A War Apart: Examining the American Civil-Military Divide


By Nate Subramanian, Columnist

Robert A. Heinlein’s seminal 1959 young adult science fiction novel Starship Troopers envisions a world in which democracy and military service are inextricably linked. In Heinlein’s novel, civilians and the military are so different that they are divided into distinct social classes: civilians are portrayed as a sort of protected patrician class, while volunteering for a term of service with the Terran Federation government – generally, military service – is the only way to gain citizenship, the vote, and the ability to run for elected office. Heinlein’s protagonist, a high school graduate and son of a civilian, rejects this comfortable life in order to join the Mobile Infantry in war against an alien threat.

It is telling of military culture that, at several points since its publication, Starship Troopers has appeared on recommended reading lists in the United States Navy and Marine Corps.[i][ii] Heinlein, a former Naval officer, considered the volunteer military he depicted his work to be greater in civic virtue than the civilian public: “A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic in which he is a member … The civilian does not.” This sense of elitism is shared by some in uniform today who view civilians as a “moocher” class that benefits from the efforts of the military. These soldiers view civilians as either perfunctorily thanking troops for their service or basking in the military’s reflected glory.[iii][iv] The delegation of the duty of war to the military class is paradoxically accompanied by a veneration of that same class.[v] The main thrust of the complaint is clear: a small group of people is doing the hard work of war, and the majority is not invested.

While the United States has not reached the strict military-civilian dichotomy depicted in Starship Troopers, it is worth considering to what degree the nation’s military institutions have become divorced from its civilian population and how this affects the national discourse regarding use of force.

America’s Participation in its Military

A nation’s military is drawn from its people, and when we analyze the US ability to wage war, we must consider the divide between the American nation and the American military. The American public’s participation in the military is a key indicator. At the end of World War II, almost 10% of the U.S. population was on active military duty. Today, less than 0.5% of the U.S. population is in the armed services. Congress has the lowest rate of military service in its history.[vi] Over 75% of Americans born after World War II and before 1955 had an immediate family member who served in uniform. For Americans born since 1980, that figure is about one in three.[vii] As James Fallows succinctly puts it, “As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not.”[viii]

Such a disparity is problematic on numerous levels. On the most basic level, it entails the shifting of the costs of military sacrifice. During the Vietnam War, sufficiently privileged and aware individuals could avoid conscription by intentionally failing their medical exams.[ix] From the Korean War onwards, political scientist Douglas L. Kriner and law professor Francis X. Shen have noted an “emerging consensus” that American casualties have disproportionately come from sectors of society with lower incomes and educational attainment: as of 2011, Afghan War casualty statistics showed that American casualties were one-and-a-half times more likely to hail from communities in the bottom 30% of American income than from those in the top 30%.[x] These statistics indicate that in the era of the all-volunteer military, those who pay the true cost of war tend to come from sectors of society with less political representation and power. Recognition of this disproportionate sacrifice does not seem to have penetrated public discourse in a meaningful way: almost equal proportions of the American public believe that military sacrifice is shared equally between socioeconomic groups as believe that socioeconomic disparity exists in military sacrifice.[xi] The ultimate cost of war is thus in many ways out of sight and out of mind.

It is not clear that increased military participation by the middle and upper classes would necessarily entail a more equal distribution of casualties. A study based on Defense Manpower Data Center data found that among enlisted recruits in 2006 and 2007, neighborhoods with median incomes above $40,000 per year were actually overrepresented compared to the general population.[xii] Regarding the officer corps, the study states: “The stereotypical military officer is highly educated and comes from an affluent family. This stereotype is largely correct.”[xiii] The discrepancy between this data and the casualty figures that show disproportionate sacrifice by poorer neighborhoods may be explained by differences in job function within the military, manipulation of the military bureaucracy, or other factors not captured by metrics.

War as a Peripheral State Action

Over the past 25 years, the American people have generally supported military action abroad: Gallup polls taken after the beginning of US military action found 65% approval for intervention in Somalia in 1993, 51% for the Balkans in 1999, 90% for Afghanistan in 2001, 47% for Libya in 2011, and 60% support for intervention in Iraq and Syria in 2014.[xiv] As of December 2015, a majority of Americans supported sending ground troops to fight the Islamic State.[xv] In the wake of the Paris attacks in November 2015, a Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that 60% of young Americans supported sending US troops to fight the Islamic State, but only 16% of those polled were willing to serve themselves.[xvi] Fallows calls this trend the emergence of a “chickenhawk nation” that is willing to fight any war as long as someone else is going.[xvii]

Those citizens willing to serve are few and far between, and have been extended to their maximum capacity. Jesse Wm. Barton, a criminal defense attorney and Army veteran, notes that during the Global War on Terror, in lieu of conscription, the United States has practiced a “backdoor draft.” “Stop loss” orders allow the extension of enlistment contracts beyond the original terms of enlistment, and deployment of National Guard and reserve forces supplement active-duty personnel. Over one-third of service members who were deployed in the GWOT were deployed more than once, and 37,000 have been deployed more than five times.[xviii] Through repeated use of these instruments, US policymakers have attempt to circumvent any lack of manpower created by the low rate of military participation, while also avoiding the natural political brake on the use of force that greater citizen participation in the military would entail.

It is possible that if the American public in general participated to a greater degree in the military and sacrifice was shared more widely, the costs and benefits of US military intervention would be more carefully considered and more widely debated in the public sphere, and success would be more readily attainable. Unfortunately, the US military has become a force that fights out of sight and all too often out of mind, and as a result, vital questions about the United States’ involvement in military conflict are asked too infrequently. The contrast between the public’s support for military action and its low rate of military participation, combined with stopgap measures such as “stop loss” orders, promotes the pursuit of ambitious strategic goals without the available resources to achieve them. The divorce between war as a state action and the United States as a nation has created a strange circumstance: war has become an action conducted in the periphery of public life, in a way that is perhaps unprecedented in US history.

The Civil-Military Leadership Problem

To wish for civilian non-interference in military affairs is naive for many reasons. First, any use of military force must inherently be guided towards a political aim. As Heinlein himself stated through the character of Sergeant Charles Zim: “It’s never a soldier’s business to decide when or where or how—or why—he fights.” The difference is that while Heinlein assigns the determination of when, where, and how to generals, no element of the strategic process is out of the purview of civilian leadership. As Clausewitz noted, war is a fundamentally political action; each act in a war carries political connotations and considerations. There exists no manual for victory that ignores political considerations and deals purely with military affairs.

Second, a wide rift between civil and military affairs leads to suboptimal outcomes. The creation of the military as a separate class within society – which draws from a particular pool of people and represents a particular set of institutional and symbolic interests – poses a difficult opponent for any civilian leader who wishes to critically interrogate military actions in prosecuting a war effort. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the military was broadly criticized for its incentive structure and its operational culture by both the general public and its own reform-minded officers. Fallows points out that in the modern era, such critiques are rare, due not only to their political volatility but also to the fact that Americans have grown so out-of-touch with their military that they are not truly sure what is wrong with it. He argues that this unfamiliarity has ultimately prevented the United States from achieving its strategic goals in Iraq and Afghanistan:

In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Their many other tactical victories, from overthrowing Saddam Hussein to allying with Sunni tribal leaders to mounting a “surge” in Iraq, demonstrated great bravery and skill. But they brought no lasting stability to, nor advance of U.S. interests in, that part of the world. … the separation of the military from the public disrupts the process of learning from these defeats. [xix]

At the same time, increasing the public’s investment in war carries political risks for policymakers. As retired Army officer and historian Andrew Bacevich says, “A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it … Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”[xx] While political pressure from the public could strengthen a civilian leader’s hand in dealing with the military, the public investment in war that such pressure would require could constrain that same leader’s actions. Civilian leaders therefore shy away from steps that would intensify the American public’s investment in the war effort, such as a war surtax or even an official declaration of war. There remains little pressure to call military action against the Islamic State “war,” and the Obama administration has argued that it already has the authority to conduct air strikes and deploy Special Forces in Iraq and Syria under the Authorization of Use of Military Force passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks.[xxi]

Squaring the Circle of National Involvement in War

Reintegrating the American public into the conduct of war as a state action may be a circular and self-limiting endeavor. In one sense, the very reason for the current state of affairs is its stability. Census data shows that voter turnout exhibits a linear relationship with household income.[xxii] When casualties are disproportionately borne by poorer communities, the political pressure that could be created by the costs of protracted warfare is restricted to the areas with the least political power. In addition, political elites have an interest in reducing the visibility of casualties, seeing casualties as a political constraint and wishing to preserve their freedom of action.

Some commentators have suggested the enactment of compulsory national service or a return to the draft in order to solve the problem of low military participation, but such proposals are unlikely to gain approval. Gallup polls have consistently shown upwards of 80% disapproval for the draft since 2003, and a 2005 poll showed that 62% of Americans opposed mandatory military service.[xxiii]

Unlike Kriner and Shen, Bacevich regards as wishful thinking the idea that the military-civilian divide can be rectified with informational campaigns. Rectifying the situation of “grotesque inequality at home and perpetual war abroad” is not in the interests of policymaking elites nor the mass of the American public.[xxiv] A popular aphorism claims that the public’s realization that they could “vote themselves the money” would spell the end of democracy; it is worth questioning whether the public’s realization that they can vote themselves out of going to war spells the end of peace or of equity in sacrifice.


[i]     ”ALMAR 246/96 – The Marine Corps Professional Reading Program,” United States Marine Corps, July 8, 1996, accessed January 18, 2016, http://web.archive.org/web/20060222120250/http://www.marines.mil/almars/almar2000.nsf/0/91c8a9b3b9a2b59785256a55005e129d?OpenDocument/.

[ii]    ”Starship Troopers,” Navy Reading, accessed January 18, 2016, http://navyreading.dodlive.mil/starship-troopers/.

[iii]   James Fallows, “Chickenhawk Nation, Reader Response No. 3: ‘Quiet Gratitude,’ or Dangerous Contempt?” The Atlantic, December 30, 2014, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/12/chickenhawk-nation-reader-response-no-3/384135/.

[iv]   James Fallows, “Brian Williams and the ‘Guitar Hero Syndrome,’” The Atlantic, February 6, 2015, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/02/brian-williams-and-the-guitar-hero-syndrome/385255/.

[v]    Ibid.

[vi]   David Zucchino and David S. Cloud, “U.S. Military and Civilians are Increasingly Divided,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2015, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-warrior-main-20150524-story.html/.

[vii]  James Fallows, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” The Atlantic, January/February 2015, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/01/the-tragedy-of-the-american-military/383516/.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix]   James Fallows, “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” The Washington Monthly, October 1975, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2009/0911.fallows.html/.

[x]    Douglas L. Kriner and Francis X. Shen, “Reassessing American Casualty Sensitivity: The Mediating Influence of Inequality,” Journal of Conflict Resolution (2014, Vol. 58[7]), 1177-1178.

[xi]   Ibid.

[xii]  Shanea J. Watkins and James Sherk, “Who Serves in the U.S. Military? The Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers,” The Heritage Center for Data Analysis, August 21, 2008, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2008/08/who-serves-in-the-us-military-the-demographics-of-enlisted-troops-and-officers, 4.

[xiii] Ibid., 9.

[xiv] Jeffrey M. Jones and Frank Newport, “Slightly Fewer Back ISIS Military Action vs. Past Actions,” Gallup, September 23, 2014, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.gallup.com/poll/177263/slightly-fewer-back-isis-military-action-past-actions.aspx.

[xv]  Jack Moore, “Majority of Americans Want U.S. Ground Troops to Fight ISIS: Poll,” Newsweek, December 7, 2015, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.newsweek.com/majority-americans-want-us-ground-troops-fight-isis-new-poll-401746.

[xvi] Jessica Mendoza, “Why Millennials want war against ISIS, but don’t want to serve,” The Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 2015, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2015/1212/Why-Millennials-want-war-against-ISIS-but-don-t-want-to-serve.

[xvii]       Fallows, “Tragedy.”

[xviii]      Jesse Wm. Barton, “Home Free: Combatting Veteran Prosecution and Incarceration,” Justice Policy Journal (Vol. 11, No. 2), Fall 2014, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.cjcj.org/uploads/cjcj/documents/barton_home_free_final_formatted.pdf, 7.

[xix] Fallows, “Tragedy.”

[xx]  Ibid.

[xxi] Amber Phillips, “President Obama’s push for military authorization to fight ISIS won’t go anywhere in Congress. Here’s why,” The Washington Post, December 7, 2015, accessed January 18, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/07/3-reasons-congress-wont-authorize-obamas-use-of-force-against-the-islamic-state/.

[xxii]       Sean McElwee, “Why the Voting Gap Matters,” Demos, October 23, 2014, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.demos.org/publication/why-voting-gap-matters.

[xxiii]      “Military and National Defense,” Gallup, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.gallup.com/poll/1666/military-national-defense.aspx.

[xxiv]      Andrew J. Bacevich, “Unequal Sacrifice,” The Nation, September 2, 2010, accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.thenation.com/article/unequal-sacrifice/.

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