Americans have lost touch with their soldiers

Ken Allard Retired U.S. Army Colonel
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Robert Gates, possibly the best secretary of defense in our nation’s history, may leave office next year bequeathing not only legacy but legend. Assuming of course that he survives. Already famed for taking on the Pentagon’s stud ducks, he has now touched the dreaded third rail of American politics: military manpower. Wednesday, in a speech at Duke University, he suggested that there is a widening gap between American society and the military that protects it. The reason: at elite colleges like Duke, military service is as rare as a Republican on the faculty. Our best and brightest are sent there to be educated by the ungodly and the politically correct: our wars are fought by Other People’s Kids.

Full disclosure: Mr. Gates didn’t use that phrase yesterday.  I did in my 2006 book WARHEADS, which began by noting that Americans were more likely to know a resident of North Dakota than a soldier serving on active duty in the US Army. The two-legged population in both places numbers just under 600,000 counting the Reserves. And the Reserves are the ones we effectively drafted after 9/11.

While George W. Bush gets blamed for everything from Iraq to the double-dip economy, it was his decision as commander-in-chief to fight the War on Terror with the professional army put in place after the draft ended in 1973. This was the same army that, having won the Cold War, was down-sized for a peace dividend that never seemed to materialize. Then working for the Army Chief of Staff, I remember the glib assumptions of the politicians and the military bureaucrats: that the Reserves would morph into a kind of permanent cadre; that any future emergency would first result in the nation’s youth being called to the colors just as previous generations had been before; and that the Reserves would simply man the training centers as the mobilized recruits were prepared for war. Bush 41 signed off and, whoosh, the active Army was down-sized.

Even before Bush 43, prevailing theory never caught up with reality. Bill Clinton rapidly found new uses for a short-horned army that some seemed to think of as a Sierra Club in uniform — even before Monica. After she became a household word, every lurid headline seemed to summon Bill Clinton’s Inner Kaiser, even down to the pin-point obliteration by cruise missiles of laxative factories in far-off Khartoum. While they sneered at the prevailing Democratic conceits of nation-building, the men surrounding the younger Bush were convinced that a revolution in military affairs made cruise missiles — indeed the whole enchilada of advanced technology — into a wholly new and very American way of war. Grunts, marines, and GI Joe? Relics of a thankfully bye-gone era.

So it was that, in the fateful days after 9/11, Americans were not called to national sacrifice but to the shopping malls, not asked for blood, tears, toil and sweat but soothed into a secure belief that business had mostly returned to usual, except for those annoying TSA people at the airports. At first, it seemed as if the technologues had been right, as special forces on horseback and bombers dropping JDAMS unseated the Taliban in a couple of months.

Back then, no one seemed to recall that, in Afghan history, the surrender ceremony is when the real war actually begins; and that the last foreigner to win in front of that home crowd was named Genghis. Consciously or unconsciously, Americans ignored both social cleavage and the equally inconvenient fact that Reserve units were now increasingly forced to take up the slack as the War on Terror spawned protracted insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. As long as your kid didn’t have to go fight in Northwest Bezerkistan, then so what? Sometimes we even remembered to say thank you when we saw soldiers in uniform passing through the airport on their way to their third or fourth combat tours.

Proving that he is a genuinely wise man, Robert Gates did not suggest at Duke that reviving the draft was the way to repair a social cleavage now more than thirty years in the making. Instead, he spoke of the benefits of service, of the need for the nation’s colleges and universities to renew their commitment to ROTC. He also underscored why service remains fundamental to leadership: “Our young military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan have…found themselves dealing with development, governance, agriculture, health and diplomacy. And they’ve done all this…when many of their peers are reading spreadsheets and making photocopies.”

True enough and Gates deserves enormous credit for even raising an issue that will have no impact on next month’s elections. But long before the next presidential sweepstakes begin, remember that this part of our national conversation is long overdue. And recall as well that self-indulgence was not the primary lesson bequeathed by the Greatest Generation to their grand-children.

Colonel Ken Allard (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia (which seemed like a huge deal at the time). His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his 10 years as a military analyst with NBC News and MSNBC, where he and Tucker Carlson were conservatives-in-residence.