The month of August was a roller coaster of emotion for the war-weary American public and her beloved all volunteer military. As Afghanistan reverted to rule under the Taliban, emotions like disgust, frustration and disappointment, sadness, and anger were common among veterans who served and survived America’s longest war. Historically speaking these perspectives are not unique.
Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who served as an artillery officer in the army, documented his nation’s defeat in the Crimean War in the mid-1800s in his Sevastopol Sketches. And while Russia’s historical peasant conscript army and America’s current volunteer force couldn’t be more dissimilar in theory or composition, their experiences in defeat share an important similarity: anger and disillusionment with the establishment.
Russian tsar Alexander II, seeking to stave off what he called a “revolution from below,” liberated the serfs in 1861 before succumbing to an assassin’s bomb in 1881. While our own elites’ disastrous foreign adventures won’t likely lead to a contemporary Bolshevik party or a revolution of the proletariat, they certainly will alter the future of our foreign policy and the composition of the all-volunteer force.
As documented in Orlando Figes’ excellent history of the Crimean War, Tolstoy was morally outraged by the harsh treatment of the common soldiers by their aristocratic officers. Drawing from his first-hand experiences, he drafted “A Plan for Reform of the Army” which included proposals to update military structure, equipment, and tactics. In early editions of his Sevastopol Sketches he ominously claimed “that in every beaten soldier there was a buried feeling of revenge that was too suppressed to appear yet as a real force but was waiting to erupt.” The Crimean War lasted almost three years, the war in Afghanistan almost 20.
Russia’s government and military leaders of that era might have been incompetent and cruel, but they weren’t in the business of obfuscation and deception like America’s current civic, military, and media leaders are. To expend human life for a cause you believed in but didn’t win is one thing, to break human beings and their families forever because of lies and deceit is another. Is it any wonder then, that our veterans are disgusted and angry? They were treated, as Kurt Vonnegut said in 2004, like “toys a rich kid got for Christmas.”
Pew research found in 2019 that 64 percent of Iraq veterans said the war was not worth fighting. For Afghanistan the number was 58 percent. Some of these outraged veterans are now running for office on both sides of the political aisle. Lucas Kunce, a former Marine officer and now Democratic Senate candidate for Missouri, has taken a stand against the lies. And Joe Kent, a former Green Beret and Gold Star husband running for a Republican congressional seat in Washington state, has suggested establishing an “Afghan War Commission” with his sights set on “the blob.”
Their perspectives stand in stark contrast to those of other veterans such as hawks like Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), or the standard bearer of war drumming Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), who recently said the United States would be “going back” to Afghanistan. Currently only 34 members of Congress are veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. While these numbers aren’t adequate in and of themselves to beat back the blob, the cavalry might be coming in the form of equally angry American voters who ultimately determine the composition of the government and thus theoretically our foreign policy.
Many voters who didn’t serve have had a front row seat to decades of failed policies and are finally beginning to see the light. If Donald Trump showed us anything, it was that one could criticize the wars and even veterans like John McCain and still win elections, indicating the electorate was thinking along the same lines. It isn’t unrealistic to assume the next decade will see a retrenchment in the U.S. empire due to voters’ disillusionment with the foreign policy consensus in Washington.
As for the future of the all-volunteer force, the problems of quality and quantity loom on the horizon. The length of the most recent wars has forced the armed services to cut corners to achieve service targets. In 2003 94 percent of enlisted Army personnel had a high school diploma. In 2007 it had dropped to 71 percent. In World War II the cut-off for the General Classification Test (an IQ test) in the Marine Corps was a score of 120. In 1980 85 percent of officers achieved that score but only 59 percent did in 2014.
The more troubling long-term issue with both quality and quantity concerns the motivation for signing on the dotted line.
Unlike the Russian forcible conscription system of the Crimean War, America’s current military relies upon citizens who willingly decide to sacrifice. Traditionally this was because the volunteers felt a strong moral and physical connection to the nation and hence the government. When the nation calls, I will answer, so goes the mantra of the citizen-soldier. The failures of the war on terrorism coupled with our current cultural divide, however, seem to indicate this critical connection that motivates our volunteers might be beginning to dissolve.
Writing in 2018, historian Robert Merry analyzed the differences between America’s “first elites” of the old-school WASP stock and today’s elites. Merry’s position was that the “mutual animus between the elites and the people they purport to govern is an ominous development in America.” Since 2018 this rhetoric has only accelerated.
Considering that the majority of the military is still drawn from the South and Midwest, flyover America, it is only a matter of time before the volunteers stop showing up. And not only that, but there are also indications America’s senior military leadership have taken a seat with our new elites as well.
As Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich outlined in 2019 at a foreign policy conference, in order to rise to the top of the national security establishment, one must “buy into what the Blob stands for.” Or alternatively, “buy into militarized American globalism.” In 2018, 70 percent of Americans surveyed said they had a “great deal of trust and confidence” in the military. In 2021 it had dropped to 56 percent. Simply stated, why willingly serve under a system or leaders who are opposed to your way of life and have been shamelessly cavalier with human life?
Leo Tolstoy summarized the Russian army of his era as a “horde” which “possesses neither any real loyalty to faith, tsar and fatherland.” If our volunteer system becomes a de-facto mercenary army, only motivated by a paycheck or college tuition, it will also be devoid of what Tolstoy saw as a necessary condition for effectiveness. On the other hand, it may also hamstring the ability of the state to project power due to declining standards and readiness. The good and decent people whose lives were forever changed by the last two decades will likely find the strength to forgive, but they will certainly not forget.