When military service is compulsory, the burden is indiscriminately and equally borne by the whole community. This is another necessary consequence of the social condition of these nations, and of their notions. ... Amongst democratic nations the private soldiers remain most like civilians: upon them the habits of the nation have the firmest hold, and pubic opinion most influence. It is by the instrumentality of these private soldiers especially that it may be possible to infuse into a democratic army the love of freedom and the respect of rights, if these principles have once been successfully inculcated on the people at large. - Alexis deTocqueville, Democracy in America, volume 2 (1840), chapter 23.
On November 17, 1967, a New York Times reporter asked former Vice President and likely future Republican Presidential candidate Richard Nixon about the military draft, which had been a dominant feature in American life for most young American males since World War II. Nixon replied, "I think we should eliminate the draft and move to an all-volunteer force.” The next day, the Times proclaimed, “Nixon Backs Eventual End of Draft.” Candidate Nixon thus became the most prominent public figure to champion the creation of an all-volunteer American military. Eventually, under President Nixon, the military draft effectively ended, and the U.S. officially moved to an all-volunteer military.
At the time, many of us thought that this was a clever political move, in that much of the opposition to the Vietnam War (and by extension opposition to much of U.S. foreign policy in general) had been associated with the draft and so with a population which was, in effect, politically pacified by the elimination of this increasingly threatening danger to their lives and careers. The lessons from history and political theory about the potential dangers posed by standing professional armies to republics and the increased likelihood of military adventurism were recalled here and there by historians and political theorists but largely lost in the competition for attention amidst the unholy alliance or right and left against conscription and in favor of the all-volunteer military.
Since then, the all-volunteer military has widely been deemed a great success. Unlike a conscript force, the contemporary U.S. military, made up of able and willing volunteers, is competent, well-trained, and educated, and is truly professional. While these are not particularly democratic or egalitarian values, they are very much those of the modern technological-industrial state. Early on, however, a certain social and class divide became increasingly obvious, and the experience of decades of far-away wars fought by a tiny minority of the nation has highlighted what has been labeled our "civil-military gap," a gap which has highlighted and class and cultural divisions in our society and further threatened the fragile and fraying social fabric of our country.
Meanwhile, another disturbing trend has emerged. According to CNN, 21 of the first 150 arrested in the immediate aftermath of the January 6, 2021, insurrection attempt were military veterans or current military. According to CBS, of the more than 700 individuals charged by the end of 2021, at least 81 were former or current U.S. military. Moreover, as the U.S. has experienced a rise in extreme right-wing and white supremacist sentiments and activity in recent years, the military itself may be increasingly infiltrated and compromised by such elements, and there seems some reason to believe that some domestic extremists may intentionally aspire to recruit military veterans. Indeed, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee plans to hold a hearing on the recruitment and involvement of veterans in extremist groups as a potential threat to "the very core of our democracy and national security." The hearing is expected to include testimony from veterans' advocates and from experts on violent fringe groups. Meanwhile, the January 6 committee's hearings have highlighted investigative interest in allegations that some elements in the Secret Service seemed to support the Trumpist insurrection. Carol Leonnig, author of a major book on the Secret Service (Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service, 2021) has suggested that some may even have cheered on the insurrection on their personal media accounts. And, of course, we now know about former Vice President Pence's alleged distrust of some secret service agents who wanted him to get into a get-away car on January 6.
DeTocqueville famously observed that military officers in aristocratic societies "retained a strict connection with civil society, and never forego their purpose of resuming their place in it sooner or later." In democratic armies, in contrast, "the officers contract tastes and wants wholly distinct from those of the nation," whereas it is the enlisted men (whom de Tocqueville consistently called "private soldiers") who retain the connection with civil society, to which they purpose to return. Historically, however, and contrary to deTocqueville's expectations, the U.S. has had democratically oriented career officers, who identify with the values of civil society, and it was such officers (e.g., Mattis, Milley) who served as significant "guardrails," protecting constitutional government and democratic norms from Trump. On the other hand, again quite contrary to deTocqueville's expressed expectations, it seems that at least some in the ranks may seem increasingly disconnected from constitutional and democratic values and susceptible in some case to extreme right-wing and white supremacist sentiments and activity. This is a by-product not just of having a professional, non-conscript military, but of the consequent "civil-military gap" in a time of extreme affective political polarization.
There is today, obviously, absolutely no serious political prospect of restoring conscription, and the worrisome "civil-military gap" is here to stay. All the more need, therefore, for vigilance in regard to the widespread rise and insidious spread of extra-constitutional, anti-democratic ideologies and movements.
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