The wars we've left behind

By Michael Gerson
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 5:46 PM

Among the most striking developments of the 2010 campaign season is the vast silence on matters of war and peace. President Obama seldom raises the topic on the campaign trail, and his Tea Party critics have no discernible foreign policy. Reacting to a list of public issues, fewer than 10 percent of Americans rank the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as their top concern. When Gallup recently asked voters an open-ended question about their main priorities, war in general was brought up by 3 percent and Iraq by 1 percent. Afghanistan was an asterisk, mentioned by less than one-half of 1 percent of respondents.

Just four years ago, polls consistently found the Iraq war the most important issue to voters. Iraq seemed headed toward civil war. America seemed headed toward a global humiliation more consequential than Vietnam, beginning a period of retrenchment and isolation. Barack Obama won his party's nomination promising early troop withdrawals from Iraq.

Though tens of thousands of American troops remain in Iraq, its declining political significance is explained by success. Obama received the gift of a more stable Iraq from his predecessor, which allowed for a responsible drawdown in forces.

But there is no comparable success that accounts for the irrelevance of Afghanistan in the midterm debate. Majorities of Americans now describe the Afghan war as a "lost cause" and a "situation like Vietnam." Yet it is barely a factor in a national election.

What explains this lack of urgency? The economic diva, of course, has driven competing issues off the stage. But there are other reasons. The Afghan war has a new general with a sterling track record, resulting in an extension of public patience. And a Democratic president has advantages in conducting an unpopular conflict. Democrats - more naturally antiwar - were perfectly willing to savage George W. Bush on the Iraq war, declaring it "lost" and moving to defund it. In general, Republicans remain supportive of the Afghanistan war and have refused to use it in partisan ways.

The political cease-fire on Afghanistan will eventually break down. The best advice of military commanders is likely to conflict with Obama's arbitrary July 2011 deadline for the beginning of American withdrawal, reopening all the poorly healed wounds of the administration's Afghan policy process.

But some posit a deeper reason for widespread public indifference to America's wars. We are a society, the argument goes, that does not broadly distribute military hardships. A group of volunteers, often from small towns and rural areas of the South and Mountain West, bears much of the burden of service. "I do not think that any nation should go to war," says Ted Koppel, "simply on the backs of a few hundred thousand men and women and their families. When a nation goes to war, it needs to be as an entity." Koppel and others point to World War II as a model, in which the draft and rationing imposed sacrifice on citizens of every background.

The cultural gap between the military and civilians is a challenge. "There is a risk over time," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently, "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." Gates suggests in particular that colleges and universities should be more open to ROTC programs and that more college students should consider military careers.

But at a recent dinner I attended that included military officers, there was no nostalgia for the draft. A drafted military did indeed reflect America - including a significant portion of young Americans in need of remediation or imprisonment. Much of the military's time and effort was spent on the challenges of the bottom quintile. The volunteer force allows for recruitment of a higher-quality soldier with a precise set of skills. A draft is no solution in a nation where about 75 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds are unfit for military service due to poor education, obesity, criminal records, drug use and other disqualifications.

Given the kind of skills and experience required in the modern military, those who defend us will be a professional class. Given the continuing threat of terrorism, they will remain active even when our attention lags or turns inward. They are not like the rest of America - thank God. They bear a disproportionate burden, and they seem proud to do so. And they don't need the rest of society to join them, just to support them.

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