Stephen M. Walt

Rich nation, poor army?

Rich nation, poor army?

Today I offer a brief comment on David Bosco’s excellent FP piece on U.N. peacekeeping. Bosco points out that the United Nations draws its peacekeepers overwhelmingly from poor societies; in his words, "U.N. peacekeeping is an activity mostly paid for by the rich world and carried out by troops from poorer states."

My comment is twofold. First, much the same could be said of military activity conducted by the United States of America. Now that the country has an all-volunteer force, military service in the United States is increasingly reserved for the poorer segments of society. As Amy Lutz, a Syracuse University sociologist, concludes in a 2008 article: "as family income increases, the likelihood of having ever served in the military decreases … the economic elite are very unlikely to serve in the [U.S.] military." As with U.N. peacekeeping, in short, the "common defense" in the United States is an activity paid for by richer Americans and carried out (mostly) by poorer Americans.

Second, I suspect this tendency reflects the broad recognition that warfare is not an especially glorious or attractive activity: It may be necessary at times, but military service is not the best way to make a living if you have other alternatives. For the most part, Americans no longer share Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that "a just war is in the long run far better for a man’s soul than the most prosperous peace." It may also reflect the collective social awareness that the United States is actually very secure and that most citizens (and particularly those who are well off) do not need to serve in uniform in order to make a contribution to the national defense. Instead, they can just get a job and pay their taxes.

None of this should be seen as denigrating military service itself or questioning the choices of those Americans (including the relatively well-to-do) who opt for a military career. But as Karl Eikenberry and David Kennedy observed in a thoughtful New York Times op-ed this week, the gradual separation between the U.S. military and the rest of society has significant costs and may ultimately be quite unhealthy for the republic. (For a longer discussion, Eikenberry’s recent article in the Washington Quarterly is well worth reading too.)