America's all-volunteer armed forces have led to a growing and dangerous gap between the military and civilian spheres, making it too easy for politicians to order risky deployments with casualties borne by a small, mostly low-income group that does not represent society as a whole, a Stanford historian said Monday.
Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor David Kennedy spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of about 150 people in a public Veterans Day lecture organized by the Stanford Historical Society.
It's been 40 years since the U.S. eliminated the draft in 1973 in favor of an all-volunteer military force, a decision Kennedy argued has adversely affected society and boosted the risk of military adventurism.
A tally several years ago found that only 10 children of the 535 members of Congress were serving in the military, Kennedy said. In contrast, 180 of the children of the 307 U.S. military officers with rank of brigadier general or above were in service, according to a 2008 Pew Research Center poll.
"On the face of it, the discrepancy in those numbers suggests that we're in the presence here of some kind of serious division between the civilian and military sectors," the historian said.
Spending a week in 2008 observing more than 6,000 ROTC Army cadets engaged in leadership training at Fort Lewis, Wash., Kennedy said he repeatedly was asked by officers and cadets: 'Can you explain to us how it is that the Army is at war and the country is not?'
"That made an impression on me as to the possible gravity of this divide that separates the civilian from the military," Kennedy said.
While the 16 million Americans who served in World War II broadly represented U.S. society as a whole, today's military does not, he said.
In 2007, ethnic and racial minorities comprised 42 percent of U.S. Army enlistment.
Only 2.6 percent of enlisted people in the military compared to 32 percent of the comparable-aged civilian population had had exposure to college classes.
"This is an asymmetry of worrisome proportions," Kennedy said.
"In effect, we've outsourced to some of the least advantaged members of our society the most dangerous business our society engages in" while the rest of us go about our business unharmed.
African-Americans are overrepresented, comprising 12 percent of America's able-bodied 18-to-44-year-olds but 19 percent of the military, he said. Hispanics are underrepresented, comprising 17 percent of civil society but only 12 percent of the military.
Small towns, rural areas, the south and Mountain West are overrepresented, while military participation from the northeast, the west coast and major cities continues to decline.
While 44 percent of military members are registered as Republicans, only 27 percent of U.S. registered voters are Republicans.
Kennedy reviewed the number of U.S. casualties in "the wars of our lifetime:" In World War II, with U.S. involvement lasting three and a half years, 405,399 Americans died; in the three-year Korean War, 44,692 Americans died; in the nine-year Vietnam War, 58,220 Americans died; in the eight-year Iraq war, Americans 4,486 died; in the 12-year- Afghanistan war, 2,146 Americans died.
He argued that technological advances in warfare have contributed to the military-civilian divide by leveraging the firepower and fighting efficacy of a single warrior, leading to smaller death tolls that are easier to discount.
In addition, medical advances have saved lives but brought home many more gravely and permanently injured soldiers, contributing to public underestimation of the scope of ongoing human cost.
"Mortality is loud in our culture," he said.
The U.S. Constitution offers a "fragile and imperfect" mechanism for injecting democracy in decisions to go to war by designating the President as commander-in-chief but conferring on Congress the right and responsibility to declare war.
As a result, though war has been declared only five times in the nation's history, there have been more than 300 overseas deployments. Moreover, Kennedy said, in the 28 years between World War II and the 1973 decision to eliminate the draft there were 19 overseas deployments, while in the last 40 years of an all-volunteer force there have been 144 overseas deployments.
Kennedy, along with former U.S. Defense Secretary and retired Stanford professor William Perry, recently proposed bringing an ROTC program back to the Stanford campus after a 40-year hiatus a proposal that was confirmed by a 28-9 vote (with 3 abstentions) of the Faculty Senate in 2011.
But so far, none of the branches of service have responded to Stanford's invitation.
"We threw a party and nobody came," he said. "The services aren't really interested in joining hands on this with us and that's the situation we're in today."
He surmised the military "has decided it's not worth their while to set up an expensive program when they can get more bang for their buck at universities where they won't run into the high cost and indifference."
Nonetheless, nine current Stanford students participate in ROTC, taking their military classes at Santa Clara University, San Jose State University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Several of them in the audience Monday were asked to stand, to a hearty round of applause.
Polls show strong popular support for the military today while other institutions, including Congress, the presidency, churches and professional athletics, have suffered, Kennedy said.
"The military is the only institution in this society that commands more popular respect today than it did in the Vietnam era," he said.
"We're honoring the military in our midst even while we don't take part in it … I do think part of the way we honor the military today is driven in some way by our collective guilt that we're free of this obligation."
Kennedy, whose 2000 book "Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945" won the Pulitzer Prize for History, signed copies of a compilation of essays he edited that was published in June, "The Modern American Military."