The Warrior Caste

America increasingly relies on a small group of multigenerational military families to fight its wars. That’s a problem.

Cadets of the U.S. Military Academy Class of 2004
The U.S. Military Academy Class of 2004 celebrates after graduating with the traditional hat toss in West Point, New York, on May 29, 2004.

Henry Ray Abrams/Reuters

When the new White House chief of staff, then a Marine general, John Kelly received a knock on the door in November 2010, he became the highest-ranking military officer to lose a child in combat. In addition to his son Robert, killed by a landmine in Afghanistan in 2010, his other son is also an active-duty Marine. The Kellys’ legacy of service is not unusual among military families. This type of lineage has led to generations of flag officers, fathers and sons who reunite while deployed, and families who bear the loss of a war America has forgotten we are fighting.

The U.S. military is comprised today of a large number of families who serve generation after generation. While the service and sacrifice of these families over the years are undeniable, the extent to which fighting America’s wars has become a family business should give us pause.

The United States has been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 15 years. There have been calls recently to put “boots on the ground” in Syria. Should the situation on the Korean peninsula deteriorate rapidly, there are already tens of thousands of U.S. troops already on the ground who may be in harm’s way. Yet, for the vast majority of American society, these deployments are an abstraction. Most Americans won’t fight in those conflicts and don’t know anyone who will.

Despite the near-constant engagement of the U.S. military overseas, the everyday welfare and lives of most Americans are unaffected. There are no rations, no war bonds, and no protests over the lives lost and treasure expended. For many people, the news that President Trump is considering adding 5,000 troops to Afghanistan was, more than anything else, a reminder that our military is still there. Aside from blockbusters like American Sniper or a cursory “honoring the troops” before the start of a baseball game, American military engagement is entirely removed from the average citizen. The isolation of military service to relatively few Americans not only affects the makeup of the military but how it intersects with society. It’s a lot easier to go along with the president’s plans for military action when it’s someone else’s sons, daughters, or parents doing the fighting.

Who serves when not all serve? This is a fundamental question for a nation that relies on volunteers to staff its military. In the United States, perhaps the strongest predictor of military service is having a family member who served—allowing for extended family members, it averages to about 80 percent of new recruits across the services. Going a step further, between 22 and 35 percent (depending on the service) are the child of a service member. The West Point Class of 2017 includes three brothers who will all commission into the Army, and whose father and mother both served in the Coast Guard.

While at first glance this makes sense—children are likely to follow in their siblings’ and parents’ footsteps—it’s a remarkable gut check when you look at the past 15 years of war. The military draws many recruits from the same communities and the same families, isolating those in uniform from society and vice versa. In essence, the self-selection dynamics have created a “warrior caste.”

These dynamics are only getting more pernicious over time. About 61 percent of Americans have a familial connection to service, but only 33 percent of Americans under the age of 30 share that connection. In a government self-described as “by the people, for the people,” fewer people than ever are interacting with those in uniform, and very few choose to serve. Not lost on the services themselves, 84 percent of veterans agree “the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families.” Retired Adm. Michael Mullen and retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have both expressed concern over the growing isolation of the force, and have five children in uniform between their two families.

In addition to the very real human costs borne by select families, the trend of familial service is also echoed in the diversity of the force. Areas of the country with a history and tradition of military service tend to be overrepresented in the armed forces, particularly the South, contributing more than its fair share of 18–24 year olds to military service: 44.3 percent of new recruits in 2015, 20 percent more than the region’s share of the total U.S. population. Furthering this geographic isolation, veterans tend to live near military bases or move back home, not only creating another division from the public writ large but being an example and influencer of military service from the same communities over and over again.

Though largely reflective of the racial diversity of the United States as a whole, the military is still predominantly male and predominantly white, a trend that will continue if recruiting is focused on areas of historical service. In 2015, 68.8 percent of the active duty force was white, and 84.5 percent male. While the force as a whole largely reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the United States today, this does not hold for the officer corps, particularly at the most senior levels of leadership, which are 88.9 percent white and over 90 percent male. Polling indicates that those who are white and those who identify as Republican are more likely to have familial connections to military service. Skewing the demographics of the recruiting pool will continue to foster isolation and shrink the number of Americans connected to military service.

Study after study shows diversity of thought benefits organizations, from their bottom line to the overall organization’s success. If we’re fostering a military from the same families and the same places, there’s a loss in terms of diversity of background and experience that could be crippling strategic thought without anyone noticing. The upper echelons of the military are primarily made up of white men—who have, to be sure, chosen a life of service and done tremendous things for their country—but the nature of the system itself, growing generals over 20–30 years, puts diversity of leadership at a serious disadvantage.

Women were integrated into the prestigious (and general-producing) infantry in the past couple of years, but today’s new lieutenants won’t lead their services until the 2040s. We’re just now seeing female pilot leadership reach the highest echelons of the Air Force—after the barriers to that job were removed in the early 1990s. Possessing the best fighting force in the world requires constant vigilance as to the health of the force: recruiting and retaining a cross-section of Americans that bring diverse perspectives and experiences to foster the strongest possible leadership. With the recent Marines United scandal resurfacing omnipresent concerns over the reported levels of sexual harassment in the military, headline-grabbing misconduct does the military no favors. Surveys show that even prior to this most recent scandal, 40 percent of adults considered the risk of sexual assault to be reason enough to dissuade a friend or daughter from serving. Since civilians are already far less likely to recommend military service than veterans, this yet again limits the pool outside of the military community who are receiving positive feedback on joining.

Furthermore, the administration’s latest decision to ban the service of transgender persons limits the future recruiting pool by narrowing eligibility even further. It also reinforces negative perceptions amongst the civilian population, particularly among millennials who are the primary recruiting target for the armed forces. At a time when the military may be looking to increase its end strength, and the economy is doing well, the military’s reputation among influencers becomes a critical component of successfully expanding the recruiting pool beyond the families and communities already serving.

The lack of exposure created by heavily recruiting from the same families and geographic regions means that for many young Americans, ideas about military service come straight from the movies. The myriad jobs and opportunities available through service go unnoticed, leaving military service an option that is left largely unconsidered.

Yet, more than an issue of strength of the military, this disconnect plays a role in allowing use-of-force decisions to go without scrutiny. Even the most robust and diverse military leadership will fall prey to the whims of an unchecked commander in chief and a Congress that has time and time again abdicated its responsibility to authorize the use of force. This lack of accountability preys upon the public’s lack of familiarity with the military and how it’s being leveraged overseas today. The familiarity gap between the military and society posed by the civil-military divide does more than simply make everyday interactions awkward: It allows Congress and the president to use military force with relative impunity and shockingly few checks on those decisions. Even President Trump’s decision to push authority down to field commanders belies a lack of accountability that seems allowable mostly because very few have skin in the game.

To a certain extent, the country seems to have substituted respect and thanks for genuine engagement, a trade-off that serves neither constituency well. While the enmity faced by returning soldiers during Vietnam is not an era we should seek to return to, the ‘thank you for your service’ culture has left many veterans feeling raw, as though a casual thank you somehow inoculates the public from hard conversations over what we’re fighting for and whether it’s worth it. With a large population and small force, some dissociation is likely inevitable, yet the abdication of both knowledge and culpability in America today is shocking. Not only is the subset of the American public that chooses to serve incredibly small, but those who don’t no longer seem to feel as though force is being used on their behalf. The dissociation from war could pose a striking challenge to democratic norms.

The president, as commander in chief, orders the use of military force with a congressional check in the power of the purse and the ability to declare war. On paper, this system should create public discourse and accountability for how and when the lives of Americans are worth risking in combat. In reality, the U.S. has been operating under the same Authorization for the Use of Military Force in the Middle East since 2001.

These generations of war pose an important dilemma, juxtaposing the freedom to volunteer for military service with the implications of having such a small, narrow slice of America serving in our armed forces. If a significant portion of those who serve come from a family legacy of service, the American public is growing further and further away from the military force used on their behalf. Having a separate class of Americans who are responsible for the use of force and lack connectivity to society allows for force to be used more indiscriminately, as the constituency who notice and care dwindles.