A student at my alma mater, Brandeis University, recently asked me to speak to her school group about my post-college experiences, specifically my time studying in China and Germany and now at Harvard University. There was one major problem with this request: I’d graduated five years ago, and she skipped most of what has defined my adult life — the four years I served in the Marine Corps.
A large swath of America shares this student’s disinterest in military service. Among elected officials, prior military service is at 20 percent, an all-time low. Fewer than 1 percent of these leaders have children who grew up to don a uniform. Similarly, fewer than 1 percent of Ivy League graduates choose to serve, according to the book “AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service — and How It Hurts Our Country.”
Many leaders of tomorrow will be found among the children of our elected officials and Ivy League alumni. Yet we, as a society, expect so few of them to join the military. Instead, those most likely to serve are the children of those who already have done so. Inadvertently, America is forging a military caste, separate from the larger electorate and distinct from its future leaders. This growing civil-military gap is both a byproduct of and contributor to increased social stratification. But the divide in military service is only one of many symptoms.
Social and economic inequality in America has risen to heights not seen in almost a century. Economic gains are largely captured by the wealthy, while the middle class stagnates and economic mobility dwindles, economist Thomas Piketty writes in “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” The Pew Research Center has shown that American communities are increasingly segregated not only by wealth but also by political affiliation.
With decreased exposure to opposing political views, tolerance shrinks. A once fluid and freewheeling American society is petrifying as opportunity evaporates and people exist in political echo chambers of their own creation. While the government searches for policies to staunch the middle class’ decline and to rebuild trust among Americans, the solution may be simpler: foster and incentivize increased military service.
The military is perhaps America’s last bastion of social and economic equality. The salaries of those at the top are much closer to those at the bottom, relative to the corporate world. Senior officers live on the same bases — in the same communities — as junior enlisted personnel, and their children go to school together.
Military values are bound up in day-to-day customs such as “officers eat last,” or the lowest-rank is cared for first and the highest rank last. America needs leaders who embody ideals like these. If more of society’s privileged served in uniform, we would foster leaders from more spheres — military, business, government — who know firsthand the rewards of caring for their fellow citizens. Because of past military service, more corporate executives would perhaps be duty-bound not only to shareholders but also to their employees.
Widespread military service also could help rebuild trust among Americans. The military provides constant and intense exposure to diverse backgrounds. Where else do people work with, live among and mortally depend on such a varied community on a 24/7 basis? The shared hardships forge unbreakable bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood. Those perspectives follow veterans throughout life, humanizing people with opposing views.
Historically, the military has served as a vehicle for social change. In the aftermath of World War II, the GI Bill helped create America’s middle class. The integration of African-Americans into the military played a role in solidifying and extending the gains of the civil rights movement. And 2011’s formal repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” probably will be seen as a watershed moment for the acceptance of the LGBT community.
With an all-volunteer military here to stay, the time has come for society’s most privileged to realize that the burden of service can no longer fall on some unknown “other.” The burden lies on each of us, and on our children and grandchildren. Our military has long served as our great equalizer and our melting pot.
Let us turn to it again.
Benjamin Luxenberg, who served in the Marines from 2009 to 2013, is pursuing an M.B.A. and a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard University. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.