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How the American culture of war influences our democracy

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


LAWRENCE — Unlike past decades, fewer Americans are familiar with those who die in combat or even serve in the military, according to John Kelly, White House chief of staff and retired Marine general.

"They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don't know them. Many of you don't know anyone who knows any one of them," Kelly recently told the press.

While his speech was politically controversial for other reasons, his point about the military being isolated from mainstream America is one of the key arguments in the third edition of a University of Kansas military historian's book, "The American Culture of War."

"The American way of war has evolved," said Adrian Lewis, professor of history and retired soldier who served with the U.S. Army's 9th Infantry Division and the 2nd Ranger Battalion. "The way we go about war is not sustainable."

Lewis' newest version of the book examines the history of U.S. military forces from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, through an updated account of military involvement in the Middle East, including the abrupt rise of the Islamic State.

It's the only single-volume study that covers this entire period. The American culture of war has evolved significantly since World War II, he said. Foremost, the elimination of the draft in 1973 as the Vietnam War drew to a close drastically changed who served in the military. Historians since have analyzed how the reliance on all volunteers has influenced not only the size of the military but how it potentially has stressed the armed forces and American democracy, he said.

"My fundamental belief is that we need to change the way we do things," Lewis said. "We are relying on a small group of Americans, 1 percent of the population, to maintain security around the planet, and in many cases that force has proven to be too small."

As part of his argument, Lewis said the current setup has unintentionally turned back the clock on how the nation is governed.

"We used to be what is called a modern nation state. We aren't anymore," Lewis said. "We have almost gone back to a period of the Middle Ages where we have a king and a small professional army. The American people have divorced themselves from the wars the United States fights. It gives the president and the military greater freedom, but it also restricts the resources they need."

For example, in recent operations in Iraq, many soldiers served three or four tours, creating enormous stress on them and their families, he said. Experts have also questioned whether the recent Navy ship collisions, including the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain, were a function of a system overstressed from repeated deployments.

The small professional force has created other problems. Military operations today are more reliant on air power than ever before because of too few soldiers and Marines. This is a very expensive way to conduct war, but worse, it too frequently fails to achieve political objectives, Lewis said. And the armed forces have come to rely on private contractors for security and other logistical services, functions they used to perform. This has opened the door to corruption and criticism on how contracts were awarded, he said.

"Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan made billions, and we are still asking what we got for it," Lewis said.

Aside from questions surrounding the current system's sustainability, even if policymakers changed service requirement laws to increase the number of soldiers and Marines, health issues due to obesity and drug addiction make 75 percent of Americans unqualified and unfit for service.

"If we had to fight World War II today, we couldn't do it," Lewis said.

The third edition of his book also examines updated scholarship on the Vietnam and Korean wars as more writings are released from Chinese and Korean historians, which adds perspectives that could be valuable given the current tensions with the North Korean regime, he said.

"Knowledge of why and how Korea was divided at the 38th parallel at the end of World War II and how the U.S. conducted war, particularly the strategic bombing campaign, is crucial to understanding the behavior and actions of Kim Jung Un today," Lewis said.

Photo: A Marine salutes the memorial stand for Lance Cpl. Cody Stanley, a vehicle commander with Combined Anti-Armor Team, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, during a memorial service at Combat Outpost Caferetta, Helmand province, Afghanistan. Credit: U.S. government.