Afghanistan, the all-volunteer military, and the inevitable culture war

There's no writer today whom I admire more than Andrew Bacevich. A former Army colonel and Vietnam vet who now teaches at Boston University, and a longtime self-described "Catholic conservative," he emerged in the 2000s as a leading critic of American military policy and the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and on Iraq; on the latter subject he wrote with great moral authority even before his own son died in combat there in 2007. He had an op-ed in Sunday'sWashington Post that goes way beyond the media's superficial coverage of the Gen. Stanley McChrystal affair, to look at what's really at stake.

Here's an excerpt:

To be an American soldier today is to serve a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of armed conflict without end. Once begun, wars continue, persisting regardless of whether they receive public support. President Obama's insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, this nation is not even remotely "at" war. In explaining his decision to change commanders without changing course in Afghanistan, the president offered this rhetorical flourish: "Americans don't flinch in the face of difficult truths." In fact, when it comes to war, the American people avert their eyes from difficult truths. Largely unaffected by events in Afghanistan and Iraq and preoccupied with problems much closer to home, they have demonstrated a fine ability to tune out war. Soldiers (and their families) are left holding the bag.

Throughout history, circumstances such as these have bred praetorianism, warriors becoming enamored with their moral superiority and impatient with the failings of those they are charged to defend. The smug disdain for high-ranking civilians casually expressed by McChrystal and his chief lieutenants -- along with the conviction that "Team America," as these officers style themselves, was bravely holding out against a sea of stupidity and corruption -- suggests that the officer corps of the United States is not immune to this affliction.

In my lifetime, we've mostly had two kind of presidents. From Eisenhower through George H. W. Bush, every commander-in-chief had World War II-era military experience, while Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (and the nearly president Al Gore) were all heavily influenced by the complications of Vietnam. Barack Obama is the first president from my generation which I've written about recently, Generation Jones, the first generation of Americans since WW II that was neither required or typically expected to serve in the military. Now, there's a disconnect between the civilians in the White House and the soldiers in the field -- not exactly a shock. But we're seeing the consequences of this gap are quite serious, indeed.