David Kennedy: Our Mercenary Army





David Kennedy, in the NYT (7-25-05):

[David M. Kennedy, a professor of history at Stanford and the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning "Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945," is working on a book about the American national character.]

THE United States now has a mercenary army. To be sure, our soldiers are hired from within the citizenry, unlike the hated Hessians whom George III recruited to fight against the American Revolutionaries. But like those Hessians, today's volunteers sign up for some mighty dangerous work largely for wages and benefits - a compensation package that may not always be commensurate with the dangers in store, as current recruiting problems testify.

Neither the idealism nor the patriotism of those who serve is in question here. The profession of arms is a noble calling, and there is no shame in wage labor. But the fact remains that the United States today has a military force that is extraordinarily lean and lethal, even while it is increasingly separated from the civil society on whose behalf it fights. This is worrisome - for reasons that go well beyond unmet recruiting targets.

One troubling aspect is obvious. By some reckonings, the Pentagon's budget is greater than the military expenditures of all other nations combined. It buys an arsenal of precision weapons for highly trained troops who can lay down a coercive footprint in the world larger and more intimidating than anything history has known. Our leaders tell us that our armed forces seek only just goals, and at the end of the day will be understood as exerting a benign influence. Yet that perspective may not come so easily to those on the receiving end of that supposedly beneficent violence.

But the modern military's disjunction from American society is even more disturbing. Since the time of the ancient Greeks through the American Revolutionary War and well into the 20th century, the obligation to bear arms and the privileges of citizenship have been intimately linked. It was for the sake of that link between service and a full place in society that the founders were so invested in militias and so worried about standing armies, which Samuel Adams warned were "always dangerous to the liberties of the people."

Many African-Americans understood that link in the Civil War, and again in World Wars I and II, when they clamored for combat roles, which they saw as stepping stones to equal rights. From Aristotle's Athens to Machiavelli's Florence to Thomas Jefferson's Virginia and Robert Gould Shaw's Boston and beyond, the tradition of the citizen-soldier has served the indispensable purposes of sustaining civic engagement, protecting individual liberty - and guaranteeing political accountability.

That tradition has now been all but abandoned. A comparison with a prior generation's war illuminates the point. In World War II, the United States put some 16 million men and women into uniform. What's more, it mobilized the economic, social and psychological resources of the society down to the last factory, rail car, classroom and victory garden. World War II was a "total war." Waging it compelled the participation of all citizens and an enormous commitment of society's energies.

But thanks to something that policymakers and academic experts grandly call the "revolution in military affairs," which has wedded the newest electronic and information technologies to the destructive purposes of the second-oldest profession, we now have an active-duty military establishment that is, proportionate to population, about 4 percent of the size of the force that won World War II. And today's military budget is about 4 percent of gross domestic product, as opposed to nearly 40 percent during World War II.

The implications are deeply unsettling: history's most potent military force can now be put into the field by a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it does so. ...


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Stephen Patrick Johnson - 7/30/2005

"Yet that perspective may not come so easily to those on the receiving end of that supposedly beneficent violence."

Can any nation or group of insurgents, for that matter, on the "receiving end" of violence be expected to adopt this perspective? Have any ever done so? Did the Germans or the Japanese in the 1940s?


"we now have an active-duty military establishment that is, proportionate to population, about 4 percent of the size of the force that won World War II. And today's military budget is about 4 percent of gross domestic product, as opposed to nearly 40 percent during World War II."

Isn't it just as accurate to characterize the situation this way: Successive United States Government, acting in accordance with the strongly held sentiments of its citizenry, which placed a strong value on the lives of their soldiers, sailors airmen and marines, went to extraordinary lengths and expended great sums to safeguard the lives of its military, and were fortunate to have the technological ability do do so and the sufficient economic strength to pay for it.

Subscribe to our mailing list