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.
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. Meanwhile, the Republican Party systematically 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 among 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
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.