One casualty of the all-volunteer force in America is that few people outside the military understand what it takes to conduct a military operation. Fewer and fewer political leaders have prior military service, the American officer corps is less and less representative of society as a whole, and Presidents and presidential candidates are wont to say that, in the event of war, they would simply stand aside and let the generals run things. By themselves, these trends are not problematic; what is problematic is the deterioration of political discourse on military affairs. If the nation deems it necessary to send in the military to solve a foreign policy problem, the political debate often ends there. Precisely what the military does or how it does it, in the public sphere at least, is regarded as so much military magic.
Would this belief in military magic have developed had America continued employing the draft? Perhaps, but not necessarily. The continual influx of new perspectives into the military would have at least slowed the trend towards what could some day become a warrior class in this country. That said, unless the nation is facing a severe external threat, an active military draft is untenable. Popular resistance to the draft is well known, as captured in both books and film. Furthermore, American military officers are often viscerally opposed to re-activating conscription, in part because doing so would make it hard to maintain the professionalism of the non-commissioned officer corps, the backbone of the military’s technical competence. While there are exceptions, on the grounds that conscription would help Americans feel the true cost of the nation’s wars, bringing back the draft in this country is a political non-starter.
Despite this opposition to the draft, the problem lies not necessarily in having an all-volunteer force, but in not managing the effects of the new civil-military dynamic that has resulted from it. There are three groups of people that can help reconnect the military and the society it defends. First and foremost, politicians and pundits alike should dispense with unnecessary deference to military expertise. We should expect officers to be expert in their craft, but that does not mean that they are the only ones who can appreciate the political ramifications of what they do and how they do it. As the Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz avers, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking” (87, emphasis added). Military officers certainly have tremendous expertise, but it is not necessarily healthy to assume that they have a monopoly on this expertise.
The second group of people is military officers, both active and retired. They need to write more for a mass audience. Over the last decade, there has been an influx of first-person and non first-person accounts of recent wars, even reaching into film. This is a good start, but these contributions have generally been restricted to tactical accounts; mid-grade and senior officers have typically confined the technical discussion of military operations to professional military journals. As a result, well-educated Americans tend to appreciate the tactical travails of combat, but have little sense for how complicated it is to plan a months-long counterinsurgency campaign or to conduct a night-time off-set air assault. The discussions on a no-fly zone in Syria were telling—rarely did military officers chime in on the technical infeasibility of an idea that had an unnatural staying power. Americans should certainly not expect active military officers to insert themselves inappropriately into the political decision-making process, but they can voice their views as concerned citizens, in general terms, and retired military officers certainly have no such restrictions.
In addition to politicos and military officers, political scientists can do their part to bridge the divide between military and society. Students of war—myself included—have not demonstrated a robust appreciation for what makes a military effective. One recent study is symptomatic of a decades-long trend: the unit of analysis is almost always a war, and the correlates of timing, duration, or outcome tend to focus on easily-measurable and convenient indicators of aggregate capabilities. Rarely do political scientists delve into why battles are won or lost, even though force employment decisions have a critical impact on the character of warfare. Do we really need any more studies that attempt to correlate regime type, military spending, and energy consumption with war outcomes?
This view of American civil-military relations is unlikely to win many allies, criticizing as it does academics, politicians and military officers with equal abandon. The fact of the matter is, though, that we will not bridge the cultural gap between the military and society unless we stop believing in military magic.
Dr. Nathan W. Toronto teaches military operations and strategy at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies. The views expressed here are entirely his own, although he would like to acknowledge input from the SAMS lunch group. While he does not believe in magic—of any sort—he does dabble in juggling and balloon twisting to impress his kids.