The speech was about the All-Volunteer Military. Gates noted the devotion, resolve and professionalism of a volunteer military, along with the unparalleled competence of both the rank-and-file and the field officers in our armed forces: “…Whatever shortcomings there may have been in Iraq and Afghanistan stemmed from failures and miscalculations at the top, not those doing the fighting and the leading on the ground. It has taken every ounce of our troops’ skill, initiative and commitment to battle a cunning and adaptive enemy at the front while overcoming bureaucratic lassitude and sometimes worse at the rear.” (Their inverse focus aside, both of those sentences are refreshing to hear from the Secretary of Defense.) He finds it remarkable that 2.4 million Americans out of a population of 310 million–the smallest military-to-civilian ratio we have maintained in wartime–can shoulder so many burdens on behalf of the rest of the country.
It goes without saying that he doesn’t think so few should have to carry so much of that burden, but Gates also expresses concern about the social consequences when so few carry it. He notes with relief that the perverse attitudes of the Vietnam era, when student protesters would hurl insults at uniformed soldiers and Marines in public, are well behind us. On the other hand, military recruiting is now overwhelmingly based in the South and the Rocky Mountain region.
While pointing out that our armed forces have never been better-educated, from the near-universality of a high school education to top commanders like General David Petraeus who have a Ph.D, Gates noted that many universities have discouraged military service for political reasons, first in protest of the Vietnam War but later in protest of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Gates offers a principled criticism of such political gestures; he himself is preparing the Defense Department for the open acceptance of gay employees, and it is for the same reasons that he wants military recruitment to become a welcome part of campus again: “(T)here is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.”
To grasp the extent of our isolation from the world of our increasingly-hereditary specialists who fill our military and fight our wars, consider 3 things: We have been fighting a major war continuously for almost 9 years now, and just finished fighting 2 major wars simultaneously for a period of almost 7 1/2 years. As Defense Secretary Gates said, we haven’t fought such massive wars as Iraq and Afghanistan with an all-volunteer military since the Revolution. In addition to the physical and psychological trauma faced by our long-serving soldiers and Marines, the economic hardships, the family hardships, there is a devotion to the good of our political system that seems far-removed from the partisan activism of our politics that won’t recognize subjects such as the law or foreign policy as fundamentally concerning the good of the country. Instead it has become typical to say “Everything is political.” This is a belief, not an insight. Like many beliefs its efficacy depends on us. Today, not only can’t the vast majority of us relate to the contributions and the fortitude of our armed forces, but many of us aren’t really conscious of it.