Platitude—a banal, trite, or stale remark (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
For almost a decade, we have been informed that we are a “nation at war” by two presidents, scores of legislators, and countless candidates for public office. President Obama’s Oval Office speech last night was simply the most recent refrain in a litany that is not only inaccurate, but pernicious to the health of the American society and—in particular—American civil-military relations.
In fact, as the president’s somewhat schizophrenic talk demonstrated, we are a national population that increasingly sees war as something done by “the other”. While their sacrifices are lauded, military servicemembers seem to be seen as a separate population, a distinct group that does the work of war so that “we” may work “to secure…the dream that a better life awaits anyone who is willing to work for it and reach for it.” Unfortunately, the military as a separate entity is increasingly becoming a reality. It is viewed as noble, honorable, self-sacrificing, but distant.
Fewer and fewer Americans serve in the military, or even know anyone who serves as a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine. While President Obama highlighted “the nearly 1.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq” (one questions whether this number is accurate, or truly accounts for the multiple deployments of many of our servicemembers,) that number pales in comparison to the population eligible to serve who are not serving. Statistics from 2008, the most recent year’s data available on the Census Bureau’s website, prove illustrative. In that year, the American population stood at just under 300 million, 44% of whom—by rough estimates—are of the modern era’s military age. Assuming that President Obama’s 1.5 million number counts individual Americans (rather than individual deployments,) compare 1.5 million in seven years to 131 million Americans possibly eligible in one year. In fact, our military service/participation rate in this country has held steady at less than 2% of the population throughout the duration of conflict since the 9/11 attacks.
Additionally, military members are increasingly distinct geographically, economically, and culturally. Citizens of the Southeast join the military to a disproportionate degree, while citizens from the West and Northeast are far less represented than their percentages of the national population. By one estimate, “nearly half of all Army recruits come from military families.” (“The Military Should Mirror the Nation,” The Wall Street Journal.) Numerous studies over the last ten years have highlighted that the military’s officer corps tends to be far more conservative than the general population. Disturbing trends, beginning with President Clinton’s first national campaign and most recently demonstrated in Rolling Stone’s article about General Stanley McCrystal and the antics of his staff, show an increasing political outspokenness by both active and retired officers.
Instead of requiring greater sacrifices by the American population, the government’s answer to wartime demands has been outsourcing, specifically the use of private security and military companies to augment a strained military force. Over the last few years, contractors have outnumbered servicemembers in Iraq, and armed contractors have outnumbered the contingents provided by any of our coalition partners. Reports indicate that contractors are involved in everything from protecting diplomats, to interrogating personnel captured on the battlefield, to participating in covert operations executed by special operations forces. In 2005, one Department of Defense entity even began to refer to contractors as a “fifth force-provider” akin to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. (“Institutionalizing Stability Operations Within DoD,” the Defense Science Board.)
Combine an increasingly-distinct military, an overreliance on contractors beholden to shareholders, and a lack of oversight by the legislative branch (“When Congress Checks Out,” Foreign Affairs,) and we have a recipe that is potentially fatal to key aspects of the American democratic experiment. Our entire system of government is founded upon the necessity of government held accountable to an engaged citizenry, and upon systems of checks-and-balances and separations of power that prevent any one government entity from gaining a disproportionate share of power. When the citizenry and Congress abdicate their responsibilities, giving the executive branch near-exclusive control of a detached military and contractors, we chip away at these very foundations.
We are not a nation at war, but we should be. If we have decided that no threat is so dangerous as to merit such participation, mobilization, and collective sacrifice, then we have already resigned our country to the world’s history rather than its future.