Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been making the rounds this spring with a message that echoes, in parts, the message our Jeff Shear recently presented in his recent three-part series on America's era of persistent conflict. That message is that the professional American military — the all-volunteer force it's been since 1973* — is less and less a cross-section of America as a whole.
As Shear phrased it, there's been a "ghettoization" as fewer segments of the population and fewer geographic locations produce those volunteers. He quoted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said, "Warfare has become something for other people to do," and, "With each passing decade fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle."
These concerns have become a standard part of Mullen's repertoire.
As he said at Florida State's commencement on April 30, "With less than 1 percent of our population now serving in population, I do worry that one day, the American people and their troops may no longer know each other the way they should. When I consider how much that 1 percent has repeatedly sacrificed over the last 10 years, especially our wounded, their families and the family of the fallen," he posited to the new grads, "I think it's worth asking ourselves as Americans whether we're doing enough to help them and, more broadly, our nation and our community."
In an interview with Timothy Clark at the Government Executive Media Group, Mullen was asked specifically about the isolation of the military. "I do worry about the contact we have with the American people, the connection we have with the American people," he answered. "We're less than 1 percent of the population. We come from fewer and fewer places in the country.
"And I worry about the things that we don't do anymore," Mullen continued, noting that as military bases have closed around the nation, face-to-face contact with the troops and their families is less common. "And the reason I'm so concerned about it is America's military must stay connected to the American people. And if we wake up one day and find out that we're disconnected or almost disconnected, I think that's a very bad outcome for the country."
Over the weekend, Mullen addressed the U.S. Army's future leaders at West Point's commencement and again sounded that concern even as he assured the brand-new second lieutenants that the nation did value their service (even if they wouldn't share it). "I fear they do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle."
And there's another fear, as expressed in Shear's stories by Col. Lance Betros, who heads the history department at West Point: "The military is losing contact with the wider society. And those who make the decisions about military force really don't have any skin in the fight. We've reached the point where you have to wonder how well policymakers understand the consequences of their actions when it comes to national deterrence."
* This article originally used the date 1969, which is the year the Gates Commission started examining the question of n all-volunteer force, but not the year the military became one.