What Will Today’s Veterans Think of Government in the Future?

While reading an interview of macroeconomist (and rational expectations theorist) Thomas J. Sargent in Arjo Klamer’s interesting book, Conversations with Economists (1983), I happened upon this notable passage:

I went through ROTC, was commissioned, and then worked in the systems analysis office of the Pentagon.  It changed me in some ways, made me more conservative.  I came to understand more clearly the limitations of government actions.  It was a learning experience.  My conclusions came from seeing the whole decision-making process by which the US got into the war: how we evaluated the situation, how we processed the data from the war, how we understood our options, what we saw as the resources and costs in Southeast Asia, and what we thought was the likely outcome.  We didn’t do a very good job.  There was an incredible volume of inefficient and bad decisions, which one must take into account when devising institutions for making policy [emphasis added]. 

This passage made me wonder how current veterans – many of whom will become our country’s future leaders – will think about government following their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Will they, like Sargent, become more conservative after seeing up-close the frequently ugly way in which policy is made and implemented?  Or will they have a different reaction because of the kind of war they are fighting and the strategy/tactics the U.S. is employing (or at least stressing)?  In particular, will soldiers trained to think that they can win over the “hearts and minds” of the population largely through government directed or guided activities (in the parlance of counterinsurgency, Civil-Military Operations) have more faith in central planning and the use of the government to direct economic and social change at home?    

Of course, this entire discussion is prefaced on the notion that one’s political views aren’t very sticky. 

It is also important to note that soldiers aren’t tabula rasa – the majority of officers are conservatives already (see Peter Feaver and Richard Kohn’s work on this), and thus one could assume that they already have at least some skepticism about the government.  However, as soldier-scholar Jason Dempsey shows in his new book Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations, it is a mistake to see the entire military as a single mass of conservatives.  Instead, as Dempsey highlights, “while army officers are likely to be more conservative, rank-and-file soldiers hold political views that mirror those of the American public as a whole, and army personnel are less partisan and politically engaged than most civilians.”  I would also add that the conservatism of soldiers might not be representative of American conservatives in general.  Many Americans who call themselves conservatives are really classical liberals by another name who are trying to conserve the ideals of the very libertarian American Revolution.  However, many soldiers are only conservative in the realist, Teddy Roosevelt, neoconservative, or New Right sense – none of which have been all that skeptical about the growth of government or fully appreciative of the difficulties inherent to government “solutions.”

Lastly, this is not necessarily a criticism of COIN a la FM 23-4.  It may be the best way to win at counterinsurgency.  However, it would be surprising if doing COIN didn’t have some impact on those tasked with carrying it out.

One thought on “What Will Today’s Veterans Think of Government in the Future?

  1. I really like setting COIN into the midst of domestic debates about the proper scope of government. It is, of course, a double-edged sword. Will veterans come out with a greater appreciation of state power as a means of shaping a society? Or will they see the futility of such imposition where there are not shared assumptions regarding a desirable social end state?

    More substantively, I think COIN has very limited ends–stability, security, and a demonstrable commitment by government and its stakeholders to hashing out differences within an agreed upon structure, whether that be rule of law, tribal systems, or centrally managed corruption. In other words, I think its purview ends at the point of governance, that same point which most liberal/conservative ideologies take as their launch pad.

    COIN strategy does not, in my mind, aspire to build the modern state. It aims merely for a post-feudal one.

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