The US Military Includes the Best From All 50 States

A response to a recent article that implies America has created some kind of warrior-class that doesn’t understand their citizenship, is separated from its own countrymen, and misunderstood by America.

(Photo: Pexels) (Photo: Pexels)

A response to The US Military Is America’s 51st State’

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As a military history student and 23 year veteran I found nothing strange, new, or post-democratic about the military I served in from 1991-2015.  You can imagine my reaction at reading a recent article that seems to imply America has created some kind of warrior-class that doesn’t understand their citizenship, is separated from its own countrymen, and misunderstood by America.  I never realized I was used for “foreign purposes” unrelated to the security of my country and our allies.  I never felt like I was part of a government organization that set its own agenda and followed its own priorities without any oversight or direction from the President or Congress.

The author of the other article is a retired Air Force officer who served for 20 years between 1985 and 2005.  According to his biography he spent close to 5 of the 20 years in college at civilian schools and  another 6 years teaching at the USAF Academy plus and unknown number of years teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School.  While his article is clearly a more academic view of our current military, mine is flavored with an on-the-ground view of the topics he raises.

I was honored to serve alongside my fellow citizen-warriors as a Soldier on four continents on joint, interagency, inter-governmental, multi-national teams conducting humanitarian, combat, security force assistance, diplomatic, intelligence, and show-of-force operations.

Much has been made of the divide between the military and the civilian population in America since the draft ended and an all-volunteer force began. Much of it parrots the ideas in this article. Many times in my career I heard this sentiment from people with zero military experience who bemoan the dangers of the out of control military-industrial-complex that President Eisenhower warned America about. It’s usually a conspiracy theorist’s dream. Sometimes I heard it from so-called Veterans for peace that have grown to distrust the armed men and women that they once served beside.

I once tried to have an adult conversation with a veteran’s for peace organization in California but they continuously refused to speak to me about what our military members were actually doing around the world because I was serving on active duty and we were in in the middle of the surge in Iraq. The underlying sentiment for their refusal to speak in a private setting was that I was a mere military Zombie and baby killer.  Or as one man told me on the street I was a Bush Zombie and was not allowed to speak to civilians because I was in the military which forbids it and was too stupid to hold a conversation. He didn’t give my wife or me a chance to explain that I had a Bachelors and Master’s degree and was studying my second Middle Eastern language before he stomped back into the Democratic Party headquarters feeling victorious for silencing a war-monger who in actuality was out buying vegetables at the farmers market to support the local community.

I have served half my career at the company level and below (units of around 100 people or less) where I had daily contact with the youngest of Americans volunteering to serve their country in the military. The other half was spent at the operational and policy level dealing with more senior military officers and interagency civilians as well as dozens of generals, admirals, ambassadors, and even a few presidents, representatives and senators.  My colleagues consist of key leaders across the global diplomatic, intelligence, and military spectrum.

I am hard pressed from my over 23 years in uniform from Infantry Private to Field Grade Officer to recognize the military described in this article. I haven’t met the people who gave up their soldier-citizen mentality to strictly become detached warriors. Many of the combat-arms and even the most elite special operators that I have worked beside could hold a very logical discussion about a myriad of governance and economic topics that most American citizens would struggle to understand. Today’s professional military people are of course imbued with warrior spirit; as were the previous generations that fought on D-Day, at Gettysburg, and in the trenches of the Great War. Today’s warriors have not been required to shed their citizen status and there are a wide variety of political, religious, and social views to be found in the services.

I served in a military that was very much connected to the civilians around their bases and back in their hometowns. Service members served as youth mentors, pastors, scout leaders, and coaches. Military families attended school, camp, synagogue, mosque and chapel alongside the other members of their community. Maybe the civilians that hold these misconceptions about our modern military members should spend more time getting to personally know them instead of reading outdated authors on fringe blogs.

The author points to three topics that he feels exemplify the post-democratic-ness of our current military.  1) An increase in the use of contracted civilians (he calls “mercenaries”) to aid our military forces in what he terms an unending war.  2) The number of ex-military senior leaders that are contributing to society in other ways (and getting a paycheck for it, instead of quietly taking their expertise to the grave).  3) The power projection of the U.S. Military’s Special Operations Command which he describes as a “quasi-missionary imperial force”.

While the author recycles Vietnam-era ideas about getting rid of hippie protesters in uniform to explain why the military became all-volunteer, I would suggest the reason it has stayed all-volunteer is based on the need for a highly educated and professional acting military due to the ever-increasing requirements that our Soldiers be near-perfect and our missions never result in unwanted deaths.  Most importantly the enemy has a say in all military missions and as our enemies have become more dispersed, lethal, and nimble on the global battlefield we have needed a more improved military member that can keep up with the enemy.  I do not think we have seen the end of the citizen-soldier tradition in our all-volunteer force but instead have seen an increase in excellence in both the ability to be a useful and productive citizen and to be an intelligent and innovative professional soldier.  Fighting a modern war when half your infantry company doesn’t want to be in the military is an invitation for disaster.  The military must be precise and innovative today.  Hell, if we brought back the draft, who would be left to block highways, burn down our cities in protest, and demand free stuff from the taxpayers.  On second thought…

As for his thesis that the mixture of “mercenaries” (a pejorative word for contracted civilian talent of varying expertise) with our current military force is somehow un-democratic I would offer these thoughts.  The U.S. and other countries have been using contracted civilian augmentees to fight and win wars for centuries.  In America, two critical reasons exist that require the military to hire civilian specialists from a myriad of backgrounds to help them in military operations today.  First is the constant cutting of military budgets and number of uniformed members that have been occurring while increasing the operational tempo and complexity of our missions.  If the civilian masters tell the DOD to deploy to 120 plus countries but don’t give commanders the resources needed the military must buy “off the shelf people” that can cover for our deficiencies.  The second major reason is that our President’s often place poorly thought-out service-member caps on our military leaders overseas.  If a general is told he can only have 10,000 people in uniform in a country to win a war but he needs 20,000 then he is going to have to hire some temporary people to help win.  This is more a failure of our leaders in D.C. understanding how to match ends, ways, and means than a preference by the military to have to contract-hire people to fill in their gaps; especially when fully trained active-duty members are sitting on their home-bases in America wishing they could be overseas helping the team win.

“Mercenaries” have always existed to support militaries around the globe and the majority of the civilian contractors I worked with on the ground in Afghanistan were proud to serve their country in a new capacity and help us achieve our mission.  They worked overtime on their own missions and helped my teams any way they could in their spare time.  Surely there were some driven by profit motivation but to paint all our civilian contractors with that greedy brush does a great disservice to them and to those who will follow them.  Let’s not forget that if not for contracted civilian security team in Libya the Benghazi debacle could have turned into a massacre.  So oddly enough the readers that flock to anti-military articles should be thanking “mercenaries” for giving Hillary Clinton a shot at the Presidency because if she had lost the entire American detachment in Benghazi while Secretary of State her political career would have been over.

What the author calls military adventurism since the end of the military draft might be better termed operations required to defend our nation, protect the free navigation of the seas, aid our allies, remove terrorists and those who enable them, and offer humanitarian aid in a way that no other entity on the planet can.  Has America made poor choices in its use of the military since 1973? Surely; but our Presidents were making those same poor decisions with an all-draft force too.

The author suggests that the all-volunteer force has led to a separation of Soldiers from the civilian society as they cling to outmoded martial professional ideals.  I think if you were to ask the average parent if they would want their child to learn the true meaning of honor, putting others before yourself, taking care of the injured and sick, learning from your mistakes, and finishing what you start they would say please sign my kid up for that school.  The military still patiently waits for their civilian leaders at all levels to give them missions and accepts any restraints placed upon them by their bosses.  They wait for permission even when they know it is costing the lives of men and women on the battlefield.  That is a true sign of a professional military.

The author invokes memories of a failing Roman empire to explain how military activities since 1991 make it seem that having an all-volunteer force has been a curse more than a blessing.  He claims that the military has been serving the selfish interests of elites seeking profit.  If you compare our military efforts since 1973 with those in the decades previous I think you will find our use of forces, to provide violence or aid, are more tied to security for ourselves and others or a need to end human suffering than to the need for some mysterious elites to gain financially.  The men and women in the military and those who order it into action all have a love of country; own property; and help create, maintain, and obey the laws in our democratic-republic. Our military is much more lethal due to technology and brainpower but it is also less likely to use deadly force in the same indiscriminate ways we did in WWII.  Quite the opposite of the picture the author paints of a military that is “far more powerful, far less accountable—and far more dangerous.”  If anything our military in this age of 24/7 social media coverage of events is more accountable and restrained; and therefore less dangerous to our enemy because if it.

Do we use more security-focused contracted civilians than in past wars? Yes; because our battlefields no longer have a front line; and to protect all the U.S. elements that are based on lily-pads across the pond of the battlefield we need more security-focused forces.  When you run-out of uniformed members in that situation you hire civilians.  And better we hire Americans (often very patriotic veterans) than local security forces that do not share the same love of country as our veterans do.  In my home town we have many people serving in contracted security and as a matter of fact people do thank them for their continuing service because intelligent Americans are smart enough to know the battlefield has changed and that these civilians are risking their lives to help further security around the globe.

I agree with the author that the American people should be more involved with the hardships of war.  Unfortunately the current President after every battle victory by our enemies tells Americans not to let the enemy activities interrupt our daily lives.  You cannot fund a military or the thousands of non-military government employees needed to win this war by shuttering the American economy and asking people to ration, cut consumption, and stop buying goods.  Our economy is the most powerful force in the world so we should look for other ways to get Americans involved in supporting our wars.  The constant stream of care packages and letters is actually a very good way of ensuring every local community is aware of the sacrifices of their hometown heroes overseas.  Many of my allied military partners overseas were amazed at the amount of love and appreciation shown for our service members by strangers back home.  They wished aloud that their countrymen showed the same support for them when deployed.

The author takes a swipe at the Trump candidacy in his article and also a swipe at the ethical military leaders in our armed forces when he suggests that we have forgotten what the horrors of war look like as we move farther from Vietnam and that we should worry about the activities of the military if we elect an autocrat (Trump in his story).  Our military leaders in and out of uniform have made it clear for decades that American service-members will never follow illegal orders no matter who gives them.  It’s our military standard and promise to the American people that the military upholds the constitution and obeys orders from senior civilians that are in keeping with our current laws.  The people make the laws in America that guide what the military can do.  The checks and balances built into our constitution keep all branches of government from veering towards tyranny and at the end of the day if the congress found the president in violation of the constitution they could defund the military.  If need be the congress could call for the removal of the President and if he was unwilling to leave the White House it’s likely the military would be asked to go remove him as the most respected and trusted security element in the nation.  This nation would never accept a tyrant and our military would not listen to one if his orders were illegal.

The author uses some high-profile examples to argue that today’s all-volunteer military has created Generals that don’t fade into retirement but instead seek a spot in the “millionaires’ club.”  Oddly enough I know most of the Generals he misuses in his example as I have worked with dozens of them over the years.  First, it is false that past Generals all quietly faded away to a rocking chair.  Second what a waste for our society it would be to invest all that money and time in developing senior leaders capable of running organizations of over 500,000 people and then asking them to shut up and sit in the corner when they have finished their military service.

I want them to take their expertise in handling multinational and intergovernmental organizations into the private sector to help our businesses (the life blood of American success) to compete around the globe.  No businesses, no jobs…it isn’t complicated.  Third he is mischaracterizing why they are doing what they do in retirement, because he has no idea what their intentions are.

General Petraeus, General Odierno, and General McChrystal all gave years of their lives to lead our military overseas.  They gave an unprecedented amount of time away from their families.  No general in our nation’s history short of George Washington probably gave as many solitary hours to help win our nations wars.  It also put an unknown amount of strain on their personal lives that is hard to articulate to even military members.  No one has ever been under that much stress for that long a continuous period of time in a no-mistake world.

So should America be thankful that they are joining business, academia, and non-profit ventures to share the lessons they learned from the crucible of war with the rest of America?  Yes; and America is thankful on the whole for what they are now doing.  My neighbors down the street are extremely glad to have gotten to know General Odierno as a citizen-Soldier and are happy that he is helping an American business to continue to improve.

No leader in America is required to care for the welfare of their employees like a general or admiral is.  Why the hell would we want to waste that talent and miss the chance to share that important aspect of leadership ethics in our country?

Have some generals chased profit and large salary in retirement? Of course; but we live in America where you are allowed to do whatever you want in life.  Should we watch out to ensure no one is engaging in fraud, waste, and abuse of their positon in retirement? Of course.

Duty, Honor, Country as not become “duty, honor, cash” as the author submits.  Many senior officers like the one I had lunch with today are spending their retirement trying to improve the civilian institutions (like education) that are utterly failing our youth in this country.

The author insinuates that our current senior military officers are making decisions while in uniform for selfish reasons tied to their desire to get a high-paying job after retirement.  I have watched the decision process of dozens of Generals and Admirals in my career and I haven’t seen any of them weigh their decisions with an eye towards what they want to do in retirement.  Those that do would be quickly reported by fellow officers.  As a former Aide De Camp I can assure the American people that all it takes is one allegation of wrongdoing against a general and their career is put on hold until the investigation is complete.  Plus the accuser will likely be unharmed career-wise even if they made the claim knowing it was a lie.  Generals are guilty until proven innocent, so they know they cannot cross lines without repercussions.  Are there idiot officers that break the rules?  Of course; but again it’s unfair to paint all Generals with that brush.

The author laments the fact that Generals Petraeus and McChrystal and Admiral McRaven were brought into America’s higher education system.  He apparently deems that anyone that had anything bad happen under their command is somehow unfit to mold our young people.  He clearly has never seen these men teach, train, and inspire.  I have served closely with two of those men and watched the other as his team worked with mine on a daily basis.

The two I know well were masters at making their vision clear to their teams.  They made the team members feel like they could each make a personal difference.  They raised the standard of intellect in their units inspiring people to further their education and learn to articulate complex thoughts in clear language.  They fostered innovation and sparked imaginations.  Admiral McRaven is  known as a compassionate and driven leader, an excellent trainer, and is respected for his humility as much as his abilities.

But if that is not the type of leader you want molding America’s young adults then maybe you are the one with the problem.  General Marshall, one of our best military leaders took on numerous civilian jobs once out of uniform and maintained his citizenship and humility even though he was one of the few 5-star generals we ever produced.  I think our nation would best benefit from extracting every last lesson learned and leadership skill these men have in them before they move into a rocking chair.  It’s not like our civilian leaders are the most respected and competent in the country, they could learn from our retired generals and admirals.

The author ends his piece about the horrible all-volunteer military by describing the evil of having a special operations command that is the best in the world.  He is worried that our Special Operations Forces (SOF) are too much of a temptress for our Presidents and that because they are so often used it must be a bad thing.  In reality the world’s enemy has changed dramatically over the last few decades and in many cases our SOF is the best force to defeat them with the least amount of civilian deaths.  It’s a smart power you might say.

I believe our presidents are smart enough to avoid the temptation to use our SOF illegally even as his colleague describes the “very nature of [SOF]” as a culture that is “destructive to accountability and proper lines of responsibility.”  I have not found those cultural flaws in SOF when I worked beside them and watched Generals lead them.  They are actually some of the most strategically minded forces in our military with a clear understanding of what is right and wrong and the willingness to stand up to immoral activities.

I do not share the author’s opinion that SOF operators are like religious crusaders “slaying” America’s enemies while advancing “business goals.”  They are highly trained forces being used under very tight supervision to kill or capture the butchers that are slaying innocent women and children.  I am glad they are out every night finding the monsters of the world.  Most Americans and the foreigners that benefit from having their torturers removed are glad too.

Our military, intelligence, and homeland security organizations are not unaccountable or out of control.  This is fear-mongering plain and simple.

Congress and the President have complete control over them and the senior leaders in those departments and agencies have the highest respect for their civilian bosses.

Today I spoke with a civilian colleague of mine that has worked with military members from the lowest of ranks to 4-star general and she shares my initial assessment of this article…its not based on facts.

My friend, that has been ran a non-profit for a number of years to help college age students to better understand the military and the people that serve in it, had a few thoughts I wanted to include in this article.  “I am somewhat unclear about what the author would prefer to see in a U.S. military faced with today’s global challenges – does he want another draft?  Scaled back military footprint?  Less “lucrative” post retirement options for generals?”

“And why didn’t he mention the non-profit work of General McChrystal calling for national service through the Franklin Project” that aims to help all Americans find a way to selflessly serve their country if the military is not a good fit for them?

“My biggest issue is with his statements that today’s military is divorced from the American people — this is true but not because the military chooses not to listen to the “will of the people,” but because NO ONE WANTS TO JOIN THEM. Today’s all volunteer force is made up of less than 1% of the population…because only that percentage has signed up to serve for the benefit of the rest of us who don’t. And I have a feeling it’s not because they see it as an opportunity to “go rogue” and take over the world. If anything, I believe it’s the civilian leadership (read: Congress) that is divorced from the reality of deploying troops.”

I think she is on to something.

Maybe the author of this scary article is right.  Maybe most parents and educators would like to see more Americans drafted into an organization that teaches them selfless service and a deep respect for themselves and others.  An organization that teaches its members to love their fellow brothers and sisters no matter what they look like or what they believe; and that requires the warriors it trusts to execute violence on behalf of the American people to have empathy for the innocent civilians they encounter along the way.

Far from having lost their Soldier-citizen tradition; today’s highly educated, diverse, and highly respected military is skilled in the way of the warrior, while retaining the heart of a compassionate American that literally gives until they bleed.

Maybe the reason this argument keeps getting rolled out (often in election years for some reason) is not because our military has lost its sense of citizenship but because some in academia and around the D.C. beltway cannot rid themselves of bigoted ideas they have of America’s citizen-warriors.

Jason Criss Howk is a retired military officer who specialized in Islamic culture and the Middle East and South Asia and earned an MA in M.E. Studies. Jason was an Aide De Camp to Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, General Stan McChrystal, and Sir Graeme Lamb. He is now a public speaker, young-adult mentor, and author for various publications. He spends much of his time leading interfaith dialogue discussions trying to help Americans better understand the difference between Islam and violent radical Islamist groups. Follow him @jason_c_howk or Dispatches from Pinehurst.

The US Military Includes the Best From All 50 States