"I am a Ground Troop" by Col. Matthew Moten, U.S. Army

"I Am a Ground Troop", June 1999, by Matthew Moten, LtCol. US Army and PhD, Rice University

[This essay was originally published as a op-ed piece in several national newspapers. Matthew Moten is now a Colonel in the US Army and Professor of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point and author for Simon and Schuster. - B. Lawler]

I am a ground troop. I'm the guy you've heard pundits, politicians, pollsters, and very occasionally, real people talking about. You will usually hear them talking about "sending in" guys like me. But what we "ground troops" are to be "sent in" to do is the subject of much muffled mumbling.
The banality of such discourse stems from the poverty of the average American's military lexicon. This country has now reared a second generation that cannot tell a colonel from a corporal, a soldier from a Marine, a howitzer from a tank. And the reason for this limited vocabulary is a dearth of military experience. The fact is that most Americans have not served, have never thought of serving, and have no close tie to anyone who has served in the military.

Now, one might argue that a societal ignorance of military experience is a good and precious thing. Indeed, America remains the only superpower, economically as much as militarily. And the power and reach and sophistication of our armed forces is such that we see no "peer competitor" on the horizon as far as we can project. It is a luxury, and an accident of history, that we enjoy such prosperity and security when our citizens are so free from the burdens of military service that they give little thought to war, or conflict, or much else that happens beyond our shores.


There's the rub. Americans give almost no attention to matters of national security. When a crisis rears, they give practitioners of the military art, us "ground troops," an unwitting compliment. They believe that we are equal to any task. Over a coffee break with a strategic wave of the hand, they "send in the ground troops," those undifferentiated and interchangeable parts of military power, and assume that all will be well.

The American military profession is partly to blame for this cavalier attitude. In the quarter century since the Vietnam War, we have rebuilt the military into an all-volunteer, professional force. We won the Cold War and then Desert Storm with such efficiency and such blood-stinginess that most Americans now view war as antiseptic. America now expects, and regularly receives, military action that results in no U.S. casualties and little loss of innocent life among our adversaries.

The recent bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Serbia are all examples of the art. It seems that we have achieved a Clausewitzian absurdity. Carl von Clausewitz, the vaunted Prussian military historian and theorist, argued that Napoleon's great and horrible contribution was bringing the people into warfare. Prior to the French Revolution, war was a sport of kings, wherein the maneuver of small, expensive, professional armies was frequently an end in itself. As on a chessboard, the outmaneuvered opponents of Marlborough or Frederick often capitulated bloodlessly and acquiesced to the limited political demands of the victors.

Napoleon, on the other hand, wielding the emotion and violence of the levee en masse, ruthlessly and bloodily conquered enemies who still played by these old rules. Clausewitz theorized that Napoleon had changed the rules for all time, thereby transforming war. And as the Industrial Revolution reinforced state-harnessed popular violence, bloodbaths in the American Civil War and two World Wars ensued with greater and greater fury. Now it seems that we have returned to the pre-Napoleonic era.

American military forces are again small, expensive, and professional. Thanks to Information-Age technology they are also growing ever more effective and lethal. But the people are no longer there. That change is not technological. It is political. As Joseph Califano has recently reminded us, young Americans began turning against warfare in 1968. That is when the Johnson Administration took steps to see that the sons of the middle class would begin to bear the burdens of military service alongside their poorer and darker fellow citizens.

War protests began in earnest once the oxen of the articulate were gored. The war became unpopular. Johnson, then Nixon in his turn, lost support of the people. America lost that war in 1973 and turned away from conscripting its citizens to fill its military ranks. Since that time the armed forces, and especially the Army, have recruited an all-volunteer force disproportionately from the cohorts of the working class and the poor, the African-American and the Latino. Even so, most of these do not join. And the sons and daughters of the middle and upper classes rarely consider volunteering for military service. This phenomenon has had some salutary effects. Many of the less-privileged have come to see military service as a socio-economic ladder, and rightly so. And the military has become the most racially and ethnically integrated and diverse institution in the country. It is commonplace for our bosses, peers and subordinates to be of other races and ethnicities than ourselves.

But in a larger sense, the voluntary filling of our military ranks has caused a gap between the civilian and military cultures that is bad for both, and worse for our national security. Some military officers and thinkers have begun to note and even to celebrate this separation as significant of greater sacrifice, higher patriotism, purer morality in the armed forces.

Richard Kohn and Andrew Bacevich have reviewed this trend, expressing concern over the coming "Grand Army of the Republicans." Their worries are well placed. Civilians, feeling no connection to our military, have a detached view of our foreign policy. How long has it been since national security concerns have played any significant role in an election?

No coherent foreign policy consensus has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union, largely because our leaders perceive no political benefit to engaging the public on issues in which there is such widespread disinterest. The American public tends to focus on foreign problems only so long as Christiane Amanpour does, and then with far less fervor.

Whither now? I would suggest that Americans try to view our role in the world just as we "ground troops" do, which is, to ask the question-does this policy objective engage our national interest to the point that I am willing to fight and die for it? Don't misunderstand, we "ground troops" don't vote on which missions we intend to support. We have all sworn to uphold the Constitution and to obey the orders of the President of the United States. We will go when and where we are ordered. Still, we cannot and do not detach ourselves from critical evaluation of American foreign policy, because we have that personal stake in it.

I realize that my prescription is a tall order for countless millions of Americans who have no such stake and who know of no one who does. Yet I am reminded of the admonition that former Senator Bill Bradley gave us about our national struggles with race. He noted that most of us have never sat and honestly engaged a member of the other race in a conversation about racial issues. And he asked us, as Americans, to do so. Those who have taken up his challenge have found the experience enlightening, often moving.

Let me make a similar suggestion. Find a "ground troop" and ask what he - or she - is willing to die for. You will be moved, even enlightened. And our collective thinking about our national interests will be the richer for your conversation.