Ideas

Ideas | David Scharfenberg

Our military: The greatest social engineering machine ever built

Could the military help us close the worrisome gap between red and blue?
adobe/Globe staff

AFTER RESCINDING A White House invitation to the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles last week amid a nasty spat over protest and patriotism, President Trump decided to honor “the great men and women of our military” instead.

Standing on the South Lawn, hand over heart, he sang along as the United States Marine Band and the Army Chorus performed the national anthem.

“We love our country,” the president said, “we respect our flag, and we always proudly stand for the national anthem.”

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Never mind that none of the Eagles had even participated, during their championship season, in a controversial protest movement that involved kneeling during the anthem. And never mind that NFL players who had participated made it clear they meant no disrespect for the military.

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The president had a culture war to fight.

But hanging over Trump’s attempt to weaponize the armed forces like no president before him — to put soldiers and Marines on the front lines of the clash between red-state and blue-state America — was a heavy irony: The military may, actually, be the best hope we’ve got for mending the cultural and regional divisions the president has exploited politically.

For generations now, the armed forces have provided an opportunity — unmatched in American life — to put very different people in close proximity, and force an explicit reckoning with our most urgent social questions.

Racial integration, women’s equality, the role of gay and lesbian Americans in public life — time and again, the military has played an important, if often reluctant, role in tackling the country’s biggest challenges.

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Now, with Trump and the GOP Congress looking to dramatically expand the military, could the armed forces be on the leading edge of the next great reckoning in American life?

Could the military help us close the worrisome gap between red and blue?

THE UNITED STATES of the early 20th century was a nation stewing in bigotry.

In the South, lynch mobs enforced a dehumanizing racial caste system. Black people who escaped to the North as a part of the “Great Migration” confronted another kind of racial animus. And waves of immigration from new parts of Europe and Asia only added to Anglo America’s anxiety — layering an ugly nativism on top of the country’s white-black tensions.

But then, World War I arrived. And the country was forced to sideline the hate — at least for a time. An army of millions had to be raised. Quickly. And it couldn’t be assembled without substantial numbers of African Americans and immigrants.

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“It was in this crisis,” writes Richard Slotkin, author of “Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality,” “that American leaders rediscovered the ideals of civil equality.”

But if the military offers a rare opportunity to lower the temperature — to ease the red state-blue state divide — it succeeds only as long as it can attract recruits from both parts of the country.

The Committee on Public Information declared the country a “vast, polyglot community” that aspired to something “higher than race loyalty, transcend[ing] mere ethnic prejudices, more binding than the call of a common ancestry.” And some 350,000 black soldiers went on to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces in France.

Those soldiers faced discrimination on the battlefield. And their service hardly meant the end of racial strife at home. Competition for jobs and housing among returning veterans led to a series of race riots in the “Red Summer” of 1919 that left hundreds of blacks dead.

But the war, as Slotkin writes, aroused an activist spirit among minority groups, who pressed for an end to Jim Crow and challenged the real estate “covenants” that locked Jews and other ethnic groups out of the most desirable neighborhoods.

After World War II, President Truman moved to racially integrate the armed forces in 1948. And while the military responded slowly — there were still segregated units at the start of the Korean War — it did integrate, in time.

Generations of black people and white people worked in close proximity. And over time, a quiet revolution in race relations took hold. Enmity between black and white didn’t disappear entirely. Far from it. But it dissipated. And the military moved closer to racial equality than, perhaps, any major institution in American life.

The late Northwestern University military sociologist Charles Moskos may have distilled it best: The military, he used to say, is the one place in American society where black people routinely boss white people around.

RACE, OF COURSE, is different from region.

And it’s hard to pin down what we mean, even, when we talk about the divide between the “South” and the “Northeast,” says Meredith Kleykamp, a University of Maryland sociologist who studies the military.

But, she suggests, we seem to be talking about politics and class. The South is more conservative and blue-collar, the Northeast more progressive and better-off.

Nothing that happens in the military is going to change that basic dynamic; no one expects anything like the flattening of racial hierarchies that’s occurred in the barracks and on the front lines.

What’s required — what’s already happening on a small scale — is something far more modest. The day-to-day, humanizing chatter of co-workers. The red state-blue state banter that happens almost nowhere else in the country.

Of course, if the blue-staters who gravitate to the armed forces are as conservative as their red-state counterparts, the dialogue would be of limited value. And the popular conception of the military is of a thoroughly conservative institution — a narrative stoked by high-profile stories of, say, the Christian right’s hold on the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But the best research suggests otherwise. Data collected by retired Army officer and West Point social scientist Jason Dempsey shows that, while officers tend to lean right, the rank-and-file closely mirror the political and social views of the general public. On some issues, like abortion, they are actually more liberal.

And if the rank-and-file’s views cover the political spectrum, they are also uniquely qualified to talk about their differences in a civil way — or better yet, to look beyond those differences and focus on something larger.

After all, cohesion is something like the guiding principle of the military.

When Marine recruits first step off the bus at boot camp in the wee hours of the night on Parris Island, S.C., they are immediately put in formation — a drill instructor screaming them into a unified whole. And not once, during their 13 weeks of training, are they allowed to say the word “I.”

There is a sublimation of self — and an allegiance to the group — that’s difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t seen it up close.

Over in the Army, says retired Brigadier General Jack Hammond of Reading, Mass., the mantra is “cooperate and graduate.” And the bonds that form in training allow for the sort of civil conversations about hot-button issues like gun control and immigration that are so absent from our politics.

It’s not that minds are changed, says Hammond, it’s that “the temperature comes down”; soldiers recognize that people from different places, with different points of view, aren’t out to get them.

Even the experience of war, he says, can have a moderating effect — offering a visceral sense for what can happen when the antagonism goes too far.

When “people are actually trying to kill you because you have a different view,” says Hammond, who now runs Home Base, an organization that treats veterans with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, you develop a new appreciation for the corrosive effect of divisive rhetoric. “You see so much of that extreme behavior, you never want to see it back home.”

But if the military offers a rare opportunity to lower the temperature — to ease the red state-blue state divide — it succeeds only as long as it can attract recruits from both parts of the country.

And over the last few decades, it has struggled to maintain that balance. In 2016, just 12.7 percent of new military accessions came from the New England and Middle Atlantic states. That’s just over half the Northeast’s tally from the late1970s.

The South, meanwhile, accounts for some 44 percent of accessions. And conservative states in the western part of the country, like Nevada and Arizona, are sending among the largest proportions of their 18 to 24-year-old populations to the military.

The shift is, in part, about larger patterns of migration to the American Sun Belt. But there are other factors at play, too.

STAFF SGT. BRADLEY Wenk had only been recruiting for a few weeks, but it was pretty clear, already, that he would be good at his job.

Tight-cropped hair. Brisk pace. The Marine was working 17-hour days, six days a week, methodically working the streets of East Boston and areas just north of the city.

But he’d been told, many times, that recruiting in this part of the country would not be easy. And he saw it himself, on a recent morning, when he paid a visit to Winthrop High School in the best-off section of his recruiting territory.

The table he’d been assigned sat in front of a wall of college acceptance letters. Boston University. Curry College. Here in the higher education capital of America, young men and women have other options.

There is also the matter of cultural and political opposition to the military. Recruiters all over New England have stories — of parents who hang up on them, or tell their children they’re too good for the armed forces. One group recently tailed Army recruiters at a South Shore track meet, monitoring their interactions with students.

Wenk faced nothing of the kind at Winthrop High. But there was a sort of enforced distance from the student body. His table was situated not in the cafeteria, where the students were gathering for lunch, but in the hallway outside.

He had to be careful, he said. He’d talk with the handful of students who wandered up to his table. And he’d edge up to the cafeteria and chat with a staffer. But the staff sergeant wouldn’t go in. He’d have to ease himself into the culture of the school.”

“I don’t want to go too far,” he said. “Not yet.”

Part of the frustration for recruiters like Wenk is that they’ve got something substantial to offer blue-staters. Military service comes with single-payer health care, free college, subsidized housing and shopping and childcare, excellent retirement benefits, 30 days of vacation per year, advanced job training, and paid maternity leave.

As journalist and veteran Jacob Siegel put it in a piece in the Daily Beast a few years ago, “the military is a socialist paradise!” There’s far less income inequality between a private and a general than there is between a worker and a CEO, he notes, and there’s greater social mobility, too.

Kleyman, the military sociologist, says there are significant psychic benefits, too. “When people leave the military — sure, they miss having a housing allowance — but what they really miss is that sense of purpose, that sense of meaningfulness of your work,” she says.

Service that tilts to the red states, Kleyman says, isn’t just a burden unevenly shared, but a benefit unequally shared.

Still, recruiters have flogged those benefits for years, with little to show for it. And it’s not just about blue-state culture.

Consider the role of population density. Members of the military disproportionately hail from sparsely populated areas, where there aren’t a lot of other employment options. And the blue states tend to be more densely populated. Indeed, the most rural blue state in the Northeast — Maine — has substantially higher accession rates than its neighbors.

The geography of military installations is also a significant force.

The outposts that survived the budget-driven base closure process of the last several decades are heavily clustered in the South and West. “Think of it like a smile,” says Major General Jeffrey Snow, commanding general of the US Army Recruiting Command. “You could put your hand on North Carolina and draw a smiley face that goes down through Texas and up halfway through California.”

Many have grown to a massive size — three mega-bases in North Carolina, Texas, and Kentucky have populations of more than 200,000 each.

If a child lives near a base — especially one of that scale — he is far more likely to know adults who serve in the armed forces: a friend’s mother or a baseball coach. And children’s career choices are powerfully influenced by the choices of adults around them: Nearly half of all Army recruits, for instance, come from military families.

Of course, building new installations in the Northeast would be a challenge. Land costs are significant,. Political opposition would probably be substantial, too. But if the nation wants to build a more diverse military, it could invest. It could bring the armed forces directly to blue-state America.

Ramping up recruitment from that part of thew country could, ultimately, be a matter of military readiness. As war-fighting becomes a more technologically sophisticated exercise, the armed forces will need more — not fewer — soldiers, sailors, and Marines from the best-educated parts of the country.

OPTIMALLY BALANCED OR not, there is one problem with relying on the armed forces to ease our red state-blue state tensions, says Beth Asch, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation who studies defense manpower.

“The military,” she says, “has actually become quite small, relative to the overall population.”

Asch’s father served in World War II, when the military experience was almost universal, and its social impact broadly felt. But technical advances mean fewer people are needed in the armed forces now.

Trump’s proposed expansion of the military would be significant by contemporary standards, but won’t get the armed forces close to their peak size.

If the military can’t stitch the country together by itself, though, it can play a leading role. It can be an important model for a larger effort.

There has been talk, for years now, of a national service requirement that could be fulfilled with either a stint in the military or work in education, public health, or public works.

But a program of that kind will fall short of its true promise if it simply replicates our current balkanization: well-heeled blue-staters joining Teach for America, for instance, while red-staters enlist in the Army or Marines.

If we truly want to heal our fractured republic, we’ll have to build a system that consciously emulates the military — pulling together people from all its disparate parts and putting them side by side.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com.