In May 2019, retired general and former national security advisor H.R. McMaster lamented that a narrative of war-weariness is hurting America. “A young student stood up and said ‘all I’ve known my whole life is war,’” said McMaster, referring to a recent town hall he watched. “Now, he’s never been to war, but he’s been subjected, I think, to this narrative of war-weariness.” Of course, one student is not necessarily representative of an entire population. And while McMaster isn’t wrong, the focus on war-weariness obscures the more general and arguably more pernicious fact that the American population is broadly disengaged from American foreign policy and the places it takes soldiers like myself. In fact, during CNN’s series of hour-long town hall events with five leading 2020 Democratic candidates in April, only three questions were asked about foreign policy. None of them were about America’s nearly two-decade-long post-9/11 wars.
When I told my family and close friends that I would be deploying to Syria, the common reaction was confusion. “Wait,” one civilian friend asked me, “we have troops in Syria?” Indeed, when President Donald Trump announced that he would be withdrawing American forces from the country last year, the few posts I saw from friends on Facebook conveyed surprise—not at the president’s sudden policy reversal, but at the fact America had invested blood and treasure there in the first place. These are neither uneducated nor politically disengaged citizens. On the contrary, many are college-educated, civically aware people who are as likely to share a think piece from the Atlantic as they are the latest Game of Thrones meme. Their attention was just focused elsewhere—immigration, healthcare, and the latest speculation about the Mueller investigation.
In the battle for people’s attention, the military loses. My generation has grown up in a state of war. It has become a condition of, not an exception to, American civic life—something to be acknowledged, but casually, like the weather. “It’s a beautiful day,” we say. “And somewhere our fine fighting men and women are making sure we’re free to enjoy it.” America is paradoxical in this sense. We are among the most overtly patriotic countries in the Western world. We hold our hands over our hearts and stand when the national anthem is played at a sporting event, gawk in awe as fighter jets fly over, and usher in a national debate when players kneel during the anthem (which a majority of Americans say is inappropriate). We make a special point to thank soldiers for their service when we see them. Beer companies run patriotic ads during the Super Bowl because they know they work. We share videos of soldiers coming home to happy mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, and sons and daughters. But it seems that fewer than ever are asking whether those soldiers should be going “over there” in the first place—or even where “over there” is. Case in point: How many Americans knew that we had a military presence in Niger before the deaths of four soldiers there in late 2017? Not very many. Even members of Congress were caught off guard by the extent of our mission there.
Part of this disengagement can be attributed to the newest phase of what we once called the war on terror, were later labeled overseas contingency operations, and are probably most accurately termed, simply, America’s post-9/11 wars. By relying on local partners, special operations forces, and air power, the military has moved itself to the periphery of ordinary Americans’ consciousness. However, there is another part to this equation. We often only see broad, societal engagement in foreign policy discussions when social media feeds are filled with posts about dead soldiers. Even then, the reactions are brief—if they occur at all. Americans aren’t war-weary. They’re war-apathetic.
What does war-apathy mean for the US Army? It is another wedge between the American military and the public it defends, serves, and (ideally) represents. In many respects, the rise of a “warrior caste,” over-glorification of service, and apathetic attitudes towards war all bring into question a soldier’s identity. How do we view ourselves as citizens-in-uniform at a time when the civil-military divide is greater than at any time in living memory? Another important question is how nearly two decades of sustained combat operations have changed how the Army sees itself. I will be the first to admit, I am young in my Army career. However, even I feel at times that the Army culturally defines itself less by the service it provides and more by the wars it fights. This observation may seem silly at first glance. After all, the Army exists to fight wars. But those wars are fought in service of our nation, and sometimes the mission to deter adversaries’ aggression is as important, or more so, than being on a battlefield. Yet a soldier’s sense of identity seems increasingly tied to war, not the service war is supposed to provide to our nation. How many of us have looked at a slick-sleeved E-6 or E-7 and silently judged them, asking ourselves what they’ve been doing during their career? As one junior NCO recently asked me, “Can you really call yourself a veteran if you never deployed?”
One way to visualize this is to think of two connected rafts: one for the military and another for the American people. Together we traverse a global sea of challenges. But the tether binding us has been strained and stretched, and now we’re drifting apart. In one direction, the military continues to prepare for and engage in war. In the other, civilians live increasingly disengaged from those wars. Put another way, our military has been left alone to navigate the tribulations of wars all Americans are at least tacitly complicit in by virtue of being taxpaying, suffrage-bearing citizens.
Gone are the days when Americans tuned in to watch William F. Buckley and Noam Chomsky clash over the Vietnam war. A fantastic debate over Congress’s role in foreign policy and declaring war is going on right now, with Congress keen to reclaim its power in both areas. However, this seems to be more a matter of professional duty than electoral pressure. Most American citizens are not lending their voice to one of the most important debates in post-9/11 civil-military relations. Whether or not Congress is adequately asserting its war powers is an important question for our democracy, but not one that citizens seem inclined to answer.
The military tends to ensconce itself in a bubble. Most of us live on base, socialize with other soldiers from work, and don’t interact with civilians as much as, well, civilians do. The civil-military divide is a two-way street, and we bear much of the blame for the current state of affairs. Although much has been written about how to close the civil-military divide on a policy level, if we truly seek a public that is engaged with their military, every service member can take the first step by simply leaving post and making friends with a group of civilians.
Thomas Sarsfield is a specialist and AH-64E Armament/Electrical/Avionics Systems Repairer with C Co., 1-1 ARB, 1st Infantry Division. He has deployed to Iraq and Syria. His articles have previously been published in Military Review and WAR ROOM. Spc. Sarsfield can be followed on Twitter @TomTalksNatSec. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. 1st Class Chad Menegay, Ohio National Guard
SPC Sarsfield, thanks very much for this excellent article. J.C. Harvey, Jr Admiral, USN (Ret)
Thank you for your kind words, sir. It means a lot coming from someone with your level of experience. v/r SPC Sarsfield
The US military has been involved in combat activities somewhere in the world continuously since 1 January 1981. Sometimes these operations grab more the public's attention and sometimes less. What you are describing here is actually much more of the historic norm in American history than the exception.
Agree with synopsis. War detached as opposed to war weary. Family and friends connection to The Atlantic and Game of Thrones is not a great representation of people who are educated or engaged, however. I would presume as much from such a subset. However, I like the suggestion of force engagement with the general populous, but the larger solution is better political leadership which discusses foreign policy in the public square. We may not get that any time soon.
This is an interesting topic very worthy of discussion in any War College: land, sea, and air.
Anyone who has lived before the War on Terror would realize that the USA was a very different place back then. For one, the military and U.S. and NATO governments were very open to comments, questions, suggestions, feedback, and input from just about anyone anywhere. Not so anymore…the "Need to Know Only Basis" applies now and Americans aren't as friendly or willing to help one another.
A good thing about Social Media is that one can travel the world from a smartphone and TV. Take a look at other cities around the world on YouTube. Those not engaged in 18 years of continuous War on Terror have really prospered in their cities for a fraction of the military spending and involvement than the USA. Yes, the trillions of U.S. dollars spent on these two wars have really hurt the United States' infrastructure, society, education, thriving, and growth. Unfortunately, one can see happier faces in other countries than in many U.S. cities. So what are we servicemembers fighting for? That is a VERY GOOD question that the young student is implying if other nations not always involved in the War on Terror have totally grown and prospered in peace as shown in the malls, streets, markets, and tourist areas. Yes, it's true…the money spent on our Homeland Security and our Armed Forces could have been spent on improving society and cities instead….and now it all shows on Youtube.
This also brings forth the questions of what the Pentagon needed to do in order to win and resolve some of the issues presented by these conflicts. Once again, the AK-47, PKM, RPK, SVD, and RPG reigned supreme. Better U.S. armor, faster mobility, better sensors, better MRAPs, JLTVs, FVLs, Stryker Dragoon, MPF, lighter gear, etc. would have all helped and now the U.S. Army is seeing the need for EW/ECM, longer ranged artillery, robotics, hypersonics, NGCV, upgrades, etc. But did it see this before and if so, when? Did the Pentagon order the proper equipment and weapons to resolve these conflicts? Why was so much politics involved or lack of motivation and desire to field such a system if it helped? Why did this work and not that? Turkey and ham dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas for decades were a huge success and then how about for other aspects like new bullets and new helmets that didn't get to the troops in time?
If another country kept its citizens happy and safe by not going to war, then has America fought properly in the almost two decades to make this young student any better? Perhaps a TDY to another country for some R&R might help. This is a serious matter going from the battlefield to the V.A. Hospital to the home and base. We just celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing in a U.S. not really at total war with any nation unlike with North Vietnam 50 years ago.
U.S. servicemembers should take solace that their fight isn't only for the defense and safety of the U.S.A., but also for the Free World. This is all evident on YouTube and travel shows….some cities and people have really grown and prospered in the world since the turn of the century. People from all over the world still want to come and live in the United States of America.
There is benefit to a certain amount of detachment. The war we’re fighting against Islamic extremism is multigenerational and one can expect success in some theaters like Isis and less success in others like Afghanistan spread out over a long period of time. Public scrutiny that is too intense may engender clamor for immediate results that leads to disillusionment and early withdrawal.
The current approach begun by Obama and continued by Trump seems about right. Keep our casualties low, the enemies’ high and allow disappointment and dissatisfaction to grow on the other side. Keep the pressure off our side and let the coming demographic changes (aging) in the Moslem world sap their resolve as the author Spengler has suggested in regard to Iran and the Palestinians.
If nothing else, the absence of the Draft adds to the ignorance of where and what the armed services are doing at any given time.
During WWII and Vietnam, 2/3 of the men who served in Vietnam were volunteers. 2/3 of the men who served in World War II were drafted. (Approximately 70% of those killed in Vietnam were volunteers.)
Since the Draft gave way to VOLAR, the American public does not have a personal stake in our wars, unless a relative joins. Most politicians never served, as most reporters haven't either.
SPC Sarsfield, as your former AIT Instructor, I am proud of you. Now I know why you wrote so much in class. Keep writing. I appreciate your perspective.
Also I blame social media filter bubbles for the disconnection. The algorithms segregate people.
I served from 4-1-75 to 7-20 1979. I was awarded the Vietnam service medal towards the end of boot camp. I went to the drill instructor and said a mistake was made because I have never been close to Vietnam. I signed up before I graduated from high school and a week or 2 before Saigon fell. I never did see combat but did serve to the best of my ability and was given a honorable discharge. When asked about my service I never say I got a Vietnam service medal. But I do tell people I am a veteran. And I say that with pride.