U.S. Army soldiers

This year marks the 40th anniversary of America’s all-volunteer force. How did the elimination of the draft affect the military, and U.S. society as a whole? What is the impact of technology on modern warfare? And how will having women in combat change the armed forces? Those are some of the questions examined in the new book “The Modern American Military,” edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning Stanford historian David Kennedy.

David Kennedy, professor of history emeritus at Stanford University, editor of the new book "The Modern American Military" and Pulitzer Prize-winner for his 1999 book "Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929 -1945"

  • johnqeniac

    Like all military historians, this guy’s a little child. Fascinated with all the little toy soldiers in his mental toy chest. A trillion dollar a year military is worse than useless to society. It’s this wonderful option for our dear leaders when they can’t make progress with domestic policy. It has an infinite capacity for delivering lethal destructive force with shiny gleaming missiles. But we can’t get our money’s worth without being war criminals ourselves. And ground forces (‘boots on the ground’) are the most pointless piece of the machine. Because they are worse than useless as occupation forces, which is all that modern ‘war’ is any more – not ‘set piece’ von Clauswitz/Sun Tzu bs. And our military is absolutely useless in occupations. Because we cannot behave as the Romans did – repeatedly killing 10 percent of the population in response to any insurrection in order to terrorize the occupied population into submission. We cannot use our trillion dollar military, so get rid of it. It’s too tempting a toy for our child leaders. Sorry to our little child historian. He has to get his hard on somewhere else.

    Read Bacevich, not this child!

  • BuzzK

    What is the impact of technology on modern warfare? The world no longer entertains the notion that Americans have moral highground nor even the military expertise or might to lead the “free world.” It has become obvious to everyone that US Military actions are ruled by a chaotic array of conflicting interests with only two consistent results: incompetence and injustice.

    • Robert Thomas

      Whether military might is effective as a tool to lead the Free World is a good question. On the other hand, few nations’ statehouses doubt the United States’ power and effectiveness in destroying enemy forces. They also notice its clumsiness using its armed forces to make friends.

      I guaranty that those who operate the Islamic Republic of Iran were existentially (in the literal sense) shocked to see how utterly and quickly the Iraqis were destroyed, after having fought them for over ten years to bare stalemate.

      • BuzzK

        Shocked, perhaps.
        Changed? Not really.
        Bin Laden knew first hand of American military power.
        We trained him.
        It just means the tactics change.
        Bullying people into line with nukes and jets is not an effective or appropriate strategy.
        You STILL don’t get that?

        Besides, we “destroyed” CONVENTIONAL military forces while creating massive numbers of rebels who we are content to call “terrorists” even when we are occupying their country. They continue to recruit and we have given them their motivation.

        Big guns, small brains.

        • Robert Thomas

          BuzzK, Osama bin Laden and his collaborators are criminals, not states. As I wrote, NO nation’s statehouse doubts the might of the U.S. armed forces to utterly destroy their own.

          After their protracted tête à tête with the U.S. over the embassy hostages and after observing the apparent U.S. disinterest in the Iran-Iraq war for ten years, potentates in Tehran truly began to think of the U.S. as a paper tiger. That was foolish. Saddam’s retreat in Iraq I surprised them, but Iraq II (disastrous as it was in so many ways) truly shocked them. This has been commented upon by a number of the regime’s close observers.

          Even the Russians, who struggled with the mujahideen in Afghanistan for fifteen years before abandoning Najibullah to the noose, were truly startled at the speed and decisiveness with which Afghan forces were subdued by the Americans. Their subsequent satisfaction at the U.S.’s complete inability to win the peace (something they never considered doing), after having utterly prevailed at war, is palpable.

          • BuzzK

            You have repeated yourself without responding or adding anything new.

            Yes! The US military can wipe tanks and structures and a whole lot of civilians right off the map.

            NO!!! That did not end the problems in Iraq. It should have given “our enemies” comfort to see our quagmire in Iraq for a longer period of time than all of WW2. In the end, of which there was no end, there was no surrender, no end of hostilities and no peace.

            WOW!!! We really “utterly destroyed” them.

          • Robert Thomas

            BuzzK, I agreed that military power may be an inadequate tool to use to “lead the free world”. My assertion merely was that any state makes a mistake if it believes it can persist as a state in the face of opposition by the U.S. armed forces.

            I can say unequivocally that while Iraqis hold a belligerent attitude toward the U.S. (I certainly would, were I an Iraqi), the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein (many of whom would continue in factional fighting against coalition forces for years) which had fought the Iranian army in a formidable way for over a decade, abandoned it’s duty and deserted it’s posts, completely, in 2003. The Iraqi state ceased to exist.

            By the way, this is the reason that there was no “insurgent” action in Iraq after the state collapsed. There was a guerrilla resistance against an uninvited armed invader. But an “insurgency” is a rebellion against legitimate authority. No legitimate authority has existed in Iraq for a decade (or more), so insurgency is impossible there.

          • BuzzK

            My assertion merely was that any state makes a mistake if it believes it can persist as a state in the face of opposition by the U.S. armed forces.

            I think the USSR used to have the exact same attitude.

            legitimate authority
            Who defines legitimacy in Iraq? George W. Bush and his neoconservative handlers? Squabbling factions in the UN? Certainly not the Iraqi people…We only support democracy when it serves US or Israeli interests.

          • Robert Thomas

            A good point. Since becoming the dominant nuclear power but before losing the Vietnam war, the U.S., as well, had this as an “attitude” about its conventional force. After that experience, American politics and actions insured that it would cease being an attitude and become a fact.

          • Robert Thomas

            Who defines legitimacy is a fair question. None of those outsiders you list, obviously. Neither the Ottoman Turks. Only the Mesopotamian people can make their government legitimate. By choice or by abdication or because of circumstance, they haven’t been able to do this for several centuries.

  • Robert Thomas

    Recruiting is the bedrock of the success of the all-volunteer force. This is the prime reason for President Obama’s “red line” on the use of gas weapons.

    When I was a contractor working on a problem at White Sands Missile Range in the 1990s, I expressed curiosity at some “atmosphere-born threat countermeasure” equipment. Soldiers noted my interest and showed me more, in horrifying detail. No one will ever see a gas mask on the desk of an Army recruiter for the all-volunteer force.

    I clearly remember the day in 1975 when registration for selective service was (temporarily) ended. I was eating lunch in my high school cafeteria. It was the dawn of the all-volunteer force of the fraternity of American warriors. The collapse of this threat was anticipated, but it was a big deal, I can tell you.

  • Robert Thomas

    The majority of the American people have shown themselves bravely willing to send another guy’s kid to a foreign land to get his head blown off, as long as the Chinese will pay for it. We call patriotic demonstration for this scheme “supporting the troops”. It’s an activity that may be pursued for very little ready cash.

    • Bill Tutuki

      I like to know what would really happen if we reduced funding for defense contractors. How much bailout money are we really willing to send? Also How come we only see “Too Big To Fail” for Banks. Lets see how big Defense contractors really are to fail. The Problem here is that we have to wait 30 years to find out that the Defense Contractors from the USA sent WMD’s to countries we call the tyrants, terrorists, and infidels.

  • Bob Fry

    Why do young people join the military? At this time, 10+ after the start of the Iraq war, surely nobody believes the Afghan war is to protect the homeland. So why join? Just purely for money? Nothing else to do? Get a skill?

    • Robert Thomas

      This is an obvious and disconcerting question.

  • TC

    As a veteran I’m torn: On the one hand, I want to support our troops, but on the other, I feel absolutely no commonality of purpose with them. The adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are every bit as ill-advised and illegitimate as ours in Viet Nam was.

    Further, I’m heartbroken that the peace movement has become almost completely passive.
    I went out wearing an old peace button the other day and a young woman in a local coffeehouse asked me what it meant!

  • Robert Thomas

    Why should we be surprised that young adults say they get their news about international events from a comedy program on TV? How are they imperiled by any decision of the executive? By the prospect of living with their parents for a longer time?

    • Guest

      @ Thomas the reason more people get their news from a Comedy show its because they know that the Cable news shows are run by pundits and lobbyists who do invest in Defense Contractors.

    • Bill Tutuki

      Thomas the reason more people get their news from a Comedy show its
      because they know that the Cable news shows are run by pundits and
      lobbyists who do invest in Defense Contractors. But the question here is has anybody looked at the mental state of the Defense contractor lobby who yell this stuff.

      • Robert Thomas

        Posting error. Please disregard.

      • Robert Thomas

        Bill, I don’t think so. I think it’s because they have little concern for their personal involvement.

        Is it your view that people think that Viacom’s operators are less concerned for the success of the interests you mention than are those of Time Warner? Why should this be?

        In 1970, few draft-age kids doubted that CBS, NBC or ABC were part of the “establishment” media, satisfied with the status quo of unending warfare. Those times had an uncanny ability to focus my youthful mind on a variety of international news sources beyond either Huntley & Brinkley or the Smothers Brothers.

        • Bill Tutuki

          Well My Point was that we fail to question the mental state of Lobbyists and Congress over why they choose to bomb Country X. It Seems to me when I watch a cable show every pundit has a conspiracy on why we need to go after X. But When I go PBS and NPR they explained that there are Defense Contractors that do benefit from war. I seen some Documentaries from Pacifica and Free Speech TV a few times showing that the Iraq war was War for OIL 10 years back.

  • geraldfnord

    Any large standing army, no matter what its constitution—volunteer, drafted, poverty-drafted, or formed from truculent young men avoiding school and prison—represents an ‘attractive nuisance’ to policy-makers. Even if the policy-makers’ children were forced to serve, something makes me think that their parents would have the clout to make sure that they were serving in the least dangerous positions, except maybe if they want a political career for them; in any event, I don’t think that would keep those in charge from deciding that our problems were nails on the basis of the lovely huge hammer they’ve got. (Regardless of the fact that with as large and advanced forces as ours, our victories don’t matter as much to the enemy…’Of course we lost a big battle, they’ve got drones,’ but ‘Wow, we won a small battle!’)

    How about this?: a military budget as large as only the next _two_ largest others?

  • Dave

    Thank you professor Kennedy. Your analysis seems completely on target and very insightful. Stakeholders/’skin-in-the-game’! We truly have become detached and I, like you, am worried that this lack of direct involvement is pushing us into a bad situation as a country.
    180 family members from 380 the top military brass vs 10 from the 510 or so congress men & women is telling – it’s both scary & appalling. It shows exactly how dangerously tilted & entrenched this situation is becoming.

    • Robert Thomas

      Dave, I share this concern. But I’ve learned to always blame myself and my neighbors before blaming politicians. Blaming politicians is too easy.

      I know about wars before Vietnam only as history, so I have that in common with young adults. But though I was not a combatant, the Vietnam war dominated every aspect of my childhood. After 58,000 Americans were killed and at least 300,000 injured in southeast Asia for no identifiable purpose, few were sad to see the obligation to serve eliminated. I can’t emphasize how universally that view was held by 1974. But Americans had an obligation after that point to pay very close attention to the Chief Executive’s use of the armed forces that since then, we have all but abdicated.

      This obligation existed whether the action taken was ridiculous, as in Grenada; puzzling, as in Panama; absent as with Rwanda; clumsy as in Iran and Somalia; effective even though dithering as in Serbia; precipitous as in Iraq I; ruinous and self-wounding as in Iraq II. Do you think we, the people, have exercised this scrutiny?

  • Roistacher

    I think that the isolation of the military bears peripherally on the Great Gun Debate. During the days of the draft men became acquainted (and comfortable) with firearms in the course of their military service. Today, I would guess that the majority of liberal people have never even held, let alone fired, a firearm. And out of this ignorance comes a fear and loathing of firearms in all circumstances and uses.

  • chrisnfolsom

    As a vet – to use the reserves as they have over the past 10 years specifically was a breech of contract – not literally, but in spirit. How could a person have a “real” life when being sent to duty 3 times over 10 years? USING troops like this is indicative of how corporations are “using” people today in industry and should be a warning as to how the gilded class thinks about those who serve whether as a fry cook or a soldier.

    • Robert Thomas

      chrisnfolsom, the responsibility and praise or blame warranted when deploying soldiers into harm’s way is on you and me and our neighbors and our other fellow citizens. How could it be otherwise?

      • chrisnfolsom

        Ultimately yes – as well as their support after the fact. Decisions are made by our representatives independent of our direct will (a good thing at times). We vote them in or out after the fact based on their performance. My statement was based on my misunderstanding of current policies which were to keep reserves for defense of America, or at best make up for the time it takes to train troops in the regular army, or a draft. Perhaps with 20/20 hindsight different choices were made, but to have people pulled multiple times from their lives due to bad planning will forever hurt the reserves in the future as we now know they are just a cheap, politically expedient way to not have to put your career where your mind is and draft an army to fight your wars. I personally think of it as mostly Rumsfeld who knows how to talk of patriotism, but used our soldiers for his ego – if we treat soldiers like employees and not heroes they are neither and won’t be fooled again.

        • Robert Thomas

          Agree. But I’m troubled by the question Bob Fry asks – how am I not supposed to think of new enlistees as other than enablers? Witting or unwitting?

  • Patricia Burbank

    I was very involved in resistance to Vietnam WAr and again protested with millions going into Iraq – and leaders completely ignored the protests and moved ahead…

  • Randy Cook

    mr. kennedy speaks of the DOD being only 45 of the GDP, as opposed to the past. However, if we tie in State Dept. budgets that pay out to so many countries in order to place military bases in their countries, and the money spent to ally our military with other countries should be included into the cost of the military. When all the costs of installing a military presence around the world are added, the percentage of GDP related to our military increases substantially, possibly even eclipsing the percentage in the 50’s & 60’s.

    • Randy Cook

      Meant to say 4% of the GDP.

    • Bob Fry

      I wonder about this too. Don’t we provide foreign “aid” to Egypt and Israel that approaches $10 Billion / year? And that’s just two countries.

  • chrisnfolsom

    The Army used to train you for a job – now only the contractors actually have a job and the soldiers are used for infantry. I was there to see this as my a skill was dumbed down from learning to work on electronics to swapping modules and letting contractors do the actual work. I have heard that many cooks sent to Afghanistan didn’t work in the mess hall – that was for contractors and sub contractors and very cheap international help while the Army cooks were sent into combat and “used” as infantry – this was also done with office work and other jobs. Send the troops into danger (because you can) and hire contractors to do the “skilled” work. There should have been a draft when we decided to go to war – shame on Bush, the Congress and our Military – although in reality it was only supposed to take a couple weeks……. and conservative now say Obama doesn’t know what he is doing?

    • Robert Thomas

      chrisnfolsom, this is a sad indictment. Is your experience fresh enough for you to claim that young people, explicitly recruited as Specialists, are being tricked? Today?

  • Robert Thomas

    I’ve blown harder than usual here, I recognize.

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