Military Myths

Military Myths

Military service is supposed to create better citizens, but it doesn't always work out that way.

Read Time:
1m 43sec

“A School for the Nation?” by Ronald R. Krebs, in International Security (Spring 2004), Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Univ., 79 John F. Kennedy St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138.

The idea that the armed forces can serve as a “school for the nation” was born in 19th-century Europe and has since been embraced everywhere from tsarist Russia to the contemporary developing world. In the United States, a small group of intellectuals on both the left and the right tout a revived draft or mandatory national service as a way to forge a stronger sense of national community and overcome the divisions of race, class, and culture.

It may work in those old World War II movies, in which groups of wisecracking guys from all over America are transformed by a tour of duty, but real life offers more chastening evidence, says Krebs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Military service may stiffen an individual’s spine and instill more self-discipline and a greater sense of purpose, but hopes of social transformation are exaggerated. After World War II, “the soldier did not come home to reform America,” noted Samuel A. Stouffer in The American Soldier (1949). And African-Amer­ican veterans seemed more averse to change. A study of black veterans in the late 1970s found them heavily concentrated in the business world and underrepresented in the ranks of community and civil rights leaders.

Friendships formed in the foxhole don’t always last, and rarely shape attitudes toward larger groups of people. Old beliefs and prejudices die hard. And sometimes familiarity does not breed good feelings. Despite the experiences of World War II and Korea, white Amer­icans weren’t moved to abandon racism and segregation. Lessons about the limits of military socialization come from all over the world: The Red Army was supposed to create a “new Soviet man,” and the Yugoslav People’s Army an “all-Yugoslav identity.” Their failures were predictable, says Krebs. How can a few years in uniform accomplish what families, schools, the media, and other agents of socialization cannot?

More From This Issue