‘America in the Hands of a Professional Military’

San Francisco: Mission District, Banksy Stencil in Alleyway 5/19/10

Few of the Minute Men at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, had ever been regular soldiers.  A number had served as militiamen along side British professionals in the French & Indian War (in Europe, the Seven Years War) which had officially ended in 1763.  It was an experience that changed their lives and politics, as it did George Washington’s.

Today’s American military bears a much closer resemblance to the British military of 1775 than it does to either the Minute Men or the American forces Washington led in the Revolution.  And the ways in which it is different from the British of the late 18th century do not bode well.

America in the Hands of a Professional Military’ is the first of a three-part series by Jeff Shear on Miller-McCune.com exploring the profound implications of the changed nature and role of the American armed forces.  It is a must read.

The fear is not that the military would attempt to usurp the government. “The real danger,” [Col. Lance Betros, the head of the history department … at West Point] says, “is that Americans reflexively move towards a military solution before they will try all the other elements of national power. For now, the country relies very, very heavily on its military, without asking if there is an alternative. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Mr. Shear offers a number of other grounds for concern.


No administration since Franklin Roosevelt’s ended in 1945 altered the United States more profoundly than Richard Nixon’s which began in 1969.

Among the most significant changes was his redefinition of the relationship between the country and the military.  Two Nixonian reforms accomplished this:

          • the introduction of an all-professional soldiery, and

 • the reorientation and concentration of domestic military bases and industrial support to the sun belt, especially the old South.

As with much Nixon did that had long-term consequences, he had short-term goals in mind.  For instance, the Navy largely left Newport, R.I., because of Nixon’s wish to punish the state’s Democratic US senators, John Pastore and Claiborne Pell.

The move to an all-volunteer military – or as we of the 60s said, to end the draft – gave Nixon more control over the conduct of the Vietnam War and foreign affairs generally.

The only people I knew who opposed an all-volunteer military were ‘old Roman’ conservatives.  In it, they foresaw the end of the American republic.  However, freed of the prospect of jungle combat, most Baby Boomers celebrated.


The US has always had a core of professional soldiers in each service.  In times of crisis, volunteers and conscripts supplied the needed troops.  What makes the post-1970 military different is that the armed forces generally have come to see themselves as professional soldiers, not as civilians more or less temporarily serving.

According to Mr. Shear, the old Romans’ fears are not shared by experts. But in February 1970 the commission Nixon appointed expressed some doubts about the course they recommended.

A great concern … was that the resulting force would become “ghettoized.” The commission worried that “(1) an all-volunteer force will become isolated from society and threaten civilian control; (2) isolation and alienation will erode civilian respect for the military and hence dilute its quality; (3) an all-volunteer force will be all-black or dominated by servicemen from low-income backgrounds; (4) an all-volunteer force will lead to a decline in patriotism or in popular concern about foreign policy; (5) an all-volunteer force will encourage military adventurism.”

That seems prescient. The percentage of forces enlisting from the populous Northeast, the West Coast and the big cities is in decline…. What is more, the volunteers who do sign on are not from the wider public, but people who already have connections to the armed services. Most troops have grown up in or around military families….

The Nixon commission expected the military of the future to look much as it did in the Vietnam era – only entirely volunteers, not mainly conscripts.  It did not anticipate the actual result:

The volunteer force conceived in the 1970s to fight the Cold War has grown into a military geared to fighting what Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey, Jr. calls an era of “persistent conflict.” And that has turned a force of amateurs into professionals.


The professionalization of a once amateur military has precedents the Founding Fathers were well aware of.  As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Jefferson in particular opposed a standing army and navy based mainly on that history.

In the late republic (1st century BCE), the Roman army became increasingly professional.  As the centuries wore on, non-Romans – ‘barbarians’ – filled the legions, not citizens who rushed from their plows, like the legendary Cincinnatus, to defend the Republic.

By the middle of the 3rd century, the emperors – who all owed their titles to the legions – had barred patricians from serving as officers.  In contrast, the British army facing the American revolutionaries drew its commanders from the English upper classes:  Lord Cornwallis, ‘Gentleman Johnny’ Burgoyne….

As Jefferson and the Nixon commission feared, the contemporary American military has moved toward the Roman imperial model.


A ‘ghettoized’ military means the civilians in government no longer have military, much less combat, experience.  The consequences for the country and, indeed, the world ­is an America perpetually at war.  Says Mr. Shear:

Because of the professional nature of the military, fewer and fewer Americans are connected to these long wars [such as Iraq or Afghanistan]….  “With each passing decade fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle,” according to [current US Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates.  According to one study he cited, in 1988 about 40 percent of 18-year-olds had a veteran parent. By 2000, the share had dropped to 18 percent….

West Point’s Lance Betros adds: “The military is losing contact with the wider society. And those who make the decisions about military force really don’t have any skin in the fight. We’ve reached the point where you have to wonder how well policy makers understand the consequences of their actions when it comes to national deterrence.”

[In 1970] the 91st Congress had nearly 400 veterans, from World War II and Korea. The just completed 111th Congress had far fewer, 121. Only seven members of the 110th Congress [2007-09]had family serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.


Mr. Shear has offered more to think about than I’ve suggested in this post.  All I can say is: Read the article.

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