Bearing the burdens of war: something other people do

Ed Ross Contributor
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Speaking at Duke University last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed his concern that maintaining an all-volunteer force costs too much and that too few Americans bear the burdens of war. But is he sending Americans a mixed message that, coming as it does in the midst of the growing U.S. fiscal crisis and two prolonged and controversial wars, risks encouraging solutions to one problem that will make the other problem worse?

The cost of maintaining the all-volunteer force is an acute problem. As the secretary noted, “Given the enormous economic pressures facing the country,” the nation must devise “an equitable and sustainable system of military pay and benefits that reflects the realities of this century.” The pressures he is referring to, of course, are the enormous and mounting U.S. national debt and the growing personnel costs in the U.S. defense budget. Congress has repeatedly increased military pay and benefits as an incentive to attract and retain volunteer military personnel, while the costs of military healthcare and retirement benefits have skyrocketed over the last decade.

In an effort to limit personnel cost increases in the 2011 U.S. defense budget, while retaining funds for the modernization of weapons and equipment, Gates recently announced reductions in the Department of Defense (DoD) bureaucracy, the elimination of Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) in Norfolk, Virginia, a 10 percent cut in contractors, and the elimination of at least 50 general and admiral positions. Modest fixes like these, however, don’t solve the problem, and it’s difficult to see how the DoD can avoid changes to military compensation, retirement, and healthcare as entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare become unsustainable at current levels.

Solutions talked about by members of Congress concerned about reducing personnel costs in DoD’s budget include extending the retirement age from 20 to 25 years, introducing government-matching 401K plans as substitutes for the current system of retirement pay, and deferring payouts until retirees reach 60 years of age. The future course of the U.S. economy and the composition of future Congresses will play major roles in determining if or when such changes become realities. It’s almost certain, however, that changes are coming. Just as Congress modified the generous Civil Service Retirement System in the early 1980s to make it less costly, they’re likely to do the same with the military retirement system.

The burden-of-war issue Secretary Gates addressed, however, is a longer-term, potentially more serious problem and one far more difficult to remedy; therefore, it’s likely to get less attention.

Despite the generally recognized success of the smaller, all-volunteer U.S. Armed Forces President Richard Nixon created in 1973, it wasn’t intended to fight prolonged wars like Vietnam or those we are currently fighting. It was intended to fight short, conventional conflicts like the 1991 Gulf War and defend the U.S. and its allies against Soviet aggression.

The situation a smaller U.S. military now finds itself in is one that forces repeated deployments on our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, imposing great burdens on them and their families. And, because the 2.4 million men and women in uniform only constitute 1 percent of the U.S. population, as Gates points out, these burdens fall on too few Americans. “Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the war remains an abstraction, a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally.” Even after 9/11, for most Americans, “service in the military has become something for other people to do.”

Noting that America’s universities turn out far fewer ROTC graduates today than they once did, Gates also says that “There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.”

In making these remarks, however, Gates didn’t call for a new system that “reflects the reality of this century.” He’s not suggesting some form of compulsory service or a permanent expansion of the U.S. military. Compulsory service has insufficient popular or political support in either political party. Expanding the military would increase personnel costs not reduce them. What Gates is calling for, then, is simply for men and women in the current all-volunteer system to represent a broader spectrum of Americans.

By becoming more representative of society as a whole, the military could spread the burden more evenly and makes the wars our military fights less of an abstraction to more families, friends, and communities across the country. What Gates left unsaid, however, and what gets lost in the argument for a different, and presumably less generous, system of pay and benefits, is this question: What happens when a military becomes increasingly unrepresentative of the society it defends?

To answer that question, I’ll repeat what I wrote in my June 30, 2008, column, “The All Volunteer Military at 35.”

Whenever a nation creates a class of professional warriors that is largely separate and apart from the rest of society, it’s taking a risk. The risk Americans take is that, over time, the vast majority of people who don’t serve in the military become less appreciative of the freedom those who serve make sacrifices to defend. When Americans have depended on 1 percent of the population to do 100 percent of the fighting long enough, they will begin taking their freedom for granted. When you take something for granted is when you are most likely to lose it.

Whether Republicans or Democrats control Congress and the White House, changes are likely coming to the current system of military pay and benefits. Before Congress makes permanent changes to solve DoD’s budget problems, however, it should ensure that it in doing so it doesn’t worsen the burden-of-war problem. If America continues to rely on a smaller, all-volunteer force, it must provide the incentives and rewards necessary to attract the best people from all walks of American life. To do otherwise is penny-wise but pound-foolish.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.