Gates: Too few Americans are in the fight

I attended U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s speech at Duke University this evening. My report is below.

Military service has become “something for other people to do”

The U.S. military is becoming too dependent on a small, battle-weary segment of the population to fight the nation’s battles, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Wednesday. More than 1 million ground troops have been put into the fight since the invasion of Iraq, Gates said, and the strain is starting to show.

In his speech at Duke University, Gates cautioned that America may be “developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they are sworn to defend.” He pointed to the heavy concentration of Army bases in just five states – Texas, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina – and warned that a “void of relationships and understanding of the armed forces” is emerging as base closures in the northeast and on the West Coast continue to geographically isolate the military community from the rest of the country.

Today, Gates said, fewer Americans know someone who has served in the military: in 1988, 40 percent of 18-year-olds had a veteran parent, but now that number is a mere 18 percent. Increasingly, Gates cautioned, the burden of defending our country is falling to a tight-knit group of military families. The children of senior officers often choose to follow their parents into the military, Gates said. As an example, he pointed to the son of the former commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq. The commander’s son was badly wounded in the early part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Gates also took aim at what he characterized as the necessary but potentially overwhelming financial burden of healthcare, retention bonuses and pay raises. He noted that Department of Defense spending on personnel and benefits has almost doubled, from $90 billion in 2001 to over $170 billion for this year. That’s almost a third of the Department’s $534 billion budget.

Gates warned that unless the government tackles rising costs, the Department of Defense could go the way of other “industrial age organizations that sank under the weight of their personnel costs.” While it is our “sacred obligation” to “compensate or care for those who have served and suffered on the battlefield,” Gates said the Department of Defense needs to focus on reforming a benefits system that, in some cases, hasn’t implemented premium or co-pay increases in over a decade.

Gates is looking to college students to solve budget dilemmas, fight our nation’s wars and reduce the military’s reliance on a “growing concentration [of] certain regions and families.” He suggested that an influx of new officers from the country’s elite institutions would broaden the military’s recruiting base, which currently comes “predominantly from America’s working and middle classes.”

Gates asked elite schools to let ROTC programs, long a target of scorn at many top institutions, return or expand to recruit the next generation of military leaders. Gates said that “ROTC programs […] are the way we keep our military grounded in our communities,” and the programs shouldn’t be confined to smaller institutions or state schools.

In the past, Gates said, the all-volunteer force has been unfairly painted as a place where only “the poorest, the worst educated, the least able to get any other job” would be willing to serve. But Gates said that prediction just didn’t come true. Today’s military is surprisingly well-educated: 15% more of enlisted service members have high school diplomas than do their civilian counterparts, and almost all officers have bachelors’ degrees.

Gates encouraged students to “go outside [their] comfort zones” and see the military as an opportunity instead of a burden. Young leaders who would otherwise by “reading spreadsheets and making photocopies” could be in Iraq or Afghanistan “dealing with development, governance, agriculture and diplomacy.”

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