What are the duties inherent in citizenship? For Americans, the answer to that question has changed dramatically over time. With regard to military service, the answer prevailing today is this one: No such duty exists. Service in the armed forces, whether pursuant to defending the homeland, advancing the cause of freedom abroad, or expanding the American imperium, has become entirely a matter of individual choice.
In that regard, the recent Pentagon decision to remove restrictions on women serving in combat hardly qualifies as a historic change. Instead, it ratifies a decades-old process that has removed military service from the realm of collective obligation and converted it into an issue of personal preference.
The really big change occurred at the end of the Vietnam War when, heeding President Richard Nixon’s request, Congress abolished the draft. In effect, the state thereby forfeited its authority, exercised in each major US war of the 20th century, to order citizens to take up arms on behalf of country and countrymen. That forfeiture proved irrevocable. Once surrendered, the government’s authority to mandate military service could not be reclaimed. That 18-year-old males still perform the ritual of registering for Selective Service — an action about as weighty as getting a flu shot — does not alter that fact.
So today, to fill the ranks of the armed forces, the state no longer issues orders. Instead, it dangles inducements. In that regard, we should credit the Pentagon with impressive success in its effort to rebrand military service. Once considered an imposition, it now signifies opportunity, offering prospects (depending on rank) of security, status, privilege, or even power.
Nothing better captures the shift in emphasis than the iconic US Army recruiting jingle of the 1980s: “Be All That You Can Be.” To an extent that would have astonished the G.I.’s who fought in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, military service has become a venue for individual self-actualization. In the recruiting sergeant’s office, as elsewhere in American life, the conversation centers not on “us” but on “me.”
In a “Be All That You Can Be” world, choice displaces obligation. Duties dwindle in number even as rights proliferate and become sacrosanct. There are today few things that Americans must do; even so, we bridle at the suggestion that there are things that we may not do just because of who we happen to be. That the Pentagon, gracefully or not, was going to align itself with reigning precepts related to race, gender, or sexual orientation was, therefore, only a matter of time. With women now granted full equality to kill and be killed in battle, the process of alignment is now essentially complete.
A few months ago, when the Pentagon abandoned its discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Harvard President Drew Faust neatly captured what that larger process had wrought. The policy’s repeal, she announced approvingly, “affirms American ideals of equal opportunity and underscores the importance of the right to military service as a fundamental dimension of citizenship.”
That this right to serve — nowhere mentioned in the Constitution — should be unabridged has acquired considerable symbolic importance. We should not confuse symbolism with substance, however. No one seriously expects more than a handful of Harvard graduates, gay or straight, male or female, actually to embrace this fundamental dimension of citizenship. As a practical matter, most of those responding favorably to the Pentagon’s recruiting pitch are people who can’t get into Harvard and other elite institutions. To broaden the point, we now have a military system where those who benefit most from all that American freedom has to offer see uniformed service — including service in wartime — as something that other people do.
On the surface, the transformation of military service from collective obligation to personal choice meshes nicely with our existing definition of democracy: It demands nothing while excluding no one. What could be fairer?
Yet probe beneath the surface, and the results are anything but democratic. Current arrangements have allowed and even encouraged Americans to disengage from war at a time when war has become all but permanent. Rather than being shared by many, the burden of service and sacrifice is borne by a few, with the voices of those few unlikely to be heard in the corridors of power.
Relieving citizens of any obligation to contribute to the country’s defense has allowed an immense gap to open up between the US military and American society. Here lies one explanation for Washington’s disturbing propensity to instigate unnecessary wars (like Iraq) and to persist in unwinnable ones (like Afghanistan). Some might hope that equipping women soldiers with assault rifles and allowing them to engage in close combat will reverse this trend. Don’t bet on it.
Retired US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.