Earlier this week, in their column at War on the Rocks, Nora Bensahel and retired General David Barno, both professors at American University, addressed an issue that I have discussed here a number of times: the gap between the U.S. military and American society. Bensahel and Barno do an excellent job explaining the problem and, specifically, the perverse incentives for the use of force this gap creates. I’m skeptical that their proposed solution would have the intended outcome. They write:
How can we strengthen and reinforce the principle that U.S. citizenship requires serving and defending the nation when called? One option might be instituting some sort of an oath-taking ceremony that mirrors the one undertaken by newly-naturalized U.S. citizens. Such a ritual could become part of Selective Service registration (which should expand to include women) or included at high school graduation ceremonies. That would reaffirm to all of those present that the responsibility and the risks of fighting America’s wars belong to the population as a whole, not just to an ever-shrinking, committed cloister. Even just suggesting such a controversial proposal would spark a vibrant debate among students, teachers, and parents about the responsibilities of citizenship. This would be a small but important step to help close the nation’s yawning civil-military divide while also highlighting and strengthening the other civic responsibilities of U.S. citizens.
While they are right to note that a major power conflict in the future cannot be ruled out, the odds are still vanishingly small—meaning, as a practical matter, most Americans will, in practice, remain disconnected from the military. The United States is more likely to continue fighting the limited wars of the first two decades of this century, so the words of any “oath” are likely to be easily forgotten by most eighteen-year-olds shortly after the ceremony ends (or, if they’re anything like I was at that age, before). It is not as if Bensahel and Barno are proposing universal military training that would require regular military preparation for the public, but which has been routinely rejected in American history as antithetical to democratic values.
They note early in their piece that part of the oath immigrants take when they become citizens includes a pledge to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law.” There is an empirical question here about whether this pledge makes any difference in the opinion of naturalized American citizens regarding the use of military force. Are they less likely to support military action? Is the issue more salient for them due to the inclusion of those words? Are they more prepared for the possibility they may be called upon to fight in a major power conflict should one occur?
Like Bensahel and Barno, I worry about the rise of a “warrior caste” as fewer Americans have any tangible connection to the military. And I appreciate their efforts to find a solution that addresses the Americans public’s disconnection from the consequences of the use of military force. I think, however, that further research is needed to see if their proposal would have its intended effect.