Stanford historian sees hazard in U.S. military-civilian gap

In Veterans Day talk, David Kennedy describes costs of all-volunteer service

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."

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Posted by Raymond
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 12, 2013 at 10:16 am

As a former USAF Volunteer I can say that the only way to stop this trend is to stop volunteering. When more of the children of politicians are serving, then the occasion for war will decrease.

Like this comment
Posted by Ampalamps
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 12, 2013 at 10:23 am

The Myans knew!!

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 12, 2013 at 10:24 am

This is such a broad topic, there is no good place to start discussing it.

Here are a few key questions—

How big should the military be?
Universal Military Service, or no?
Purpose of our Military: Defensive, or Offensive?
Authorization to deploy: President or Congress?
Acceptable casualty counts in 21st Century?
Is low participation rates really “dangerous” if Military held in high esteem?

And lastly—

Will increased use of “technology” shift Military’s role from Defense to Offensive?

The article does not state if Professor Kennedy had actually been in the Military himself, or if he is only looking at the situation from the office of a Stanford historian. It is amazing how a couple of years in the Military create a new appreciation for the institution, and a view of “civilians”—standing on the side lines.

One can not really understand this issue without reviewing the Vietnam years—particularly the participation of American’s Universities in opposing the war, and condemning its military as the agency of one from of “imperialism”, or another. By 1975 the Military (particularly the Army) was a real mess. The shift from a draftee Army to a volunteer Army saw people entering the Army who wanted to be there—rather than those who didn’t. Military leaders were able to rebuild the Army over the next decade with an all-volunteer Army in ways that they probably could not have with a draftee Army.

Kennedy’s point about the use of an all-volunteer military as opposed to a drafted military needs to be viewed in terms of the history of the country, which has, for the most part, seen its military populated by volunteers. (There was a heavy use of the draft during the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam.) This topic of how/when the military is deployed gets into some pretty murky areas of Constitution law that involve the “War Powers” of the Presidency. These have been argued since the Constitution of 1787 was ratified. Given the Military’s aggressive experimentation with robotics, and machine intelligence, another decade of two might see an almost mechanize combat capability that will result in even more separation between the Military and the rest of the country.

Given the importance of the Military to our peace, and prosperity, it’s a shame that this topic is discussed so infrequently.

Like this comment
Posted by Raymond R. White
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 12, 2013 at 10:25 am

After ROTC returns to Stanford, I will join the Alumni Association.

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Posted by lms
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 12, 2013 at 11:19 am

Yesterday, I spent time at the PA Veterans Administration Hospital. And, I got to reflect on the fact that I was drafted in 1964 and -- in an act of self-preservation that happen to work out for me -- volunteered and entered the USN. It was better to not be on the ground in Viet Nam was my reasoning.

If YOUR ass in on the line (or your kid's life) you know what it means to face death by politics. You're not likely to quickly put somebody else's life on the line or your child's life behind some abstract ideology, inkling or faulty intelligence -- or to ignore fundamental principles.

As far as I can recall, the principle was that your put your ass on the line ONCE. If you survived, you'd not have to do it again. If you didn't survive, you'd not have to do it again. The all volunteer armed services paradigm simply ignores that principle that was, as far as I know, a part of the draft.

How the politicians and military leaders rationalize sending men and women into combat time after time speaks volumes of what they truly know about facing death -- and who gets to choose and how to ignore the fundamental principles of life itself. Uhhh ... armed fighting must be an act of LAST resort. "Last" meaning there IS no other choice!

You know, a couple of people actually thanked me yesterday. But, really, no thanks is necessary. A man's got to know his limitations. My volunteering was an act of self-preservation, knowing that death is the prize of service in the armed forces. And, in the words of my deceased good neighbor Mr. Jack Ashworth (WW2 Vet who won a Silver Star): "You just do what you got to do."

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 12, 2013 at 11:48 am

This is a topic that needs to be openly discussed now, more than ever. I am a Vietnam Veteran, USN 4 years, some JC prior, full degree after returning. What I have seen since then is an increasing disconnect between the people and our country. I was not happy about the Draft when I was a young man, but not because I might be called up.
What I didn't like were all the loopholes available to avoid service. I feel that everyone in this country should be required to perform some sort of national service, for two years, right out of high school, male and female equally, no exceptions or wavers. Several generations have grown up in this country with no feeling of connection to, or appreciation for the blessings that we enjoy in the USA. My mother had a saying " what comes to easily, we esteem to lightly" and boy does that ever apply in this instance. We have too many people feeling that the USA is a second rate country, who have never done anything constructive to improve it. National service as I see it, does not mean military service, although it could be chosen as an option, but a broad spectrum of areas, including environmental, infrastructure, etc. Kennedy's observation is spot on as to the disconnect, but I believe that it goes deeper than just the military.

Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 12, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Missing from Kennedy's talk, or the reporting of it, was an appreciation of why the current situation came about. During the Vietnam War, the military realized that a 2-year enlistment was not enough time for the recruits to be adequately trained. That was *part* of the decision for a 3-year enlistment, and since it was viewed as politically impossible to have draftees serve 3 years, that was *part* of the reason to end the draft. Realize that much of the military favored ending the draft also because of the motivation problem of draftees.

If you watched the casualty lists from the Iraq War, you should have been struck by how many of them were in the 30s and 40s. Some of this was the effect of Reserves being called up (Reserves by their very nature skew older). And when Special Operations soldiers are identified, lots of them are in their 30s. Training is very expensive and the military *wants* career soldiers. This has the negatives that Kennedy (and many before him) have mentioned, but it also has many positives (that tend to get lost).

As to the geographic skew, if you listen to many of the first-enlistment recruits, a lot of them openly say that the reason they joined was not to serve their country, but for the educational benefits. They are from dying towns where there are few prospects for them and the military was a way out. People who conceptualize this as military service being *imposed* on the various over-represented groups are going to come up with solutions that are non-starters.

Like this comment
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2013 at 3:13 pm

I invite everyone to read, "BREACH OF TRUST: HOW AMERICANS FAILED THEIR SOLDIERS AND THEIR COUNTRY", by Andrew J. Bacevich. It addresses many of the excellent and interesting points (Comments) made above. You can also read a detailed biography about Andrew Bacevich at

Like this comment
Posted by Balfour
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Nov 12, 2013 at 6:34 pm

How about doing as Sweden and Israel do: one year of mandatory military service for every able-bodied citizen between 18 and 21 years of age, with the option to re-enlist if desired. This would apply to women as well as men. Obviously, all socio-economic groups would be represented.

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 12, 2013 at 10:31 pm

The kind of laughable problem is now that the US military is hard pressed to find people that are actually intelligent enough and disciplined enough to contribute to it. I don't think we want people that go nuts and sneak out and shoot whole villages of people. Well, that's not laughable, but we might end up with a kind of super violent military elite that eventually could take over or something - but overlooking that, it's the same problem that businesses have these days. Operations are getting very complicated and not a lot of manpower is needed. They get malleable kids and train them to operate drones and robots and who knows what that leads to?

Public service might be useful, especially if we are going to have to have a large proportion of people now who just cannot find work and there is no work for. There is a lot of work to be done and there are a lot of people who could benefit from working under a formal structure if they could develop a history of good work the investment might make useful citizens of them as we used to think we could do by dumping problem kids in the military.

The thing conservatives want to resist and liberals want to seem to make a fun camp - is that we have a lot of people who do not fit into the "system". Certainly the system needs constant tweaking and improvement, but our citizen-making process is just about useless for the jobs and citizens we need now, and most of the kids outside of those fast-tracked for success, like in the good neighborhoods in Palo Alto, et al, know it too, and they resent it. It's not their faults really. So, we need benevolent management of such people, what the schools do not seem to be able to do any more - and we cannot make a profit off it because ultimately it goes right back to the taxpayer anyway. Anyway, just some thoughts.

Like this comment
Posted by PHL
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 13, 2013 at 9:09 am

I am a WW 2 veteran, 3years 10 months service , enlisted Army Air Corps , officer , overseas 2.5 years, technical , high school ROTC , retired Faculty Member.
It would have been interesting for the assembled members to be asked by Prof Kennedy how many
present had ever served in the military. I suspect few hands would have arisen. It is not only Congress
members who avoid the realities of Military Service.
I believe in two years national service, military or civilian , for all youth with vocational /college educational support after discharge, akin to the post ww2 GI bill which was critical for my post war cohort.

Like this comment
Posted by Tom
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 13, 2013 at 11:12 am

Rachel Maddow wrote a book on this that is required reading for anyone concerned about this -- and if you're concerned about the direction of America, you'd better be concerned about this. The book is "Drift:The Unmooring of American Military Power". The theme is captured in the word "drift" - a movement that is the result of a thousand small decisions, most of them taken because it was the easiest, most politically expeditious, thing to do at the time.

Kennedy's point about outsourcing to the least advantaged members of the society is true, but (and maybe this just didn't make it into the story) misses something even more profound and more disturbing. We are outsourcing the defense of our country to contractors -- "paid mercenaries" if you will -- so (among other bad things)the impact of "military adventurism" is felt even less on the actual civilian population, the volunteer military, and the political cost of that adventurism becomes almost zero. That is a scary place for the most powerful nation on earth to be.

I really do encourage people to get and read this book.

2 people like this
Posted by Andrew Kloak
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 14, 2013 at 10:36 am

An outstanding article. David Kennedy's insights on this are on target. We need a readiness. More civilian involvement and support would help. Smaller more elite units like SEAL Team Six are undertaking these night-time raids like the one on the Bin Laden compound in May 2011. Yes, Geronimo is dead. But it's questionable what our target selection criteria are after that. It's a shadowy world were our NSA director gives a nightime press conference saying there were inaccuracies to the stories about the NSA spying on citizens. Then when asked by reporters what those inaccuracies were, he wouldn't say. That's called misdirection. They do that a lot in NSA and military channels.

As Tom says, Maddow's book would provide good balance to this.

Like this comment
Posted by Jack Truher
a resident of Los Altos
on Nov 25, 2013 at 11:42 am

I expect that Dr. Kennedy means well, but he refuses to recognize a blatant language entrapment. He quote military officers: "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?' " As is so often bemoaned, the "country" is NOT at war. War is a state of conflict between states, which is neither declared as demanded by congress, nor a reality which meet a simple logical test. A rational war (if there was one) could be argued as reasonable if the nation's people were at risk from another state, which could be mitigated by our use of tools of war. None of that is true. No one argues that the nation meets such criteria. Instead our leaders drone on about a "War on Terror", a war on an ill-defined abstraction. Serious terrible crimes no doubt abound. But the nation is not threatened by even a significant fraction of the risk of driving on our freeways. We have only metaphorical "wars" against delusional criminals.

I was an undergraduate peer of David Kennedy, in ARMY ROTC, a "Distinguished Military Graduate" (1960) even. Almost none of us cadets would have enrolled if the Draft were not the alternative. We were determined to escape the abuse and waste to which enlisted personnel were and are still subjected. There was one compelling logic then, that either the madness of the Russian or American military would bring about nuclear self-annihilation. In such a event, one might as well be in the service. David Kennedy misunderstood the motives of his peers then.

Advocates for use of military tool of war, have simply lied by repetition, with no reasonable cause to take them seriously. Laughable they are, but the awful consequences of their mendacity, denial and self-delusion will continue to have contradictory consequences until they stop misuse of military tools to solve criminal, political, or social problems.

Like this comment
Posted by Brian Good
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 25, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Brian Good is a registered user.

Lt. Col. Robert Bowman, USAF, (retired) has opined that if the mission of the DoD were defined as defense of our national borders, the job could be done for a fifth of our current military budget.

Why do we need 600, 700, 800 (too many to count) military bases overseas? Some who regard themselves as conservatives have tried to explain to me that these bases are necessary to protect our multi-national corporations. I don't recall ever haven been given an opportunity to vote on the question of whether tax dollars should go to subsidize the security needs of our multi-national corporations. Maybe if these corporations had to fund their own security, then maybe they would not be so profitable, would not be so powerful, and would not be able to corrupt our legislative bodies as they do.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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