How will the next president secure the nation when so few serve?
How is life in our increasingly hollow Army, now sliding precipitously toward its lowest numbers since World War II? Despite rising threats from the Islamic State (ISIS) to Iran and North Korea, nuts-and-bolts national security issues are studiously ignored in the current campaign. Donald Trump (Secret Service Code Name: BRAGADOCIOUS) promises to rebuild our military but is woefully short on details. Hillary Clinton (Secret Service Code Name: ALLEGEDLY) seems wedded to the status quo, with declining military readiness at best a back-burner issue.
But during a town hall last week at Fort Eustis, Va., President Obama was finally confronted by a basic national security question, posed by one of the few solders still left on active duty. With less than 1 percent of Americans now serving in uniform, the soldier asked if the president was concerned that our hard-pressed troops are exposed to multiple combat tours. Doesn’t repeated exposure to combat dramatically increase their chances for becoming casualties or victims of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Clearly annoyed, Mr. Obama scarcely camouflaged his indifference. He had no reason to fear pointed follow-ups from sympathetic journalists who fully share his ignorance and unconcern. But a more candid reply would have acknowledged that our military manpower policies are a bipartisan, bicameral disaster in which the American people are fully complicit. Since 99 percent of us have no personal knowledge of military service, the person most responsible for the epidemic of PTSD among our troops is as close as the reflection in your bathroom mirror.
That harsh reality is the downside of the professional military force that has served us well ever since Vietnam. But there are no free lunches and 40 years later, Americans have become accustomed to fighting our wars using Other People’s Kids. In the 21st century, those precious few are the ones to whom We the People owe so much because they choose commitment to country over self-interest. What is especially galling is they bear those burdens while most of our young people opt for the indefinite extension of adolescence. Rather than deploying multiple times to Third World hell-holes, today’s stay-at-homes enjoy the left-wing indoctrination of the college campus, with its guaranteed safe spaces and protection from microaggression. Just last week, a University of Michigan student won the right from school administrators to be addressed as “His Majesty.”
As one of the last draftees of my generation, I respectfully suggest that he would be a better citizen and this nation a far better place had he ever answered to a much different title: Private. Don’t misunderstand, because I’m not advocating a return to Selective Service – at least not yet. But retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal has done yeoman work recently while leading an Aspen Institute study on reviving the lost tradition of national service. The current alternatives include both sexes as well as military and civilian opportunities. But even more ambitious agendas include reviving the constabulary function of the National Guard, making it into a hi-tech, mobile-infantry force permanently patrolling and reinforcing our chronically porous borders. Equally interesting: a 21st century GI Bill allowing educational benefits to be earned while serving the country. Just as when we ended the draft, some now suggest a presidential commission as a logical next step.
Ambitious as they might first appear, such measures are essential in recovering a tradition that our Founders once considered fundamental. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “A people that expects to remain ignorant and free, expects what never was and never will be.” That principle is especially true of national security, where wise countries elect leaders tested by the twin dilemmas of war and peace, ideally from foxhole level.
The moderators of Sunday evening’s debate should ask:
“Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump: Our volunteer force has endured 40 years without any significant readjustment. Are either of you concerned that we are requiring extraordinary sacrifices from our military forces when only 1 percent of Americans ever serve in uniform? Should the professional careers of future American leaders include prior national service? Should a presidential commission examine the issue of what some see as the widening gap between the soldier and the state?”
It is an unhappy reality of the current campaign that viciousness and triviality seem to go hand-in-hand: The least important questions unfailingly generate the most controversy and, of course, the most media coverage. We have apparently forgotten that what happens during a campaign affects how the nation is governed thereafter – for good or ill. But in the age of ISIS, we must also be disciplined by the specter of relentless adversaries eager to exploit flaws in our national character left uncorrected for over 40 years. When another Sept. 11 comes, it will be too late.
A version of this piece also appeared on Washington Times