America’s Elite Needs to Get Back in Uniform
Military service is a unifying force in a time of deep division.
Odds are that any American reading this article doesn’t have family serving in the military. That’s the case for most Americans, perhaps especially the folks who read Foreign Policy magazine. In the United States, privately educated and upper-income people are strikingly unlikely to serve or to encourage their children to do so—only 3 percent of military recruits attended private high schools—even more so if they’re from the northern or coastal states, which are the most underrepresented areas for recruiting. U.S. military service can seem foreign or frightening. That’s a mistake—and it’s bad for the country.
Military service made no sense to me, once. As a Jewish psychiatrist’s daughter attending Bryn Mawr College and Princeton University, the military was deeply foreign to me.. Then I married into it and converted to the idea of military life.
Military service is tough. While my husband deployed multiple times to combat, we moved repeatedly; I lost my successive careers in philanthropy, as a political appointee, and as an attorney; my children were uprooted repeatedly; and we struggled with reduced income, isolation, and fear. Yet it was still worthwhile.
In the military, and in a military family, you learn to do something very hard and not of your own choosing, for a cause bigger than yourself. You’re working for a cause determined by the mechanisms of democracy, standing side by side with others who are fully committed. Current U.S. civilian life has a striking absence of “common causes”—tasks that remind us that there is more that unites us than divide us.
There is a joy in treating the person next to you as more important than you are, regardless of any external identity, political position, or family background. What makes every serviceperson valuable is not their wealth, SAT score, or political opinions, but that they have sworn to support and defend, as well as bear true faith and allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, no matter the personal cost.
Almost all the people who serve report feeling proud of the work they do—96 percent in the polls from Blue Star Families, the military family organization I lead, —and report that their experience has made them better. Military service affords the opportunity to live in a relatively egalitarian society —the highest-paid general makes 11 times what the lowest-paid private makes.
Military families get subsidized health care, housing, and child care. The military is integrated; it was the first place in the United States where blacks routinely commanded whites and it built the first integrated Southern schools in the late 1940s. The safest place in the United States for an African-American teen outside the home alone at night is probably on a military base.
But perhaps most relevant in a fiercely divisive political climate is that in the military, you learn to be an American.
The Founding Fathers conceived of the U.S. military as a crucial part of a self-governing democracy; a citizen military, not an army of mercenaries or a warrior caste. They devoted more clauses of the U.S. Constitution to the construction of the military than to any other task—17 in total—and embedded responsibility for it in the executive, the legislative, and the states to bind the military to the constitutional democratic process.
But the founders also saw military experience as an essential part of informed civilian governance—a tradition that lasted for nearly two centuries. True, the founders imagined a state-based military—hence the Second Amendment—but they would likely have approved of the first populist incarnation of our modern standing army.
In the 1950s, the majority of the graduating classes from Princeton, Harvard, and Yale went on to serve in the military. In the 1970s, nearly three-quarters of members of Congress were veterans. Now, just 1 percent of Americans are currently serving, and since the abolition of conscription in 1973, that comes disproportionately from areas and from families with a history of service. Far fewer than 1 percent of top college graduates—those who go on to newsrooms, C-suites, and government committees—have or will serve in the military.
This hurts the United States. It means opinion-shapers and decision-makers don’t know the military or what it does. That hurts U.S. policymaking. Researchers Christopher Gelpi and Peter Feaver have shown policymakers without military experience are more likely to be interventionist. A lack of understanding of the missions or the stakes for real people can result in politicians using the military as a tool or a prop.
But the narrowness of today’s military recruitment has also damaged what was once one of its critical, if unstated, functions. It hurts the United States, because Americans lack the glue to bind the country that serving together and learning to respect difference creates. World War II movies made it a cliche—how city slickers and country bumpkins learned to respect and champion one another through the crucible of service. Nothing has replaced that.
This past summer, at the Service Members of the Year awards, the Navy awardee was nominated by a peer who said, in effect, that however much the honoree’s political views drove him crazy, the recognition was well deserved. Military service fosters connections that transcend the era of bitter partisanship.
Selling the idea of military service to those without a personal connection is increasingly challenging. Few outside the military understand the range of jobs and missions beyond infantry—cybersecurity, mechanics, linguistics, civil affairs, legal, photography—in support of dozens of missions in 177 countries. One idea from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Defense Personnel, which I co-chaired with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, retired Gen. Jim Jones, and former Sen. Jim Talent, argued that all 18-year-olds, as part of selective service registration, should take a modified version of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. The exam identifies those qualified to serve and reveals perhaps unexpected talents, as well as which of the military’s varied tasks the test-taker might be best suited for. It would give everyone in the United States one time to picture themselves in service, potentially exposing talent that the military wouldn’t otherwise reach.
Broader participation in military service itself can’t solve this problem, however. The United States needs to provide more ways for people to serve. The current professional military requires fewer people than it did at the height of the Cold War—it has fewer than half the active duty forces today, despite drawing from a larger population. Moreover, according to Defense Secretary James Mattis, only 30 percent of young Americans meet the physical, intellectual, and moral standards to even qualify for military service today.
Beyond a broader array of people in service, the United States needs more opportunities for citizens to serve in one form or another, nationally or publicly, before being cast out into the job market. Switzerland holds together its multilingual democracy in part through national service that is both military and civilian, while tiny Denmark reinforces its democratic values through the same dual-service idea. In the United States, national service could teach the same lesson of country before self.
Now, a new National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service is holding hearings. This is an 11-member group that Congress originally established in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act led by the late Sen. John McCain to investigate opportunities for military national and public service in the United States. Concerned citizens should support the work of this commission, share concerns, and voice support for an expanded national service option for young people beyond AmeriCorps.
As many commentators wonder whether the United States is facing the denouement of democracy, Americans who love self-government may want to look to the question of what they, as participants, owe the country.
It could be the thing that saves us all.