Citizen Soldiers as the Democratic Ideal

Charles Moskos never lost faith in the citizen soldier as the democratic ideal. The Northwestern University sociologist was the preeminent authority on the human dimensions of the American military. Circumstances change, technology changes, but people don’t change. That’s why the Iliad and the Bible are both still relevant and revelatory. Charlie knew people. He and I were friendly. I offer his thoughts here and add some of my own. 

How a society organizes militarily—specifically, who fights and who doesn’t—is a moral question. Morality involves value judgments. Unless one claims to know Divine intent, those judgments will be subjective. Does it bother you that only one-half of one percent of our population is on active duty in the armed forces, and those same people are sent on combat deployments time after time? It bothers me.

I don’t know Divine intent, but I can read the Bible. Does Numbers 1:3-4 have any relevance to our time and place? You decide. In these verses, God directs Moses to take a census of all Israelite males. Those 20 years and older fit to bear arms were to be registered and assigned to fighting stations. Anyone else simply didn’t count.

In 2018 only 3.5 percent of the male population between 18 and 34—that is, men of prime military age—had served. In contrast, 45.5 percent of the men 75 years and older had worn the uniform. And that higher number wasn’t just from wartime service.

Moskos volunteered for the draft (yes, you could do that) after graduating from Princeton in 1956 and served two years in peacetime as an enlisted soldier in Europe. He noted that of the 750 men in his graduating class, more than 400 went on to serve in the military. But of the 1,100 men and women in the 2004 Princeton class, only eight joined.

The country has changed, and not for the better in this regard. 

When I took the enlistment oath in 1965, I thought it was the most ordinary and unremarkable thing in the world. I had no idea it would set me apart from the American mainstream. I thought I was reinforcing my connection to the American mainstream. Service in Vietnam and two tours in Iraq as a civilian contractor for the Army have given me an up-close perspective on the forces and on civil-military relations.

The ramifications of this cultural change are far-reaching and toxic. Now, you can shame a healthy young man for failing to recycle his kombucha bottle but not for ducking out on defending his country. My intuitive friend Julia Gorin saw through the smokescreen back in 2006 with her column “Don’t Fight the Terrorists–Fight the Weather!” 

She wrote: “Let’s be honest: people fixate on the environment when they can’t deal with real threats. Combating the climate gives the non-hawks a chance to look tough.” 

A Job Like No Other

We have sent people to fight in Afghanistan for the past 19 years. It took the Romans 200 years to conquer Spain. Is that our model? But at least republican Rome had conscription. The casual cruelty of our system of an all-recruited—not “all-volunteer”—military is reprehensible.

Consider the case of Army Master Sergeant Andrew Christian Marckesano, as reported by Fox News on July 20. According to the story, Marckesano served six full tours in Afghanistan “and a half-dozen more combat tours overseas.” He had just moved to Washington, D.C., to start a job at the Pentagon. On July 6, after having dinner with a former battalion commander in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, Marckesano returned home and killed himself in front of his wife. The couple had three small children.

Apparently, Marckesano never got over a particularly bloody deployment to Afghanistan in 2009. To date, his was the 30th suicide from the battalion that was engaged in this deployment. Thirty post-combat suicides from one battalion! Ladies and gentlemen, this isn’t right. 

Military service is not a “job” like any other. It’s a special form of civic tax. No, we don’t need “universal” participation. But our armed forces require a much broader base with elites setting the example and serving disproportionate to their numbers. Instead, the elites skate.

I could pile on more horror stories such as the suicide of Master Sgt. Marckesano and belabor the unfairness of it all, but I won’t. Consider, however, this statistic reported in the same story: 20 combat veterans are taking their lives each day, “an epidemic the military and White House are trying to stop.”

Since the elimination of the draft in 1973, the military has made a fetish of recruitment and retention, thereby distorting itself almost to the point of grotesquerie. Nowhere is this truer than in the sphere of spouses and dependents. While the country is getting married later and later, the armed forces have incentivized service members to marry younger and younger. In 2019, the average age at marriage for American men was almost 30. Men in the military marry at 22. 

An adage from the old days was: “If the Army had wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one.” Now, as Moskos learned from his research, in a sense the Army is issuing wives to soldiers through special allowances and with the lure of escaping the barracks into subsidized family housing. 

The late Senator Daniel Inouye (1924-2012) reflected on how the Army had changed when I interviewed him on November 1, 2000. The Hawaii Democrat was awarded the Medal of Honor and lost his right arm fighting the Germans in Italy during World War II. He strongly favored a return to the draft. “Ninety-six percent of my regiment had no dependents,” he said. “Only 4 percent had wives.” Now more than half of military personnel are married. 

A far higher percentage—whether married, single, or divorced—have dependents. In 2013, military family members outnumbered military personnel by 1.4 to 1.

In 2000, Inouye estimated that active duty personnel occupied only 20 percent of the beds at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. “During my time . . . it was 95 percent wounded or active duty,” he noted. A lot of money is spent on health care for dependents and so-called “quality of life” issues, the senator said, because without that recruiting becomes an impossible assignment.

“There are now more gynecologists and pediatricians than orthopedic surgeons,” he noted. Orthopedists are bone and trauma surgeons indispensible in treating battle wounds.

Reliance on recruitment has distorted the rank pyramid of the armed forces. Conscription cycled a steady stream of relatively short-term draftees and volunteers in and out of the system. This gave the pyramid a broad base with a solid foundation of junior enlisted men and subalterns. But if you’re going to keep people in for a career, you have to promote them. This leads to a top-heavy force. In Iraq, I saw E-7s (sergeant first class) performing tasks that would have been done by an E-4 (specialist) in the Vietnam era.

This also puts a morbid fixation on reenlistment. Company level celebrations, with obligatory good cheer, marked the reenlistment of even the saddest Sad Sack. 

Other Distortions of “All-Recruitment”

Along with a distorted rank pyramid comes a warped pay scale. Under conscription, Moskos pointed out repeatedly, an E-8 first sergeant made seven times more than a private. In the all-recruited military, the compensation of that same E-8 is only three times greater.

Those who abhor conscription and worship the idol of “choice” are indifferent to the most brutal forms of compulsion in the post-conscription military. The brigade I joined in Iraq in 2007 had just had its tour extended, by the stroke of a pen, from 12 months to 15 months. And throughout the Army, notorious “stop loss” orders were preventing “volunteers” whose enlistments were up from getting out. Did any of our scrupulous libertarians object to that?

Moskos, who understood that a return to conscription was unlikely, recommended shorter terms of enlistment to attract patriotic citizens who want to serve their country but don’t want to make the military a career. Upon completion of service, these people would get substantial veteran’s benefits. His proposal stands in contrast to the billions of dollars a year the federal government spends on grants and loan subsidies to college students who do not serve their country, amounting to what Moskos called “a GI Bill without the GI.”

The sociologist pointed out that men who were drafted for two years completed their obligatory service at much higher rates than contemporary “volunteers,” 40 percent of whom fail to serve out their initial terms of enlistment. Although some are let go for medical conditions that develop after entering the service, a significant number are discharged involuntarily because they simply stop trying. As many as 10 percent of draftees, in contrast, decided to stay in and make it a career. 

Moskos also constantly stressed that military service by elites and their offspring is critical for the legitimacy of a democratic republic. Such a republic also would be more peaceful, with fewer discretionary wars. People are more careful about overseas adventurism if their own children are paying the price of their decisions. Conscription was ended in 1973 to give the executive branch the latitude to send fighting forces anywhere in the world at the president’s whim, with Congress obediently falling into line with ridiculous “use of force” authorizations. The intent was to take the public out of the equation. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

Research by Peter Feaver and Chris Gelpi reveals that when more veterans were in the political elite—i.e., the cabinet and Congress—the United States was less likely to use force abroad. But if the United States did decide to use force, it would be used massively. 

“After you’ve gone through a war, you become a pacifist,” Inouye told me. “When I first got here [to the Senate in 1963], 95 of us out of 100 had put on the uniform, and of that number 50 percent had seen combat. And I think the record will show that America was very cautious during those days.” 

Inouye said he was one of the last holdouts during the debate on the volunteer army. “I felt that in matters of this nature, every American should be placed in jeopardy. Now the risks are disproportionate when it comes to ethnic inclusion, social standing, and wealth. I think the military should reflect the populace itself.”


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About Louis Marano

Louis Marano, a Vietnam veteran, is an anthropologist and a former journalist. He served two deployments to Iraq as a civilian contractor for the U.S. Army. He lives in The Plains, Virginia.

Photo: Marinelle Coronel Hernandez/EyeEm/Getty Images