Secretary Gates’ call to service yesterday at Duke University should be required reading by not only the nation’s youth, but by the country’s Age of Aquarius decision-making generation that drives us into international quagmires of the first order. His comments echoed many of the sentiments and arguments voiced by a minority over the last decade: that the military is marked by exhaustion; that too few serve in armed forces asked to do far too much; that those who do serve are increasingly becoming a community onto themselves; and that citizenship should bear with it the responsibility and privilege of service. Yet, one wonders if Gates enters the fray too late in the game, if the secretary’s comments serve as a one-off public soliloquy (rather than as the initiation of a sustained campaign for change,) and if the United States will ever confront the basic means-ends mismatch we’ve constructed.
In his speech to the Blue Devils, Secretary Gates went further than any other contemporary political leader in highlighting the multiple dangers inherent in our civil-military environment. The All-Volunteer Force (AVF), which Gates marks as a “remarkable success” (while simultaneously identifying the hallmarks of its failure,) was not built for the types or durations of conflicts in which we’re presently embroiled. Voluntary service, while possibly noble, turns out to be quite expensive, and has the added disadvantage of being either hidden from or ignored by an overwhelming percentage of Americans. In short, for all of his lauding of the AVF, a discerning reader is left at the end of Gates’ speech wondering “Now how exactly is this better than the draft?”
History should identify Gates as one of the country’s better secretaries of defense, but his elaboration on the state of American civil-military relations did not go far enough. In the end, we will only begin to correct the deficiencies in our foreign policy and in our civil-military relations when a much greater percentage of the population shoulders the costs of our misadventures; when—as Gates himself highlighted—war is no longer an “abstraction” for the elites and the common folk who return a disengaged political class to Washington every two years. Democracy and disengagement are polar opposites, and with rights come responsibilities. A volunteer force is a fine tool as a standing army during a time of peace, but democracies require national service during times of war.