I attended my first college reunion last weekend. It was a charming event, attended by well over half of the living graduates of my class at a small military college in Virginia. The weekend was even more special because my oldest son is undergoing the rigors of freshman year at the same school. The occasion allowed me to share a couple of meals with him and other young men and women in his class. That led me to think about these young people, this reunion and Veterans Day.
Most of my 212 classmates spent several years in military service. Two of us advanced to general officer ranks and the four of us who roomed together my senior year all retired from the Army, Navy, or Air Force. What struck me about the weekend was how many of my classmates have sons or daughters following us into uniform. Among this group, the fact that both my college-aged children, a daughter and a son, are pursuing military careers was hardly exceptional. More than half the classmates with whom I spoke had kids in uniform.
It is no secret that military service in the U.S. has long been a family business. While this is true of many occupations, military service isn’t just any occupation. Recent research from the Pew Research Center illustrates the point. Between 77% and 86% of all new recruits are closely related to a veteran. That is two and a half times the rate among 18-to-29-year-olds who have not been in the military. The divide is even more pronounced among career soldiers. Today it is common for parents and children to serve in the same war zone together, and I know a number of families where every brother served in combat, as did mine.
I am proud of my family’s military service. It is easier to animate your children’s love of history when places like Valley Forge, Chickamauga, the Meuse Argonne, Normandy, Pusan, Ahn Khe, Panama, Rumalia Oilfields, Kabul and dozens more carry a family experience. But, it is hard to see how a professional military class of families is in the long-term best interests of our republic. The founders held similar worries.
James Madison in Federalist 46 seemed to think the existence of a regular military would be balanced by even larger state militias that could place a check on the power of a standing army. He wrote “Extravagant as the supposition is, let it however be made. Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government.” Other concerns of our founders reflected the belief that the soldiers themselves represented a poor assembly of men, whose morality would be a problem for local citizens. Indeed, the proliferation of southern military colleges in the early 18th century was born of a local desire to see military college students replace the local army garrison.
Madison made clear in Federalist 41 that military forces should be an “object of laudable circumspection and precaution.” Today, this is true, but for other reasons. The U.S. military is so wholly a beast of the Constitution that it is difficult to envision it as a risk to the republic. George Washington squelched the last inkling of a mutiny in 1784 and at the outset of the Civil War, fewer than 250 American soldiers, out of more than 16,000, took arms against the nation.
The risk today is not to our Constitution, but to our ability to wisely consider foreign policy. I am not alone in worrying that growing isolation of military experience will lessen our ability to appreciate the human risks of policy mistakes. It will simply note as contrast to recent experience that two of Teddy Roosevelt’s sons died in battle.
There are no easy remedies to a growing military-civil divide. The end of the draft occasioned some of this separation, but it also made service far more palatable for more Americans. Certainly, service members are thought better of today than they were in the summer of 1980, when I first put on a uniform. We will get too much applause for our service this Veterans Day, rather than too little. I wonder if maybe it is time to think beyond the praise toward the purpose of service, and talk more about the reasons military members give for serving. In that I suspect we will uncover a more universal attractiveness to military service.
I’ve asked my kids what they liked most about their brief time in uniform, and it comes down to three things. The intensity and meaning of the experience, the people with whom they served and the chance to lead. The armed forces is an imperfect institution, but it remains among the few places where anyone, from any walk of life, can craft a future made primarily of their own merit. And, for all its imperfections, it is among the few places that welcomes everyone. With the exception of the slow movement of women into combat arms, the military looks more like America than any worksite, university or church.
Maybe on this Veterans Day, ask a veteran what they liked best about their time in service. If they say it’s the food, smile and ask them to tell the truth. I hope that answer won’t cause anyone to rush to the nearest recruiter, but it just might open some eyes about the true nature of military service. And it might explain why that service draws so many successive generations into uniform, and why it is worth so many others giving it a try.
Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.