This Memorial Day, Let’s Finally Start Having an Honest National Conversation About Military Service

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For decades, pundits have gravely wagged their fingers at Americans for trivializing Memorial Day. Rather than reflecting in mournful solemnity on the many thousands who have lost their lives in service of their country, Americans instead — according to the usual chargedesecrate their memories by rushing to take advantage of the latest sales, guzzling down beer, and gorging themselves on hot dogs. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sales this year will (hopefully) be more sparsely attended, when they are held at all. The barbeques will mostly be limited to backyards, with just immediate family in attendance. The rhetoric of heroism and sacrifice will still be in the air, but now attached as much to health care workers as to uniformed service members. As we celebrate a Memorial Day like no other in recent memory, perhaps our pandemical circumstances can inspire more serious and meaningful observance of this day.

Yet that would require unflinching honesty about the nature of military service in modern America. Such frank conversation has long been lacking. For nearly half a century — since the end of the draft in 1973 — the United States has recruited its armed forces on the open labor market. But American politicians and pundits, whether on the political left or the right, rarely, if ever, acknowledge this truth. They seldom speak of service members as well-trained professionals doing a dangerous job for which they receive compensation. More often, they hail soldiers and officers as model citizens and patriots, making the greatest of sacrifices for the common good. In such public rhetoric — to which we will surely be treated again this Memorial Day — the professional American soldier of today is reimagined as the citizen-soldier of yore. On Memorial Day four years ago, President Barack Obama paid homage to the extraordinary virtue of these Americans, moved by love of country: “Less than one percent of our nation wears the uniform, and so few Americans see this patriotism with their own eyes or know someone who exemplifies it.” Notwithstanding candidate and President Donald Trump’s periodic run-ins with Gold Star families, he too has participated in this rhetorical ritual: The fallen, he declared at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 2017, “made their sacrifice not for fame, or for money, or even for glory — but for country.”



It is not just politicians who idealize America’s soldiers, especially on Memorial Day. Three years ago, Major League Baseball sold camouflage Memorial Day baseball caps to honor “those who’ve sacrificed to keep us safe.” Budweiser has similarly marketed a “patriotic package” for Memorial Day, complete with camouflage beer bottles, “to remind Budweiser drinkers of the courage and sacrifice made by all American service men and women who protect our nation and our freedoms.” Veterans organizations explain Memorial Day as an opportunity to remember those who “came from all walks of life and regions of the country” but “had one thing in common — love of and loyalty to country.” The nation’s highest-ranking military officers remember fallen service members (at all times and especially on Memorial Day) as dedicated to “our national purpose, to secure the blessings of liberty.” Their civilian counterparts, like Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in 2015, similarly paint Memorial Day as a time to remember “humble, patriotic, and selfless” heroes. Hollywood also plays its part in glorifying service members, in films like Zero Dark Thirty or Warrior and in television shows like SEAL Team. Indeed, as Caroline Bechtel has accurately pointed out in War on the Rocks, “almost all depictions of the military in popular culture are reverent and sobering. Military personnel are glorified as warrior heroes… Sometimes contemporary war stories are so grandiose that they feel like recruitment ads, glamorizing service.” This is no coincidence, as the military has long traded gear and personnel in exchange for shaping how soldiers are portrayed on screen.

Recruiters for the professional military certainly know better than to ascribe purely patriotic reasons for joining the armed forces. They are at least as, and perhaps more, likely to talk about the perks of military service than they are about patriotism. Adventure and travel feature in their pitches, but also far more mundane things: post-military career possibilities, tuition scholarships, housing, loans, and healthcare. When the services fall short of their recruitment targets, the bonuses are trotted out, and the shortfalls disappear. Study after study has found that the motivations of servicemen and servicewomen are varied. Patriotism is unquestionably part of the story for many military recruits. But paychecks matter too.

Politicians, corporate America, and civil society embrace militaristic myth-making, putting the nation’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen up on a pedestal. But has the American public fallen for it? Until very recently, we did not know what Americans believe about why people join the military. Do Americans think of servicemen and servicewomen as paragons of patriotism and citizenship? Or do Americans recognize that they can be moved to enlist as much by the monetary rewards that service provides?

Between September 12 and 21, 2018, we fielded a survey to a nationally representative United States-based sample. Our findings were recently published in Armed Forces & Society. We asked respondents what they believe to be the primary reason that people join the military. Respondents were presented with four choices. Two were “intrinsic” reasons: (1) “because they believe it is their duty as citizens” or (2) “because they are patriots who love their country.” Two options were “extrinsic”: (3) “for the pay, benefits, and skills they get in exchange for military service”; or (4) “because they do not believe they have other ways of escaping their desperate life circumstances.”

We found that, despite the reality of market-based recruitment, about half of Americans believe people join the military primarily out of either patriotic love of country (33 percent) or the duties of citizenship (14 percent). A plurality of our sample — 43 percent — ascribed enlistment to “pay and benefits,” while another 10 percent said that service members sign up chiefly because they have “no other options.” In general, moreover, our respondents are “strong believers” in their chosen account of military service. When we asked respondents to estimate what percentage of people join the U.S. military for each of the four supplied reasons, 62.5 percent assigned scores of 50 percent or more to one answer.

In line with intuitive expectations, liberals and conservatives hold very different beliefs about  people’s motivations for service. We found that politically conservative respondents were more likely to ascribe military service to “intrinsic” motivations — that is, either patriotism or good citizenship — while liberals were more likely to see “extrinsic” motivations — whether the pull of pay and benefits or the push of desperate circumstances — as the driver. For example, 42 percent of very liberal respondents believed that people joined the military primarily for the pay and benefits they receive, while 33 percent of very conservative respondents said the same. Over 50 percent of very conservative respondents averred that service members join out of love of country, while only 22 percent of very liberal respondents subscribed to this patriotic account. Finally, nearly 20 percent of very liberal respondents, and just 4 percent of very conservative respondents, believed that people join the military because they have no other options. These differences between liberals and conservatives remained significant even after controlling for other factors such as respondents’ feelings toward the military, and common demographic variables like age, education, sex, income, and race.

Those who have served have a different view. Respondents who had served since the end of the draft in 1973 were significantly more likely to acknowledge that the market matters to service members’ decisions to join. Over half of respondents with experience in the All-Volunteer Force cited pay and benefits as the primary motivation, compared to 42.5 percent of respondents without military experience. The significance of this finding is borne out as well in more sophisticated statistical analyses that control for the factors listed above. On the one hand, this finding may be unexpected in light of current and former soldiers’ psychological incentives to portray service as grounded in more noble motives. On the other hand, it may make good sense: Those who have served in the All-Volunteer Force have first-hand knowledge of how economic considerations shape enlistment decisions.

We were especially surprised to find that members of military households were particularly prone to deny that economics drives enlistment decisions and to endorse either the patriotic or citizenship narrative — as compared to the general public and to their veteran and active-duty relatives. While just 27.7 percent of respondents who served in the All-Volunteer Force say that soldiers join the armed forces primarily out of patriotism, 36.5 percent of respondents from military households subscribed to this view. This finding held up to a variety of statistical tests, including with the usual controls. We can only speculate as to why military household members hold such views, or why their views diverge so dramatically from their loved ones. It is possible that service members misrepresent their motives to their families, perhaps because they think that their close relatives want to hear their motives are pure and idealistic. But we suspect that a psychological logic is at work. Military household members have few outlets for coping emotionally with the dangers to which their relatives are exposed while deployed. They cannot control whether their loved ones live or die, and they understandably want that sacrifice to have meaning. Service members, however, have some control over their fate on the battlefield, and they are surrounded by comrades in arms who share their risks and fears. They have less need to romanticize their service.

What’s the harm in idealizing soldiers, holding them up as moral exemplars? First, it is possible that some service members and officers will come to believe the myth. Preliminary research by Colonel Heidi Urben, Susan Bryant, and Brett Swaney (presented this past fall at the biennial meeting of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society) suggests this may be the case. If personnel and officers believe they are superior to civilians who have not served, democratic civil-military relations will likely suffer. Why should the uniformed military take orders from these civilians, if the latter are their moral inferiors? The usual answer is that civilian officials are accountable to the public, either directly via election or through their elected representatives. But serving personnel who are persuaded of their own relative virtue may not deeply value democratic accountability. It is not just the elites who do not serve. Few Americans do. If military service is the preeminent proof of moral fiber, then the overwhelming majority of Americans are lacking.

Second, it is equally problematic if civilians idealize the military — and, as we have shown, about half of Americans do. Andrew Bacevich has suggested that granting social prestige to the military allows Americans to underpay them for their service. Even worse, as we show in unpublished ongoing research, Americans may then be more inclined to send the troops into harm’s way, figuring that these intrinsically motivated soldiers would welcome deployment. In addition, Americans may also then then be more inclined to have their elected representatives defer to the military’s judgment about whether to undertake or terminate missions, contravening democratic norms of civil-military relations.

It is hard for Americans to imagine an alternative to an exclusively patriotic narrative of service. But it is worth recalling that neither U.S. politicians nor the mass American public have always valorized the nation’s soldiers and officers as uniquely patriotic and as the best America has to offer. Even today, politicians in other countries — such as Germany and the United Kingdom — do not regularly conflate military service with civic virtue. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that current and former members of the U.S. military are themselves tired of being held up as moral exemplars. Our findings provide some, albeit still just suggestive, evidence that All-Volunteer Force veterans may generally feel this way. It’s exhausting to be a saint all the time.

We wish, on this Memorial Day, that America’s leaders would speak more honestly — for the first time in memory — about military service. The nation’s soldiers and officers are well-trained professionals whose job can be hazardous. They are public servants, and they deserve respect. But they do not need to be worshiped as “heroes.” On Memorial Day, their deaths should be remembered and honored, but without drifting into the religious language of “sacrifice.” It does U.S. service members no disservice to acknowledge that their reasons for joining the armed forces may not have been purely patriotic. Just the opposite. Imagine if this Memorial Day America’s military and civilian leaders told more genuine stories about where soldiers come from, and about the complex mix of pushes and pulls that leads them into the military. In stripping away the penumbra cast by militaristic myths, the nation’s leaders might also help to nurture greater care about America’s use of force. It is much easier to send the patriotic, gung-ho hero into harm’s way than to dispatch into battle either the careerist professional doing her job or the reluctant soldier striving to escape multigenerational poverty.

Such a candid national conversation would be good for members of the U.S. military. It would be good for the nation too. And, sadly, it will almost certainly not happen.



Ronald R. Krebs is Beverly and Richard Fink Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. He is the author most recently of Narrative and the Making of US National Security (Cambridge UP, 2015), and he is coeditor, with Thierry Balzacq, of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Grand Strategy.

Robert Ralston is a predoctoral fellow at the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy at Texas A&M University and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @RobertJRalston.

This piece draws from their recently published scholarly article, “Patriotism or Paychecks? Who Believes What About Why Soldiers Serve,” in Armed Forces & Society.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Airman 1st Class Noah Sudolcan)



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