The Army’s Battle For Big Ideas

James Cartwright, Max Brooks and Steve Hadley

One of the US government’s biggest challenges today, particularly in the context of military issues, is its inability to communicate big ideas to the American people, according to Atlantic Council Non-Resident Senior Fellow and “World War Z” author Max Brooks. This has caused a significant portion of the population to disengage from government, including and especially from the military, Brooks said at a recent lecture delivered as part of the US Army’s 2016 “Mad Scientist” initiative. The emotional bond between state and citizenry is broken.

It may take several decades to reverse the trend, he said in his August 9 remarks at the event, which was hosted by the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group, the Commanding General of TRADOC, and Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. The Mad Scientist series itself is aimed at narrowing this gap as it seeks to “expand the Army’s knowledge base and identify new, innovative ways to deal with a complex future operational environment.” Brooks used the end of the draft in the early 1970s as an example of an event that accelerated the emotional link’s erosion. This shift, along with a host of other societal changes, further weakened the bond. Over the same time, default assumptions about serving in the military began to change. Whereas people previously connoted military service with more honorable associations, today, Brooks suggested, many presume someone joined because they are economically disadvantaged or an adventure-seeking war junkie.

Progressing along in his evolution-of-patriotism timeline, Brooks noted that, in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan told the country that the “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Even though Reagan went on to qualify the remark with language about self-rule and government by the people, not elites, Brooks thought the quote, often referenced in isolation, represents a cultural shift; one where citizens see the government as something separate from themselves. In place of government, Brooks thinks the US began to develop a strong relationship to the private sector.

He also discussed the fact that Americans do not feel the burden of war to the extent earlier generations did in part because of decisions to eliminate the draft and war taxes. The burden is even lighter, he continued, because of increased reliance on private contractors. As he sees it, the use of private contractors during wartime has further loosened an already tenuous relationship between people and government because he thinks there is little oversight and real bottom-line pressures.

Brooks mentioned all of this to make the case that Americans, today, do not have to change their lifestyles very much during wartime. He seems to believe that if Americans were more impacted by the nation’s involvement in wars abroad, and felt its burdens more directly, something might change. Tackling these systemic issues will be an enormous challenge for the entire US government, but Brooks flagged them because as the Army thinks about how to tackle the future’s most complex security challenges, it must remember to engage the population as deeply as it can. America’s values, Brooks emphasized, have made it an enviable and admirable superpower, and it needs to double-down by sharing and living those principles.