Not that long ago, most Americans had someone in their immediate family who was serving in the U.S. military. In fact at the end of World War II, almost one-in-ten Americans were on active duty, like my grandfather who served on an LST in the South Pacific. But my generation and the Millennials have seen a much smaller concentration of friends and family serve in the armed forces. In fact while three-quarters of Baby Boomers had an immediate family member serve in the military, only one-third of Millennials are closely related to someone in the armed forces.
The Atlantic's recent cover story by James Fallows entitled "The Tragedy of the American Military" is a must-read. Fallows says that this distance or de-familiarization of the public from the armed forces has resulted in a national culture where everyone says they admire the military and almost no one criticizes it. We have a "reverent but disengaged" attitude about the troops he writes, where "we love them but we'd rather not think about them." This, he argues, leads to at least two bad outcomes.
The first is less public insistence on accountability for the military. Today people admire the military like no other public institution. From Fallows:
In a Gallup poll last summer, three-quarters of the public expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. About one-third had comparable confidence in the medical system, and only 7 percent in Congress.
Fallows believes this admiration-from-a-distance removes the necessary public pressure to perform and results in projects like the development of the F-35 overrunning it costs by hundreds of billions dollars with hardly anyone being aware of it.
The second problem Fallows finds with the widening gap in the public's familiarity with the military is that with a small number of Americans doing the fighting he thinks we are too willing to go to war and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts. He spoke to a friend and former classmate of mine, Seth Moulton, about this. Before getting elected to Congress this past Fall, Seth served four tours in Iraq and won awards for bravery that he never bragged about back home (not even to his parents!). Seth's take was that the US probably wouldn't have gone to war in Iraq if more business and media elite or members of Congress had children in the armed forces.
I continue to respect our brave soldiers. I'm thankful for their service. I'm also thankful for our military might, though I'm conscious that we need to use that power wisely and justly. This article makes me think that to better support our troops, more of us need to get more closely connected to the troops. It's not enough to salute them at halftime of the football game. To truly respect them, we need know them. And to know someone or an institution is to see both its strengths and its flaws. It's not enough to uncritically "admire" the military at a safe remove. As a people we need to get closer, meet soldiers, talk to veterans, ask them what it's like in Afghanistan and on bases today. Understand what's going on. Then we can critique the bad, laud the good and put some substance to the idea of "supporting the troops."