go to top

Abu Muqawama: U.S. Needs Perspective, not Pedestal, for Military

Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012

A new television show in the United States called “Stars Earn Stripes” puts various B-grade “celebrities” through military training in order to illustrate what it’s like to serve in the most elite units in the U.S. military.

This show might not have been a bad idea immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, when it seemed as if most Americans were largely ignorant of the roles and responsibilities of their military and its elite units. Such a show might have prompted more Americans to enlist in the military rather than follow the advice of their president and shop at the mall.

Now, though, in an era in which Navy SEALs star in their own feature films and the White House collaborates with movie producers to re-enact the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the whole exercise seems unhealthy -- just another way for American society to put its military on a praetorian pedestal.

Earlier this summer, I penned two columns on wartime civil-military relations in the United States and came to the conclusion that, despite some handwringing to the contrary, elected decision-makers and their military counterparts in Washington have actually been working effectively and appropriately. On the whole, I argued, civil-military relations were quite healthy.

That is the good news. The bad news is that American society as a whole has developed a dysfunctional relationship with its men and women in uniform. The relationship has grown into a bizarre form of hero-worship, where servicemen and women are considered to be some kind of über-citizen more deserving of rights than the average, nonserving citizen. Andrew Bacevich’s “The New American Militarism,” which might have seemed alarmist when it was published in 2005, looks prescient in 2012.

On the one hand, it is good and right that a society lifts up those who put themselves in harm’s way to serve a greater good. But when it comes to the U.S. and its military, things have truly gotten out of hand. Able-bodied U.S. soldiers in prime physical condition now board airplanes in the United States before mothers with small children. Perhaps even worse, it seems that only veterans notice how ridiculous this is. The new G.I. Bill, passed by the Congress in 2009, makes the U.S. taxpayer responsible for the education of the sons and daughters of highly paid general officers, yet most citizens living in a new age of austerity do not ask why. And a member of the U.S. House of Representatives has even gone so far as to argue that military servicemen might deserve the right to vote more than the average citizen.

This is obscene. And the absurdity of it all is thrown into stark relief when we compare things with the way we treat other public servants. Consider, for a moment, Ragaei Abdelfattah, an Egyptian emigrant to the United States who was killed last week in Afghanistan while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Abdelfattah will not be remembered in the way we remember fallen uniformed servicemen, and his family will likely struggle to receive even a fraction of the benefits that would be given to the family of a fallen soldier.

All too often, in fact, USAID workers in Afghanistan are left to buy their own life insurance and worry about whether or not they are killed on “duty hours” so that their family receives it. The families of these fallen civilians will not have veterans service organizations fighting on their behalf on Capitol Hill to secure their benefits.

Contrary to popular perceptions, diplomats, aid workers and civilian contractors on the battlefield arguably expose themselves to more danger on a daily basis than most members of the military serving in combat support assignments. But they receive none of the credit and few of the benefits that the latter do.

For the sake of argument, perhaps the way we treat these public workers is how it should be. After all, diplomats, aid workers and civilian contractors in Afghanistan all serve voluntarily. They all provide a service and are compensated financially in exchange for their service. This is, above all, a labor transaction.

But if that’s the case, how are soldiers or Marines serving in a professional military any different?

The unhealthy relationship between American society and its military derives from our decades-long inability to decide whether those who serve in the military are performing a public service or whether they are instead embarking on a profession. This ambiguity has endured since the beginning of the all-volunteer military after the Vietnam War.

If the military is a service, then we can and should expect those who serve to do so humbly and for little reward, in exchange for the grateful thanks of their nation. We might provide compensatory benefits on the back end for the families of those killed and for those wounded or injured while serving. If the military is a profession, by contrast, then we should expect those who choose this profession to provide a contractually obligated service in exchange for pay and benefits.

Either way, the policy implications are the same. If veterans of a professional all-volunteer force have simply provided services to the public in exchange for compensation, then we veterans deserve the same benefits provided to other public servants -- no more, no less. If the military, by contrast, is a truly selfless service, than veterans should be among the first in these times of austerity to lead by example and accept fewer public benefits. At the very least, we should be helping that mother with kids onto the airplane ahead of us.

Rather than choose between these two visions of military service, however, we Americans have opted for a middle option whereby we have a professional military in which men and women provide a public service -- like police officers or emergency medical technicians -- but are elevated to the highest echelons of publicly bestowed honor. This ambiguity hinders our ability to make even basic reforms to the military pay and benefits that will soon cripple the defense budget. And it contributes to the creation of a praetorian guard that threatens rather than protects the fabric of our society.

Andrew Exum is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and teaches a course in low-intensity conflict at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He blogs at Abu Muqawama. His WPR column, Abu Muqawama, appears every Wednesday.

Photo: U.S. Army soldiers rest during a mission in the Hindu Kush mountain range in the Parwan province of Afghanistan, January 2009 (U.S. Army photo by Scott Davis).