As U.S. forces come home from Iraq after nine years at war, the nation is about to come face to face with professional troops sufficiently bruised and isolated from American society that some defense experts are whispering that major changes in military education and even a conscription-based national youth service program may be needed to reboot our fighting forces.
Vivid and painful reminders are everywhere of an unpopular U.S. military venture that began with grave strategic miscalculations and is ending with waves of violence and political instability in Iraq. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai is openly contemptuous of his U.S. protectors, while allied officers are regularly murdered by Afghan security forces.
These are indelible imprints of U.S. military campaigns that have cost $1.3 trillion, helped cripple the U.S. economy, extinguished 6,400 American lives, more than 150,000 Iraqi and Afghan lives and left disturbing rates of suicide and posttraumatic stress disorder among returning U.S. veterans.
The wartime shortcomings of the all-volunteer military are a legacy, in part, of the end of the draft 40 years ago. Over time, an unintended consequence of the change has been a growing disconnect between the American public and the U.S. armed forces. Military personnel have been the first to detect it; most civilians haven't yet caught on.
Outgoing joint chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen declared last year that "America no longer knows its military, and the U.S. military no longer knows America."
Demographic data support Mullen's stark observation. As late as the 1980s, some 40 percent of 18-year-olds had at least one veteran parent. By the 1990s that number had dropped to 18 percent. A recent Pew poll confirmed that only 33 percent of Americans between 18 and 25 now have a family connection with the military. In short, almost 70 percent of military-age Americans no longer have any direct ties to the military.
In little more than a generation, those who fight our wars have narrowed to 1 percent of the population, while the American public's interest in our armed forces has sharply diminished. Most Americans simply no longer have the same personal stake they once did in the military's actions, bumper-sticker sentiment to the contrary.
Despite controversy over our antiterrorist wars, waning public interest has allowed the military to operate in a kind of self-imposed moral isolation that has weakened the U.S. officer corps, the backbone of the volunteer force.
Cuts in defense spending notwithstanding, the challenge facing the American military today is as much moral and ethical as budgetary and economic. It raises questions that Floridians should not hesitate to ask GOP presidential candidates before they go to the polls Tuesday.
The state of constant war over the past decade has exposed serious limitations in our high-tech all-volunteer force. This force, the envy of militaries around the world, was created in a crucible of military discontent, self-criticism and national doubt in the wake of Vietnam. Its guiding light was not a statesman or even a soldier, but a Nobel Prize-winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
Milton Friedman saw the military as a labor force that would respond to economic imperatives like any other - namely the appeal of a job, a steady salary and a secure career. Some half-dozen wars later, the utilitarian values of voluntary employment now dominate military culture.
Friedman's economic theory ended the widely unpopular draft. The price paid by the Nixon White House was the founders' reliance on conscription and the moral ideal of military service as a duty of citizenship that guided the United States through two centuries of war and peace.
Forty years later, the American people's instinctive interest in the welfare of their troops and even outspoken criticism of military leaders in wartime - once ensured by the draft in World War II, Korea and Vietnam - has inevitably atrophied.
Tentative questions about the sustainability of the volunteer military, and the growing civilian-military cultural divide, began to surface in earnest last year. The drumbeat picked up this past fall at Washington's respected Center for a New American Security on the issue of military suicides.
If soaring suicide rates are associated with U.S. forces, CNAS researchers wanted to know, how likely are young Americans to keep signing up for duty? Military suicide victims drawn from 1 percent of the population now represent more than 20 percent of reported suicides nationwide.
"Can the all-volunteer force be viable if veterans come to be seen as broken individuals?" they asked.
The consensus among enlisted soldiers and officers I've spoken with in recent months is that the 235,000-member U.S. officer corps, the engine of the volunteer forces, is in a state of professional and ethical exhaustion.
Several studies have documented the flight of junior officers from the Army and Marines since Iraq spun out of control in 2005 and 2006. Repeated deployments in multiple theaters of war have left even the best officers stretched thin, overworked and often underresourced.
Their authority has been eroded by an expensive parallel army of private contractors who do not answer to military commanders. The quality of troops has suffered as the Army's enlistment standards for educational level, criminal background and drug use have been relaxed and cash bonuses offered to fill out wartime deployment quotas.
Despite their tactical and technological sophistication, mid-level officers are divided and dispirited over shifting strategic aims and military doctrine, wavering civilian leadership, bureaucratic rigidity, and less than decisive in-theater operations. Astonishingly, officers have gone so far in the pages of military journals to publicly debate when and under what circumstances they may draw red lines about disobeying orders.
The once-unquestioned acceptance of civilian political authority - a democratic bulwark central to military professionalism - has taken a beating at the hands of generals and their staffs during the course of the Iraq and Afghan wars.
The way forward is a systematic retooling of the way our professional military educates and chooses its leaders and recruits its soldiers. Contemporary U.S. officers require technical expertise in the military sciences, the traditional core of a military education. But they also need an equally sophisticated grasp of international relations, political history, legal systems, languages and foreign cultures.
The military's emphasis should be on rigorous graduate studies for commissioned officers and ongoing education for noncommissioned officers and senior leaders that meet the standards of the best civilian colleges and universities. Selection of officers should broadly reflect American society, rather than discourage recruitment from among the nation's economic and social elites, and establish as a primary value retaining military officers who are proven leaders and innovators.
To reduce the military's isolation from civilian life, the Pentagon should begin by implementing deep cuts in manpower and supporting renewed conscription in the form of a three-year mandatory national service program (which would include civilian energy, education, infrastructure, environmental and urban service options) for all Americans between 18 and 25, with special benefits for military service.
A well-designed national service program is not a comprehensive prescription for what ails the U.S. military. It is not a return to the draft. But it would restore a badly needed sense of civic responsibility among young Americans. It would supply manpower demands during wartime and replace most private contractors with enlisted troops answerable to the military chain of command.
And, most important, it would reconnect our standing military forces with the restraining influence and support of their primary clients, the American people.
Russ Hoyle is the author of Going to War (St. Martin's Press, Thomas Dunne Books, 2008), former deputy Sunday editor of the New York Daily News, and senior editor at Time and The New Republic. He is working on a book about Americans and the U.S. military. He wrote this for the Tampa Bay Times.