America’s Military

Is it time to defend the defenders?

Less than a decade after the great victories of the Cold War and Desert Storm, the U.S. military faces a very different kind of crisis–indeed, a crisis unique in all of military experience. Numerous factors have contributed: a complex, volatile world situation; the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); the military technological revolution; deep budget cuts; and the ill-advised use of the military to advance certain Politically Correct civilian political and cultural agendas. Each of these problems can and must be addressed individually, through normal policy channels. But, taken together, they constitute a crisis so profound that the American people must also become involved. Unfortunately, for reasons ranging from media bias to normal peacetime inattentiveness, the American people have scant idea of either the depth or the complexity of the crisis.
It is time to make the people aware. It is also time for a new, historically unprecedented covenant between the American people and the defense establishment that exists to protect them, their territory, and their interests. In the past, the American people have supported the military with their treasure, and their sons and daughters. They shall continue to do so. But now–and this is the essence of the new covenant–the American people must defend their defenders against unwise and unwarranted civilian political pressures and agendas.

Conservatives have argued for years against excessive budget cuts and imprudent use of the military in other-than-war situations. But only in recent months have conservatives and concerned centrists begun seriously to address the problems of subjecting the military to social engineering and experimentation. There has been outcry, and the marshaling of evidence. But, sadly and predictably, the public debate has descended into a “rights versus readiness” mode. Conservatives have argued the needs of the military while the PC left has argued “rights”–unfortunately, a far more evocative theme in this era. The conservative approach is necessary and correct, but insufficient either to save the military or to place the military crisis in a larger national context. Conservatives know that, ever since Vietnam, the PC left has assailed the military as a strategic target in the Culture War: the final bastion of traditional values. But conservatives naively underestimated the tenacity and ferocity of the PC foe. The results are now becoming clear: military resignations by the thousands, ruined careers by the hundreds, suicides, and the gradual degradation of the ability to fight.

Conservatives (and concerned centrists and non-PC liberals) understand this. But conservatives, by and large, have yet to do what the PC left has done so successfully: make the military a cultural issue, and do so in a manner relevant and compelling to the largest possible audience. There are two reasons for this, both valid. First, many of those most knowledgeable about the military tend not to venture beyond their area of expertise (a notable and happy exception: decorated marine veteran, novelist, and former navy secretary James Webb). Second, many conservatives of non-military background stress only the need for traditional values: again, a correct and necessary approach, but insufficient to reach and influence the widest possible audience.

This Discovery Inquiry provides a strategy for a “Culture Wars” approach to military issues that can help generate the popular support necessary for policy changes. The Inquiry has two parts. The first proposes the contours of a new covenant between people and military. The second suggests the structure of a new debate, through which conservatives and concerned centrists can carry the subject to the largest possible audience: the general public as well as decision-makers, analysts and punditry. Accordingly, this Inquiry contains no policy recommendations. These will be provided in forthcoming papers. What matters here is to introduce a concept that is as relevant to the American society as to the American military, as relevant to the Culture Wars of the last few decades as to future military conflicts.

Traditionally, Americans worried that the military might grow too distant from the people. Today, the reverse has happened. The American military has become too much like the society it exists to defend. Indeed, the military’s crisis provides a metaphor for the ills of the culture as a whole. In a sense, when Americans look at the military, they’re looking into a mirror.

And it’s time to start asking: Do we entirely like what we see?

I. Toward a new covenant

Any covenant between people and military must contain two elements: a clear statement of what the people expect and require of the military, and a statement of what theyire prepared to do to ensure that the military meets these requirements. But first, it would be useful to clarify one of the most abused and misunderstood concepts in the American political lexicon: civilian control of the military.

Civilian control of the military

The American military belongs to the American people. It does not belong to the government. Today, the government has expanded the doctrine of “civilian control of the military” in ways that the Founders would have deemed abhorrent, and which common sense indicates can only lead to catastrophe.

The Founders desired civilian control of the military to forestall military adventurism, foreign and domestic. But control was never meant to entail government micromanagement and arbitrary interference in purely military matters. The Congressional power to raise armies and maintain navies did not imply that Congress should routinely substitute its opinions for the professional judgment of the military on military matters. The presidentis role as commander-in-chief does not entitle him to command troops in the field . . . or to supervise routine military matters and operations from the comfort of the Oval Office. No one save the Supreme Court ever decreed that the Court should intervene in military affairs. Civilian control meant, and should mean, making sure that the military remains subordinate and responsive to the will of the people (through the instrumentality of the government) in its defense of the people. The government abuses its authority when it forces the military to abdicate its professional expertise and values to honor the whims and advance the fortunes of whoever happens to occupy the White House or hold some position in Congress.

The institutional trend toward civilian micromanagement and interference in purely military affairs began in 1947, with the establishment of the Department of Defense, and creation of a secretary of defense whose full-time job it was to manage services whose secretaries formerly reported directly to the president. The trend intensified during the Kennedy and Johnson years, when secretary Robert McNamara, who pointedly denied the validity of military expertise “There is no more strategy, only crisis management”–usurped many of the planning and budgetary powers of the services, and began using the military for social engineering and experimentation. Project 100,000, which forced the military to accept unqualified entrants for service during the latter years of Vietnam, may indeed have helped some unfortunate souls. For the military, it was at best a costly and disruptive additional burden. Since then, the routine and often arbitrary substitution of civilian for military judgment in purely military matters has permeated the military and corrupted its functioning, its ethics, and its morale.

Of course, the military of a democratic society must reflect, to the extent possible, the core values of that society: equality, justice, the value of the individual. But the military is also a unique profession, engaged in a unique activity. The issue is balance, and the balance of one era will differ from another. Today, the government is upsetting that balance by advancing PC civilian agendas, just as surely as it upsets the balance by buying pork-barrel weapons or maintaining useless bases while starving essential programs. In this sense, the use of the military to advance PC civilian agendas is part of the larger problem of the limits of governmental interference in internal military affairs.

The requirements of the people

In the abstract, the requirements of the people have not changed one iota since the Founders determined to provide for the common defense. These include protection of people and territory; defense of vital national interests; and the occasional use of military capabilities for other purposes.

But defense is not an abstraction. Forces are raised and maintained to deal with specific threats in specific places at specific times. They also exist to deal with the unexpected, the evolving, and the accidental. They cannot, therefore, be artificially limited by bureaucratic or professional preferences, or by constricted views of what a military should or should not do. This is especially true in periods of rapid change.

However, this does not mean that, in such periods, “anything goes.” The present world and domestic situations are complex and in some ways incoherent. Still, the lack of a clearly-defined mortal enemy–an Axis or a Soviet Union–and the lack of a clear national consensus on certain cultural and moral matters does not justify incoherence or expedient military thinking. Nor should the blurring of previously distinct boundaries between domestic law-enforcement and the military be used as an excuse for avoiding serious consideration of why that blurring may be necessary. The United States may have to live without a clear declaratory strategy for some time to come, and with an increasingly unpalatable cultural and social situation. But, in the long run, it cannot live without a clear sense of the requirements of national survival and welfare.

Homeland Defense

First and foremost, the people require that the military defend their lives, territory, and property against deadly attack. Today, this means defense against weapons of mass destruction (WMD), whether a single terrorist device or an accidental or limited launch by a hostile state or subnational group. Sadly, it may also include defense against domestic terrorism/insurrection that may have foreign support. Defense against WMD is no longer a nice-to-have adjunct to conventional military capabilities. Nor does it become a law-enforcement matter when such devices are assembled or brought into the United States, rather than fired at it. Indeed, never before has the fundamental problem of home defense seen such a confluence between foreign and domestic threats.

Militarily, the vital task is: How to locate little things (Scud launchers, cruise missiles on yachts, suitcase bombs, anthrax canisters) in big places (the Iraqi desert, Manhattan, the Pacific Ocean) and then get the information to those who can do something about it before the detonation. The militaryis primary responsibility here is to develop and field “multi-use” defenses and supporting systems that can protect troops in the field, theater-level operations, and the homeland. For example, Aegis-equipped naval vessels, originally designed to protect carrier battle groups against massed air attack, can do picket duty off the coast of Saudi Arabia . . . or Puget Sound. 747s equipped with anti-missile lasers can deploy in defense of London or Long Beach. Countering small numbers of relatively rudimentary weapons is far easier than the challenges faced during the Cold War. Vital technologies are far more advanced. Only lack of political will (and wisdom) prevent anti-WMD defenses from becoming reality.

The military’s second homeland responsibility entails operating in that gray area between conventional war and law enforcement. Here the military finds itself in an alliance of convenience with the civil libertarians. Neither wants the military involved, the former for professional and bureaucratic reasons, the latter for fear of constitutional trespass. Both concerns are valid. But the military’s responsibility is to defend the nation against the threats it faces, whether those threats be “conventional” or not. And whatever else may be said of the Bill of Rights, it is not a suicide pact. Military participation in two counter-terrorism activities–intelligence and armed response–must, of course, be carefully monitored and limited when it occurs within the United States. But it must not be proscribed for fear that any military involvement automatically and inevitably produces mass violations of civil liberties, military dictatorship, or worse. The issue is balance, not a spurious either/or.

A third homeland responsibility is disaster relief after the use of WMD. This mission should be entrusted to the National Guard, and funded appropriately. The advantages are obvious. Guard units already know the territory they’ll work in and routinely participate in non-terrorist disaster relief. Since the active-duty military rarely needs this capability in peacetime, assigning the mission to the Guard cuts the expenses by 50 percent or more.

Major conventional conflict

Properly maintained and modernized, U.S. conventional forces will remain by far the most capable on earth. Their primary function should be to serve as a deterrent. Failing that, conventional forces should be prepared to win, quickly if possible, but always decisively and with minimal loss of life.

These capabilities need not be linked to dubious concepts such Therefore, to the maximum extent possible, ground power should reside in the reserves and the National Guard. These forces cost considerably less than full-time equivalents and can be made combat ready in less time than “weekend warrior” folklore–or the instinctive preferences of the active establishment for active forces–would indicate. This does not mean, of course, that reliance on reserves should be used to justify excessive cuts in active structure. Simplistic formulas such as iall heavy forces into the Guardi should be avoided. It does mean that the bulk of the country’s land combat power should reside with the people.

This is true for another reason. Mobilization of the reserves and Guard provides a crucial test of popular will and support, as the Persian Gulf experience demonstrated. The war demonstrated this because, in the aftermath of Vietnam, the Army structured itself so that it could not wage protracted war without the reserves. That policy paid political as well as military dividends. Further, in this era of power devolving from the federal to state levels, the National Guard–a classic “multi-use system”–should be strengthened.

Operations other than war and short of war

The United States cannot be the worldis policeman. It should not try to be the world’s social worker, therapist, or nanny. There is more misery out there than America can ever hope to alleviate. U.S. forces do not exist for these purposes.

However, a world in which aggression runs rampant, and in which atrocity becomes standard media fare, is in nobody’s interest, save that of aggressors and criminals. From time to time, humanitarian, peace-keeping, or peace-enforcing operations may become desirable. The American people, generous and humane, understand this. They also understand that such operations rarely achieve their objectives. And those with experience in this area know that such operations are costly, demanding, demoralizing, and distracting.

Because of the uncertainty of the world situation, it is probably unwise to rely on a checklist approach to decision-making. As a rule, commitment to other-than war operations generally should be regarded with healthy skepticism and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Further, belief in the value of iAmericais global leadership rolei should not be used as justification for imprudent engagement. “Showing our resolve to show our resolve” rarely fools anyone for long. Further, every global problem is also a regional and local problem, and best handled at those levels. Only when these fail, or cannot succeed without U.S. support, should direct involvement become an option. And if U.S. direct involvement is vital, it goes without saying that no compelling reason exists to place U.S. forces under foreign command. It also goes without saying that funding for such operations should not come out of military appropriations, and that other nations should be encouraged to contribute.

Beyond this, operations short of/other than war should make maximum use of reserve and National Guard assets. This has been true since Vietnam for certain capabilities, including air transport, medical, special operations, and supply. Reserve and Guard use should be expanded to include ground forces. Just as mobilization provides a de facto “people’s veto” on entering major war, so does selective participation offer a test of popular support for lesser contingencies.

The requirements of the military

We now come to the most difficult issue: What are the obligations of the American people to the military? Throughout most of this country’s history, the answer has been, nothing. Properly speaking, there has never been a covenant between people and military, certainly nothing on the Israeli or Prussian models. There has been no need.

American attitudes toward the military have always been conflicted. Belief in military service as an obligation of citizenship coexisted with a lively detestation of that obligation’s practical expression, the draft. Admiration of the military as a profession–admiration for qualities of courage, purpose, discipline, and devotion–still thrives, but so does distaste for “lifers” and contempt for bureaucrats in uniform. Traditionally, the military has enjoyed a higher status than the well-publicized “detestation” of the left might suggest. But this good will rarely has translated into direct support for the institution. Americans have paid taxes, sent their sons and daughters, supported the troops, and aided the veterans for centuries. The people have also benefited the military by their innate caution regarding foreign involvements and reluctance to accept heavy casualties. But the sense of obligation has been attached to citizenship and to country, not to the military as such. Never before have the American people been asked to defend their domestic political, social, and cultural forces.

Today, however, the American people have two new responsibilities toward their defenders. The first is to insure adequate funding for development and deployment of defense against WMD, and for modernization sufficient to maintain the conventional deterrent (a modernization that should include further downsizing and outsourcing of support functions and major restructuring of combat forces). The second responsibility is to defend the defenders against civilian PC agendas that produce significant erosion of military capability, while the military evolves a new balance appropriate to its needs and democratic values of equality and opportunity. It is often forgotten that, when President Truman ordered the desegregation of the military, African Americans were already present in force, and had proven themselves in two world wars. The inclusion of women in non-support roles is an entirely different matter; no civilization in history has ever tried it, save in extremis. So are issues related to the inclusion of openly homosexual men.

II. To contour the debate

Since the 1970s, the U.S. military has been under implacable assault by an array of radical feminist, gay-rights, and other forces who regard the military as “key terrain” in the Culture War and who appear willfully oblivious to, and sometimes delighted by, the damage they do. But (to reiterate) only recently has conservatism recognized the seriousness of the assault. The conservative strategy has been to reaffirm the obvious: that the military exists to perform certain unique functions; that its traditional values relate to its functions; and that whatever harms the ability to perform those functions is unacceptable. This strategy is not wrong. But, to those with agendas of their own, and to much of the public, it is largely irrelevant.

In order to begin to correct this situation–in order to defend the defenders successfully–it is necessary to reformulate the issue, away from the scripted pseudo-exchanges of “rights versus readiness,” toward forms resonant in the larger culture and society. This can be done in two ways: first, by changing the structure of the debate and, second, by presenting the military as symbolic of whatis been happening in the country as a whole. Conservatives and concerned centrists must not confine themselves to presenting the military as an institution apart, the unique exception to the rules. The present crisis should be seen as a metaphor for what happens when individual “rights,” sexuality, and “sensitivity” come to negate, not only individual responsibilities, but also common purposes.

Therefore, emphasize the following:

The vast majority of women and minorities in the military are not the enemy. The problem rather comes from those self-appointed activists who presume to speak and act on their behalf, while damaging the very institution to which these women and minorities have dedicated themselves. Equality is here to stay, and equality means equality of responsibility as well as equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity includes the chance for honest failure: There are things not everyone can do, and honest failure is no disgrace. Equality of responsibility does not, and cannot, mean sameness.

There is no such thing as a “right” to serve in the military. No one has it. Nor is there any right to any particular job or security clearance. There is no right to remain in the military, commensurate with civilian employment protection. To define the military in terms of rights is to reduce it to a vehicle for advancing the careers and agendas of individuals and pressure groups. This is like saying that the purpose of a business is to benefit its employees, with no reference to what that business is supposed to produce or how it functions against the competition. Military necessity takes precedence over manufactured individual “rights.”

But “military necessity” is not an historical absolute. Once, military necessity required corporal punishment and drumhead courts martial. Once, military necessity seemed to require exclusion of African Americans. In the largest sense, a democracyis military must reflect its values. Today, these values include an unprecedented degree of tolerance and willingness to experiment with social arrangements. But even these values must, in the end, recognize that reality imposes limits, in the military as in all other activities.

That said, sexuality poses peculiar problems for the military. Sexuality, unlike race or ethnicity, entails behavior. Sexual behaviors acquire special significance in an institution as hierarchical as the military, and under conditions of extreme danger, stress, and privation. The radical feminist agenda requires that heterosexual males conform completely to their codes of behavior and thought, while demanding nothing of women. The gay agenda demands total acceptance under any and all conditions. One need not be either male chauvinist or homophobic to ask what self-controls might be required of women and gays, especially under extreme conditions. By the same token–and this is an issue that conservatives have yet to address–it seems wrong to exclude entire categories of persons from service, or from certain kinds of service, on the basis of what they might do. It also seems wrong to legitimize the notion of “behavioral minorities.” A more compelling approach would be to emphasize that the responsibilities of women and gays toward the military o indeed, toward the country–could conceivably include not serving, or not serving in particular capacities.

And therein may lie a possible new balance, with “role model potential” for the larger society. At a July 1996 Heritage Foundation National Security Symposium, retired Army Col. William Hauser suggested that the military should be deemed to have a “central core in the combat arms” in which must be allowed to retain its traditional values and exclusions. The non-combat portions of the military could adopt far more liberal personnel policies. The PC left will no doubt object that this violates their principles of iequalityi as the only absolute, and iequalityi no matter what the real-world cost to other people and to common purposes. Conservatives may emphasize negative effects on readiness and object to the perceived surrender of principle. Still, it seems a reasonable compromise: exclusion only when absolute military necessity requires it, inclusion the rest of the time.


To bring about a new covenant between people and military, two separate but related efforts are necessary. One is to emphasize that, while the abstract responsibilities of the military have not changed, the real-world situation is unprecedented. Old formulas, old divisions of labor, no longer avail. The second is to emphasize that support of the military can no longer be limited to paying taxes and waving flags. The defenders need to know what theyire expected to defend, and that they will be defended in turn. One effort should resemble that of the late 1970s and early 80s in making public the need to rebuild America.s defenses o a campaign that helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, and then aided his defense program during the crucial first years. The other effort should resemble that of the late 1980s and early 1990s, documenting and publicizing PC in the military as it was exposed on campus. In purely military terms, the goal should be to convert popular awareness into pressures for policy changes that will bring about a new and livable balance.

But, in the larger sense, the military disarray must be addressed as part of the larger American crisis of values: specifically, of creating a world of endless “rights” and demands, to the exclusion of responsibilities and purposes, of elevating sexuality to the status of an absolute, and of making “sensitivity” a legally actionable standard of conduct. In this final sense, the goal should be to make the struggle over the military the “beginning of the end” battle of the Culture War–to demonstrate both the limits of PC engineering and the ability of the military to adapt to changing civilian values, and thereby to suggest that reasonable compromise–the way of democracy–can be attained, whether the PC crowd likes it or not.

And, in the end, the debate over the proper composition and uses of the military reveals one of the fundamental truths of civilized life. If what unites us is more important than what divides us, we are friends; we can work it out. If what divides us is more important than what unites us, we are enemies; our relations will be determined by the exercise of power. The uniting issue here is the survival and security of the United States: a goal which can be achieved in many different ways. Only those united in this matter should have standing in this debate.

Philip Gold is a Senior Fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and a professorial lecturer of military history at Georgetown University.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.