Why Personnel Problems Reflect the Marginalization
of Soldiers From Culture and Society

June 27, 2000

Comment: #369

Discussion Thread:  #s 365, 366, 367, 368

The email below responds to Comments #365, 366, 367, 368 by arguing that the roots of the military's personnel problems lie in a much larger problem: the systematic marginalization of the military caused by an evolving disconnect of the American military institution from the ambient dimensions of its larger cultural environment. The author, Herbert Fenster, an occasional contributor to this list, is a well-known lawyer specializing in military affairs and author of a forthcoming book on this subject.

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From: Herbert Fenster
Subject: RE: #365: Why the Army's Emerging Personnel Policies Will Not Stem the Exodus of Captains
Date: Mon, 26 Jun 2000

I think it is important to get beyond the symptoms and ask WHY these personnel problems exist in today's military. While it is understandable that officers and NCOs on the receiving end of these problems would be more focused on the immediate symptoms, which degrade their daily lives, it seems puzzling that their leaders can not get beyond "symptoms" which stem from a profound labor shortage.

The labor shortage is, of course, not confined to the Army. While the Navy and the Air Force have much better means to cover up their shortages and, being less labor intensive in the first place, have disproportionately fewer problems, the entire system is in terrible shape.

Well, why? It is rather pointless to expound on the immediate symptoms as a clue to the problem any more then spots tell you very much about what causes the measles. Instead, it is useful to step back from these symptoms and look at the much larger picture of the complex of the military in the totality of our society. And here is where I apply the term "marginalization."

The military is being systematically—and rapidly—marginalized by our peacetime society. It would be easy to assign blame, particularly if that blame could come to rest on an individual or, perhaps, a branch of government. But these problems are not so simple.

First of all, Captain Damon was probably less than twenty years old when "the war ended." If we consider that our nation was at war for fifty years, from about 1940 to about 1990, it can be said that the country was at war for the entire lifetime of most living Americans. It can also be said that it was at peace for the entire (short) adulthood of the captain. If, in the ten years since the war ended, there has been some adjustment within our nation to a "peacetime economy" (as the term was used at the end of WW II) then that period of adjustment has represented the entire career of this officer.

Second, his reflections appear to be the product of the natural tensions that occur for the uniformed military when "reconversion" (another WW II term) is occurring. The problem is that neither his superiors nor any of those who are charged with the well-being of the military have any real clue about answering the question: Reconversion to what?

In fact, it is dogma to believe that there is no reconversion at all.

Third, we must account for our long lost culture about things military. That culture had a fifty year hiatus, but as with most things cultural, it is engrained in the fabric of our society and is not lost.

It is a fundamental of our American culture that we do not recognize a military at all in times of peace. Our Constitution prohibits a "standing army," and, from the outset of our nation, we have adopted what can be referred to as a "minuteman mentality." What even the gun-toting Second Amendment advocates seem not to realize is that the entire purpose of that amendment was to support the concept of a civilian militia—in lieu of a standing army.

Fourth, while it is quite obvious that the world is not exactly 'at peace,' neither is there ANY call to arms to defend fundamental freedoms or our nation state borders.

Quite the contrary is the case. So 'open' is every corner of the world that we are experiencing a globalization that actually threatens to modify for ever our nation state assumptions on which even our minute man defense premise is based.

Fifth, these ambient circumstances suggesting the absence of any coherent threat coupled with an ingrained predisposition not to have a military in the first place, are only PART of what is marginalizing the military.

Add to that the much more complex and serious problem of the military marginalizing itself.

Each year, our military becomes more inbred. Each year, our military represents less of a cross section of our society. Each year, the military life is less attractive a competitor in a society that is elsewhere richly rewarding. And nowhere are these characteristics clearer than in the commissioned ranks.

Today, our military is not able to articulate a coherent purpose for its existence. Its stated objectives respond to 'threats' that ended when the Captain Damon was a teenager and become increasingly less understandable with each passing day. Its training, its complement of weaponry, its protocols and dogma have little if anything to do either with society or with any threat that anyone can perceive.

And to make matters much worse, our military adamantly refuses to "mainstream" its existence in either our society at large or in any representative aspects of our rapidly changing culture.

We recruit, educate, train, house, feed, cloth, care for and ultimately retire our military outside the mainstream of our society. Some of this may serve well in time of "war," but it is increasingly unacceptable in peacetime; it marginalizes every member.

What to do? Here are some suggestions:

1. Universal military training: it is vital to assure not only that we get the educated and trained personnel that we need, and in the numbers that we need, it is also equally vital to assure that all segments of our society are represented.

2. Elimination of the exclusivity of military education: Abolish the service academies and make advanced military education (education at the college level) a mainstream function of colleges and universities.

3. End reservations and emoluments: House, care for and train our military within the general society. While this objective was not feasible in the Twentieth Century, it appears an imperative in the Twenty First. This is certainly not to say that we can abolish military bases, but we can abolish the closed societies that they continue to represent.

4. Reorganize the military along functional lines and train the components for translatable careers. Increasingly, it is an imperative of military performance that its personnel have skills that are representative of those in our society at large. The Twenty First century military will be less concerned with killing enemies and more concerned with the suppression of violence, with nation building and with elemental governmental reconstruction. The fundamental skills needed to populate a military so involved, closely replicate many of the skills needed in civilian society.

Dealing with the problems in a traditional sense, based on martial conceptions evolved in the 19th and 20th Centuries, accomplishes very little in the 21st Century. It is true enough that our military will continue to need to train as war-fighters, but the conduct of war is mutating into a variety of forms of low intensity combat—which can be very intense and require great skills for those engaged in close quarters combat. However, the prospects of high intensity battle diminish; the prospect of any of our military even seeing a twentieth century "battlefield" is becoming virtually non-existent.

The continuing focus on such [second and third generation] warfare not only misrepresents the threats, it plainly drives away those who we need to meet the vastly changed requirements of our global reach.

Herbert Fenster

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Chuck Spinney

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