[I was outraged this week by Lt Gen (ret) Michael Flynn’s public call for the US military to overthrow the results of the 3 November election and supervise a new vote. That is the stuff of Banana Republics–and not the ones with chinos and sheath dresses. So this week I’m publishing a revised version of a post I did back in 2018 on America’s citizen soldiers.]
I joined the Air Force in 1983, at the very height of the Reagan Build-Up. I’m reminded of Groucho Marx’s maxim, “I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member.” The only way I got accepted—both as an officer and into flight training—was because the Pentagon was desperate to redeem The Gipper’s promise to hyper-inflate our armed forces. So I fell through the quality-control cracks and into a 20-year career.
I never thought of myself as Career Military material–it kind of snuck up on me. I only had one relative who’d made a career in any branch. Great Uncle Greg joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 and flew B-17s as a navigator. (Long after his death, I stumbled into his footsteps and became a B-52 navigator.) After getting all his required missions against the Germans, he was reassigned to B-29s and got more missions bombing the Japanese.
At the end of World War II, Uncle Greg decided he liked military life. However, he was a captain and they had a WHOLE LOT of captains. Lieutenants and majors and colonels, too. So in order to stay in uniform, he agreed to demotion to master sergeant. Some might say promoted, since a good master sergeant is universally more respected than some dime-a-dozen captain. (Of this I have experience, having myself been a dime-a-dozen captain for over seven years.)
Then Korea Happened
Then Korea happened. Turns out the brand-spanking-new US Air Force—having convinced Congress in 1947 to banish the Army from flying airplanes—had drawn down a bit too fast after The Big One. The Air Force scrambled to reconstitute enough B-29 crews to bomb the North Koreans. So Uncle Greg was offered the rank of major to return to bombers. Which he did. Strange times.
Six months later, my father was walking down Main Street in my hometown of Skeeterville. Ambling past the Armed Forces recruiting office, he ran into Uncle Greg, once again a master sergeant. The possibly apocryphal family story holds that my dad said, “Uncle Greg, what are you doing here? And in sergeant’s stripes again?” Uncle Greg replied, “They’re shooting g*dd@mn real bullets over there! I asked for my stripes and recruiting duty back here.” Yep, strange times.
I relate this story because it’s fun. Also it leads into a bigger point.
We’ve Long Been All In
The men of my family—before the Women-In-Combat Era—have fought in every one of America’s wars all the way back to and including the Revolutionary War. Before that—French and Indian, Queen Anne’s, Jenkin’s Ear (doesn’t everyone want an ancestor in that war?)—we have no record.
In the War of Independence, My great times a zillion grandfather, a Prussian immigrant named Johann Heinrich Mayer, was with the Maryland Flying Camp. This was an ill-fated experiment of Washington’s to create a mobile reserve force. They did some skirmishing in New Jersey early in the war, but after Washington captured a bunch of Hessians after crossing the Delaware while posing for a nifty painting—I may be wrong about that second part—these mostly German-speaking soldiers of the Flying Camp were relegated to guarding their captured co-linguists.
My Irish great-great grandfather, Patrick James Comerford, left Kilkenny at fourteen during The Great Hunger, laid a lot of railroad tracks in the Midwest, then joined the 75th Illinois U.S. Infantry in 1862. Like many other Irish immigrants, he rushed to enlist after word got around the British were considering entering the war on the side of the Confederacy. What self-respecting Irishman would pass up a fine coat of blue AND a chance to shoot Englishmen? He was part of the Army of the Cumberland and marched across Georgia with Sherman. I love telling my Virginia neighbors that part.
Citizen Soldiers All
And on and on. My great uncle Cap was, not coincidentally, a captain of volunteers in the Spanish-American War. Grandpa Thaddeus was a doughboy in WWI, although his only battle honor was surviving the Spanish Influenza at Fort Dix. My dad, father-in-law, three uncles, and two great uncles fought during the Second World War in all branches and in every theater. My cousin Tommy volunteered for two hitches as a Green Beret in Vietnam and lived to tell about it. (Ironically, I clearly remember going barefoot to his hippie wedding in a forest glen after he returned from Vietnam.) I ticked the boxes for Gulf Wars I and II, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
Except for me and Uncle Greg, all these forebears were true Citizen Soldiers. When the call to duty came, they rallied to the colors, did their bit, and then got on with their uneventful lives. It’s very redolent of the 18th century militia tradition—all able-bodied men between 16 and 60 were required to arm themselves and join in whatever fights came along, then go back to their crops when the dust settled. Just as General Washington had done.
I don’t know of any relatives who were drafted, although a lot of men in WW II volunteered so they could choose their branch or have some say over when they went. The military draft ended in 1973, although all those sad sacks born after 1 January 1960 have to register. I say this haughtily, having been born 30 December 1959. On the other hand, I joined and stayed 20 years. So there’s that.
The Cost of All-Volunteerism
We may have lost something over these years of all-volunteer military. Much of our population doesn’t have any skin in the game now. Or the skin of anyone they love. The military has been a self-selected group for almost five decades. Various states and regions are over-represented in the armed forces, mostly due either to local traditions of military service or lack of better economic opportunities. I suspect often it’s both.
The most heavily represented states are those of the old Confederacy; also the Pacific Northwest and some of the Rust Belt. The Upper Midwest, California, and the Northeast are underrepresented. All this means that, unlike during the days of the draft, most military members are exposed to a lot of people very much like themselves. This has negative knock-on effects.
One of the cool things about the military, however, is that it’s relatively colorblind, especially over the last decade with a huge surge in minority officers. The services strictly and ruthlessly enforce anti-discrimination rules. Later in my career, after re-bluing myself as a military lawyer, I prosecuted a senior master sergeant with 18 years of service for using racial epithets. It’s not racial nirvana, but the military is one of the better equal-opportunity employers in the country.
The New Praetorians
There’s a deeper issue for me. Are we creating a kind of Praetorian Guard for one particular group of Americans? In my last few years in the Air Force—I was then and still am a raging liberal—the service was becoming a Rather Uncomfortable Place for the likes of me. Evangelicalism had become something of the unofficial official religion, joined with an inherently conservative military ethos.
If the military becomes too closed within itself, too unrepresentative of the broader American population, too locked into some creeping orthodoxy of whatever stripe, it becomes the antithesis of Citizen Soldiers.
The All-Volunteer Force has also provided leaders of every political persuasion with a perverse incentive. Since everyone in uniform volunteered and “knows what they signed up for,” we’ve made it easier for a commander-in-chief to resort to the use of military force rather than less deadly alternatives.
Lost Side Effects
In the end, we’ve lost much of the communitarian side effects of mandatory military service. My dad said that during World War II he was forced to live and eat and shower and sleep with guys he would never have encountered—wise-cracking Brooklynites and wide-eyed Carolina farm boys and tough-as-nails Cascades lumberjacks. He learned to like them, depend on them, trust them with his life. They were just Americans passing through a common experience. That’s a lot of nation-building, right there.
Maybe some of our Current Unpleasantness could’ve been buffered by replacing the strictly military draft with some form of broader universal national service? Serve in the military or cut trails for the National Park Service or be a teacher’s aide in an inner city school or scrub bedpans in a veterans’ hospital. Minimum of one year—that’s your pay-it-forward to the country where you were lucky to be born. Perhaps even link federal student loans to national service? There are a lot of possibilities.
And maybe, just maybe, we reclaim some of the ethos of the Citizen Soldier.