Why might America’s respect for its military be a mile wide but less than an inch thick? Less than one half of one percent of its population serves, making civilians more cavalier about when and where to deploy its military, says Michael Desch, professor of political science and founding director of the Notre Dame International Security Center. When supporting our troops translates to flyovers at NFL games and skydiving events at NASCAR races, we fail to confront the sacrifice we actually make of the military men and women sent into harm’s way. Truly respecting our troops, and having confidence in their ability, means caring more about when and where they’re deployed. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.
MICHAEL DESCH: So if you ask most Americans, "Do they respect and have confidence in our men and women in uniform?" they will give a resounding "yes."
But when you scratch the surface, this patina of respect for our military turns out to be a mile wide but less than an inch deep.
First of all very few Americans are willing to actually serve in uniform. During World War II—admittedly a total war and probably the peak of mobilization—about 13 percent of our population was in uniform. Today the military participation ratio is less than half of one percent.
And so the burden of America’s global presence has been borne disproportionately by a very small percentage of our society. And I don’t think there’s an easy fix to this.
Going back to a draft, for example, would not guarantee that the burden of service would be equally felt. And likewise there are all sorts of political and practical arguments about doing it.
So what I’m calling for is simply a broader recognition of the fact that—behind our sort of gaudy pro-military rhetoric and our cheering at football game flyovers or at NASCAR skydiving jumps—that we also think about affirmative support for our military, also involving care about when we send the men and women in uniform in harm’s way. And it’s easy to do that when our kids or the kids of our best friends are not likely to serve in uniform and to bear the burden of any decision to use military force.
And so that I think also ought to be a way of supporting the troops. Not only waving the flag but also saying, “We’re not going to ask you to potentially make the ultimate sacrifice unless we’re really sure it’s necessary to the security of the rest of our country.”
And many of us I think in the "restraint camp" feel a moral obligation to our men and women in uniform to be careful and be selective about the use of military force given that such a small percentage of our countrymen are actually bearing that burden.