Our isolated military
Six miles from downtown Pittsburgh, Sgt. Ryan Lane's youthful image is eternally captured on a banner with two American flags as its background. Dozens of the banners hang from street poles in the business district of Castle Shannon, Lane's hometown.
The 25-year-old, who was assigned to the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, was killed in a battle with Taliban forces in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
When he was brought home to be buried, mourners lined the streets of a neighboring community to honor him; most of them didn't know the young man whose flag-draped coffin was carried by fellow soldiers into the family church.
American soldiers are not forgotten in their communities. But they are a rapidly shrinking minority among their neighbors, because they are part of an all-volunteer military and because of our prickly political age of austerity in which base closings and consolidations have made the military a smaller component of fewer and fewer communities.
While governing elites are less and less likely to serve in the military themselves, citizens too are becoming less likely to interact with the military in their daily lives — which effectively isolates the military in American society.
The military has responded, in this time of war, by withdrawing into itself as a profession.
That might allow it to maintain its fighting edge on the battlefield, but it does little good for civilian-military relations.
The catalyst for opening the gap between the military and the citizens of the country it serves began at the end of the Vietnam War, when we went from draftees to all-volunteer professional soldiers, according to Andrew Bacevich. The Boston University history professor and retired Army colonel is the author of a new book, “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.”
Bacevich, whose son Andrew Jr. was killed in Iraq in 2007, said we have become a country that is almost permanently at war, with just 1 percent of Americans bearing the burden of battlefield service and sacrifice while the other 99 percent watch. “The arrangement is not democratic, it's not effective, and it's not moral,” he said.
Public service once demanded an equal sacrifice, in military and civilian terms, and those serving in the U.S. armed forces understood well what the ultimate sacrifice meant.
“Ever-dependent on an all-volunteer force, and increasingly on private contractors, the American military — and those who constitute it — are relatively hidden from civilian life,” said Catherine Wilson, an associate professor of public administration at Villanova University.
Bacevich warns in his book that, as the number of people engaged in war shrinks, our government contracts with private companies to such an extent that war becomes a profit-making opportunity: “It opens the door to people who will push for war simply because it's a way to make money.”
Both sides need to better understand each other's strengths and value within their communities, said Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, commandant of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, who has commanded troops during numerous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cucolo has served in the all-volunteer force for 34 years. Because there is no draft, he said, many people believe their communities do not have a stake in the military. “I would offer that our all-volunteer force is a national treasure, because it is of such high quality and so capable. I would not want to see that change,” he said.
He and Bacevich agree that requiring national service in some form is a good thing, making all of us better, more connected citizens.
Ryan Lane will never be forgotten in Castle Shannon, nor will any of the other military men and women who grace street banners in towns such as West Mifflin, Bethel Park and Canonsburg that have adopted the memorial program.
Perhaps a greater tribute to soldiers such as Lane would be for Americans to have a better understanding of the impact that war has on soldiers and their families — and on the nation's politics, as Washington debates about the size of our military.
It is a solemn reminder that our military depends on our support, as much as we depend on it to protect us.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media. (412-320-7879 or [email protected])