Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The Military Knows It’s Back on a War Footing. Do Civilians?

Last week, I commented on the results from the Military Times annual survey of their readership. For all its flaws, the survey provides a pretty good tracking poll of the views of the career-oriented segment of the armed forces. The Military Times has a four-part series analyzing the results, and all the installments are worth reading. The bottom line of the first ...

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Last week, I commented on the results from the Military Times annual survey of their readership. For all its flaws, the survey provides a pretty good tracking poll of the views of the career-oriented segment of the armed forces. The Military Times has a four-part series analyzing the results, and all the installments are worth reading.

The bottom line of the first installment was that military morale is markedly shakier than it had been six years ago. Not yet a crisis, perhaps, but the trend lines are ominous.

Parts two and three have been posted, and they add more detail to the overall picture. The second part actually has a good news bottom line: the career-oriented rank and file believe that the military readiness of their individual units has not yet suffered, or at least not as much as one might fear given the concerns expressed out of Washington in recent months. File this under, “Keep watching, but don’t panic … yet.”

The third part is more worrying, depicting the strain of persistent deployments — what the military call high OPSTEMPO (Operations Tempo) and PERSTEMPO (Personnel Tempo) — on a shrinking force. This part of the report seems less reliant on the survey results, but the piece has ample quotes from active duty personnel on the strain they are experiencing. The message is clear: we keep trying to do more with less, asking a smaller military to deploy to meet the myriad challenges that capture the headlines, whether the spread of Ebola, or the rise of the Islamic State, or Putin’s adventurism.

The American public is aware of these new deployments and new missions at some level. The “boots on the ground” debate ensures that the public engages to some degree. And the ubiquitous reminders to “thank the troops,” especially at holiday time, are another way of keeping the public apprised.

But the level of public involvement is not visceral, not in the way it is for the men and women — and their families — who are deploying. This is an understandable and accepted price of having a small, professional military: the All-Volunteer Force (AVF). Most experts who have thought about this problem for very long recognize that a “visceral awareness gap” is a small price to pay for the much higher quality and capability of the AVF. Going back to something like a draft might tighten up the visceral connection between the broader public and the military, but at an exorbitant price of a military that cannot fight in the high-proficiency/high-precision way we have come to expect. We would be less able to protect our national security interests and American foreign policy would surely suffer.

In the absence of a draft, however, our political leaders must do more to maintain the public’s connections with the military (and vice-versa). And we must be especially wary of the situation that the Military Times report is warning us about: deploying the military repeatedly into dangerous places while pretending that we have ended our wars.

Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.