making life-or-death decisions. You can’t take that generation and say, ‘You can be seen and not heard.’

Dunlap told James Fallows: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

[The military is] becoming increasingly tribal…in the sense that more and more people in the military are coming from smaller and smaller groups. It’s become a family tradition, in a way that’s at odds with how we want to think a democracy spreads the burden.

Making Dunlap’s point, Danielle Allen, of the Institute for Advanced Studies on Military Service wrote about the political implications of a professional military in the WaPo:

By the end of the draft in 1973, military service was distributed pretty evenly across regions. But that is no longer true.

Tellingly, changes to the map of military service since 1973 align closely with today’s red and blue states. Montana, Alaska, Florida, Wyoming, Maine and Texas now send the largest number of people per capita to the military. The states with the lowest contribution rates? Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. What’s clear from the data is that a major national institution, the US military, now has tighter connections to some regions of the country than to others. The uneven pattern of military service is not an insignificant reflection of the cultural differences that characterize different regions of this diverse country. This has broad ramifications for our future.

Heidi A. Urben, a Lieutenant Colonel, studied the attitudes of the officer corps, and found that about 60% said they identify with the Republican Party, and that 70% had not changed their party affiliation, despite two long wars.

The Pentagon reports that bringing back conscription would be costly at a time when the US Army is drawing down its forces. It might cost billions to reinstate the draft, while maintaining the present quality of armed forces. But it may be the only way to wake up a detached and nonvoting public that has depersonalized military service. The additional cost of managing a draft and training all Americans for some kind of government service would pay dividends:

• A draft would ensure that government decision-making regarding military involvement would be undertaken only after the fullest debate — a debate today that seems to not be part of the national consciousness and hardly registers any interest by the public.
• A draft would narrow the gap between people in power in Washington and the men and women at peril in fighting our nation’s battles.
• A draft could re-balance the skewed demographics of the military.

A draft could mean that voting on Election Day would be more important in our now-fragile democracy. It could mean that going to war is worth having every citizen sacrifice, or it isn’t worth any soldier’s life.