Blogs > Cliopatria > A Deceptively Pristine History, Part Two

Aug 23, 2008 7:17 pm

A Deceptively Pristine History, Part Two

In his 2005 book The New American Militarism, Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich noted that today's Congress has far fewer veterans than the Congress of a previous era. The baseline he chose for comparison? The Cold War, when Congress was flooded with veterans of World War II.

The decline of congressional military experience, Bacevich concluded, reflects a broader trend in American society (emphasis added throughout):"The reason for this dearth of veterans in Congress -- and in the other ranks of other national institutions -- is clear: since Vietnam, the American elite has largely excused itself from military service."

Bacevich goes on to note the"demise of the ancient American tradition of the citizen-soldier," a change he calls a"remarkable departure" from a long-held" common obligation to share in the responsibility for the country's defense."

(All of these quotes are from page 26.)

But American elites have long been likely to excuse themselves from military service, despite some significant exceptions. Like Bacevich's"New American Militarism" that isn't new, his American past in which elites and plebes commonly stood shoulder-to-shoulder to defend the republic represents a substantially simplified history.

In his essays on the colonial and revolutionary militias (collected here), the military historian John Shy notes that"social pariahs" were most likely to fill the ranks, while their betters were more likely to shrug at the idea of fighting."It seems never to have crossed the introspective mind of young John Adams that he was exactly the right age to serve in the Seven Years' War," he writes; indeed, except"when a war approached totality...fighting had ceased to be a function of the community as such."

In 1757, Shy notes, Virginia's House of Burgesses determined who should be pushed to the front of the line for combat duty, starting with those who"shall be found, loitering and neglecting to labor for reasonable wages" and"all other idle, vagrant, or dissolute persons."

In a later essay, Shy examines the military service of men in Peterborough, New Hampshire, during the Revolutionary War; he finds that"almost every adult male, at one time or another, carried a gun in the war." But that's not the full story, as"prominent men and solid citizens" typically served in very brief and limited ways:"maybe a month in Rhode Island or a month late in the war." Those doing prolonged service as regulars"were an unusually poor, obscure group of men, even by the rustic standards of Peterborough."

Looking to other states, Shy finds the pattern mostly the same: the"hard core of Continental soldiers...were poorer, more marginal, less well anchored in society."

So if our own degraded time were more like the glorious old days, tens of thousands of our social, political, and economic elites would have spent a good month or two in uniform. Hedge-funders all over Connecticut would have filled the ranks of local rifle clubs and home guards well into October of 2001. (And, by the way, no account of a 19th-century American war is complete without the moment in which the general tries to stop his men from leaving the field when their three-month enlistment expires.)

And so on. After the Revolution, the effort to fill the ranks of the Army ran head-on into the same kinds of problems. As Francis Paul Prucha bluntly wrote forty years ago in The Sword of the Republic, the frontier army of the early 19th century was"unattractive to individuals of ability and substance."

American elites have excused themselves from military service"since Vietnam"? Only if you start measuring at 1941.

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Dylan Justin Hirsch-Shell - 8/25/2008

"Four days after the reading [of the Declaration of Independence], the Boston Committee of Correspondence ordered the townsmen to show up on the Common for a military draft. The rich, it turned out, could avoid the draft by paying for substitutes; the poor had to serve. This led to rioting, and shouting: 'Tyranny is Tyranny let it come from whom it may.'"

Jonathan Dresner - 8/23/2008

Reading this, I found Malvina Reynold's 1958 "We Hate To See Them Go (The Gentlemen of Distinction in the Army)" (lyrics, youtube) going through my head.