America's all-volunteer military has been a success, but society at large and service members must ensure a shared understanding exists between them, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a commentary in the Washington Post today.
Dempsey described the all-volunteer force as one of America's finest achievements. The military is so good, he wrote, that many Americans take it for granted.
"The last decade of war has affected the relationship between our society and the military," Dempsey wrote. "We can't allow a sense of separation to grow between us. As the all-volunteer force enters its fifth decade, civilians and the military need to maintain the shared understanding necessary for a healthy relationship."
Dempsey wrote that the nation needs to discuss the military-civil relationship, as well as the nation's relationship with its service members.
"As a nation, we've learned to separate the warrior from the war," he wrote. "But we still have much to learn about how to connect the warrior to the citizen."
Since the end of conscription in July 1973, those entering the military have served as volunteers. In his commentary, Dempsey urged America's civilians to establish a dialogue with their fellow citizens who serve in the all-volunteer force.
"As citizens, we must listen to our veterans," the chairman wrote. "If we do, we'll hear stories of pride and courage, anger and pain, laughter and joy. We'll hear of actions that humble and inspire us. We'll also hear of moments that break our hearts. These stories represent the best of our nation."
Service members also bear a responsibility to communicate with their fellow citizens, Dempsey wrote. "We should tell our stories and recognize that those who aren't in uniform might not know what to say or ask," he added. "We also have a duty to listen. Our fellow citizens may have different perspectives that we need to hear and understand."
The services as well as veterans understand the need for fiscal change, the general wrote. Cuts in funding, he added, are not an attack on veterans and their families.
"Modest reforms to pay and compensation will improve readiness and modernization," Dempsey wrote. "They will help keep our all-volunteer force sustainable and strong. Keeping faith also means investing sufficient resources so that we can uphold our sacred obligations to defend the nation and to send our sons and daughters to war with only the best training, leadership and equipment. We can't shrink from our obligations to one another. The stakes are too high."
Service members and veterans must remember that public service takes many forms, Dempsey wrote.
"Across our country, police officers, firefighters, teachers, coaches, pastors, scout masters, business people and many others serve their communities every day," he added. "Military service makes us different, but the desire to contribute permeates every corner of the United States."
The nation cannot afford allowing the military to disconnect from American society, Dempsey wrote.
"We must guard against letting military service become a job for others," he added. "Children of those in the military are far more likely to join than the children of those who are not. And young men and women in some areas never even consider the military as one of many ways to serve our nation."
Some fault for this, Dempsey said, lies with the military. Service members, he added, cannot just stay on bases and remain in their own world.
"But we didn't stop being citizens when we put on the uniform," Dempsey wrote. "We came from small towns and big cities across our country, and we'll go back one day. Civilians aren't an abstraction; they're our parents, grandparents, siblings and friends."
An all-volunteer force is actually the norm for the United States, the chairman wrote, noting that since 1787, the nation used conscription for only 35 years.
"Except in times of great crisis, we have relied on a tradition of selfless service," Dempsey wrote. "The all-volunteer force continues that tradition. It has served our nation well for the past 40 years. To do so for the next 40, we'll have to work at it together."