According to a December poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, found that 60 percent of America’s 18-29-year-olds support “sending ground troops to participate in a military campaign against the Islamic State” — even as 85 percent say they definitely (62 percent) or probably would not (23 percent) join the military to fight ISIS. Just 2 percent of those surveyed had served in the military; 4 percent “definitely will join if needed” and 9 percent would “strongly consider joining.”
The internet was instantly aflame with cries of hypocrisy and “chickenhawk” in the “not me generation,” and the poll certainly seems to paint an unflattering portrait. What surprises me is that anyone is surprised.
First, young people resisting the idea of interrupting their lives to go into a war zone isn’t an anomaly; historically, it’s the rule. But more important, government and society have trained this generation to see war as something other people do.
Tens of millions of Americans born since the late 1980s have grown up in a country almost perpetually at war — with the exceptions of 1997 and 2000, some kind of military action has been under way every year of their lives.
They have experienced war as dirty work other people have to do: Less than half a percent of Americans now serve in the military. Perhaps worst of all, they have been trained by politicians to look the other way, go shopping, pay no attention to the flag-draped coffins hidden behind a curtain of cynical censorship drawn by those same politicians who don’t want anyone to know about war’s consequences.
These “chickenhawk” millennials are really no different than the people now leading the country. Republican elected officials and presidential candidates are full of hollow bravado about how to handle the Islamic State, willing to hint at using nuclear weapons — “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we are about to find out,” said Ted Cruz — or sending in ground troops (almost all of them).
Nobody in the GOP or Democratic presidential field served in the military. In all of U.S. history, just 11 presidents have not served in the military, some serving in state militias rather than federal forces. The longest drought ran from 1913 (Wilson) to 1944 (Roosevelt). Today, just over 20 percent of members of Congress have served, compared to a peak of 77 percent in 1977-78. And just 7 percent of the population are veterans, compared to 13.7 percent in 1977, a drop by almost half.
Retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis took note of the hypocrisy in a tweet he sent while watching a Dec. 16 GOP presidential debate: “My blood pressure rose when they used ‘I’ or ‘we’ to talk kicking ass since they all said no to their feet in mil boots.”
Science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein’s infamous “Starship Troopers,” a 1959 novel-slash-political lecture, seriously suggests that suffrage be extended only to discharged
veterans, instead of “anyone who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37 degrees (Celsius).” But under the Constitution, there is no requirement that one must serve in the military to be elected to office.
And certainly, a history of military service doesn’t inoculate a president from making dubious (and worse) decisions about war — Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and George W. Bush all come to mind. One who didn’t, Franklin D. Roosevelt (he did try to resign as Secretary of the Navy to enlist during World War I, but President Wilson refused) arguably remains the nation’s greatest war president.
Still, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was surely right when he fretted privately(according to one of his daughters) that non-veteran presidents would be too easily manipulated and steamrolled into bad decisions by military advisors and that the increasing entanglement of business and war, the “military-industrial complex,” would likely result in ill-conceived wars.
And while the specter of the Islamic State is obscene and dangerous, today’s flocks of chickenhawks, from millennials to presidential contenders, are too ready to throw someone else at a situation that isn’t quite as simple as, “send in the Marines.”
Here’s how Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security and former advisor to John McCain (Fontaine is no dove) told The New York Times in September:
“In Iraq, we toppled the government and did an occupation and everything went to hell. In Libya, we toppled the government and didn’t do an occupation and everything went to hell. In Syria, we didn’t topple the government and didn’t do an occupation and everything went to hell. So, broadly, this is the Middle East. Things go to hell. And we’ve got to make our way through that fact to protect our national interests, on the back of a war-weary public that doesn’t want to invest our treasure in this.”
It’s probably true that a massive-scale mobilization of American troops — consisting mostly of other people and other people’s kids, of course — could, like Tito in Yugoslavia or Saddam Hussein in Iraq, rout the Islamic State and hold the area in some semblance of order through sheer power. But such an occupation would have to be all but indefinite, because as soon as those troops leave, the old Sunni-Shia and other historic, even ancient, antagonisms will fill the vacuum. Mission creep would be hard to avoid.
“The United States could decide to go all-in with ground troops and provide the military muscle for Sunni moderates for the foreseeable future. That would start in Syria, but Obama’s advisers fear the commitment would expand to other collapsed Sunni states, such as Libya and Yemen,” David Ignatius wrote recently. “The United States, in effect, would become the governor of Sunnistan.”
And the truth is, even the best minds of the U.S. military and state department can’t be trusted to understand complex situations on the ground in such places. (For a sobering, wholly balanced — neither anti-American nor anti-Taliban — examination of the fiasco in another place of mystery, read “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes” by Anand Gopal.)
In other words, the fondest wishes of chickenhawk millennials and politicians would have terrible costs, counted both in blood (of “other people’s kids”) and treasure: Some military experts think 100 troops killed, 500 wounded and $10 billion a month would be all but guaranteed, and it might be even worse.
As Tolstoy asked, what then must we do?
Although generals and politicians hate the idea, and 74 percent of Americans say they oppose it, the nation should move away from an all-volunteer force, perhaps via a national-service requirement that includes a military lottery and no loopholes, except for the truly disabled, as in Israel and Switzerland. (There would have to be non-military options, for moral reasons and because the U.S. military doesn’t need that many bodies).
How would this help? Here’s a rather long essay on the subject, but in short, the all-volunteer force is dangerous. It has led to a growing separation between the troops and civilians, with many in the military believing that they are superior citizens and non-military Americans the dupes of cynical propaganda campaigns leading them to proclaim all who serve are “heroes” — virtually all active-duty military and veterans openly mock this idiocy, and they should know — and thinking that clapping for soldiers in airports or slapping a yellow ribbon on the SUV somehow constitutes “support.” An all-volunteer military leads to more war, and whatever the shortcomings of mandated service, it will give a broader swath of the public pause when we are called upon to blindly support the next war.
In addition, we need politicians with spines stiffer than wet spaghetti. The current scheme, under which Congress ignores its obligation to declare war under the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and presidents of both parties relish their all-but-unfettered freedom to wage war, is dishonest. Members of Congress are too chicken to take an actual vote, fearing future repercussions, thereby ceding enormous power to the executive.
From there, I propose a law mandating across-the-board tax increases on all individuals, businesses and corporations — again, no loopholes or deferments, and no more putting wars on national credit cards — once troops have been in a theater of war for 90 days, to pay for all costs stemming from the conflict, including top-notch medical and psychological care for returning soldiers. It’s past time to rip Americans who have not served in the military from the appalling, comforting, false belief that they need make no sacrifices for the wars they have been trained to cheer.
It’s easy to point a finger at Millennials, but the undeniable truth is that most Americans do the exact same thing.