by Dan De Luce
Sep 29, 2010
DURHAM, North Carolina (AFP) – Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned
on Wednesday that the all-volunteer US military could become
alienated from the rest of society, with recruits and bases
concentrated in more rural, conservative areas.
Gates said most Americans were untouched by the fighting in Iraq and
Afghanistan and few had relatives or friends in the armed forces, as
less than one percent of the population was serving in uniform.
"Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for
most Americans the wars remain an abstraction," he said in a speech
at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
War was merely "a distant and unpleasant series of news items that
does not affect them personally," he added.
He said an increasing number of service members came from the South
and the Mountain West, which was also where more military bases were
located, while fewer recruits came from more left-leaning cities in
the Northeast and Pacific Coast.
Although Gates lauded the all-volunteer force, launched in the 1970s,
as a "remarkable success," he said there was a potential gap emerging
between the military and civilian society.
"There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders
that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less
in common with the people they have sworn to defend," he said.
Gates said that the bitter fallout from the Vietnam War also meant
many elite universities no longer allowed the US military to run
reserve officer training programs from campuses.
The result was "neither good for the academy or the country," he said
expressing hope that top universities would restore their connection
to the armed forces.
Gates made an indirect reference to Harvard University, saying one of
its alumni, President Barack Obama, had urged it to reopen its campus
to officer training.
To rebuild the link between the military and leading colleges, Gates
said it was vital that university students consider joining up.
He told the Duke University audience that putting on a uniform
offered unique challenges and a chance to shape the country's future,
despite the lethal risks of combat.
"So I would encourage you and all young Americans, especially those
at the most selective universities who may not have considered the
military, to do so. To go outside your comfort zone and take a risk
in every sense of the word," he said.
"Because, if America's best and brightest young people will not step
forward, who then can we count on to protect and sustain the
greatness of this country?"
Gates ruled out a return to conscription and offered no policy
proposals. Instead, he raised questions about the "dilemmas"
associated with having a "tiny sliver of America" fighting the country's wars.
"Going back to compulsory service, in addition to being politically
impossible, is highly impractical given the kinds of technical
skills, experience, and attributes needed to be successful on the
battlefield in the 21st century."
But he said the strains on the volunteer force were building, amid
rising suicide and divorce rates.
"How long can these brave and broad young shoulders carry the burden
that we -- as a military, as a government, as a society -- continue
to place on them?"
The Pentagon chief said the price tag of the all-volunteer force was
rising dramatically, particularly due to sky-rocketing health care
costs, and that the government would face tough decisions in the years ahead.
Leaders would face a challenge in funding "an equitable and
sustainable system of military pay and benefits that reflects the
realities of this century," he added.