Michael Robillard & Bradley Strawser

A Moral Irresponsibility of America

Air Date: May 31, 2022

Coauthors Michael Robillard, U.S. Army (Ret.), and Bradley Strawser, U.S. Air Force (Ret.), discuss their new book "Outsourcing Duty: The Moral Exploitation of the American Soldier."


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome co-authors of the new book “Outsourcing Duty: The Moral Exploitation of the American Soldier,” Michael Robillard and Bradley Strawser. Michael Robillard is research fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies. Prior to his time there he was a soldier himself; a veteran of the Iraq war and an officer of the U.S. Army. Bradley Strawser is associate professor of the philosophy in the defense and analysis department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Dr. Strawser is also a veteran, of the U.S. Air Force in this case. Gentleman, you are both experts on military affairs, and I am delighted to welcome you today. Thank you for joining me.


ROBILLARD: Thanks for having us.


STRAWSER: Thank you so much.


HEFFNER: Michael, let me start with you on the genesis of this project.  You at the time did not know you Russia would invade Ukraine, and that there would be the possibility of U.S. military intervention in the near future. So as you were contemplating this book project what was the spark that led you and Bradley to embark on it?


ROBILLARD: So I think the genesis of this book, and as we start off talking about is this, an uneasy feeling between veterans and citizens that we’ve witnessed, really for the arc of our entire military career, and then beyond when we were teaching soldiers. And it’s this, it seems like a tremendous disconnect between a very thin thank you for your service. We support the troops narrative within mainstream society compared to the actual moral burdens and dirty hand scenarios that 1 percent of our population has been bearing on behalf of our collective polity for at least the last 20 years of the global war on terror, if not last 50 years, since the advent of the all-professional force. So it’s this unsaid or, or tacit distance within the civil, military divide with respect to war fighting, responsibilities and war fighting concerns at all, that we are really trying to give greater articulation to.


HEFFNER: Bradley, when you think of that word exploitation, you really are identifying that one percent, when you are identifying the exploitation, that’s what you mean. You mean that 1 percent of the public is by virtue of that there is exploitation.


STRAWSER: Well, not simply by virtue of the fact that there’s only about 1 percent that serve. Mike and I like to call it the other 1 percent. That percentage of American society that actually serves in the military. But rather it’s the relational structure between the groups that creates, that gives rise to what we call moral exploitation. I should, we should explain for a moment that exploitation, classically understood is often a transactional issue, where maybe someone exploits someone’s labor or other physical goods when they’re in an unfair situation or they’re particularly vulnerable. You can imagine classic cases of exploitation, maybe people working in sweat shops things like that. You can imagine exploiting people in those ways. What we mean here is a different kind of exploitation. We’re trying to uncover and, and really understand what we call moral exploitation, which is whereby one group effectively places the burdens, the moral burdens, perhaps their duties, you might say, their moral responsibilities towards something, unfairly or in a wrongful relationship upon another group. And we think that’s what’s happening in American society. That the broader society as a whole, which has a shared collective responsibility for our military adventures and our collective use of violence around the world has said, we’re going to offload those burdens, those moral responsibilities, to this very small, thin little group of people who actually have to bear them, the military soldiers of our society, the sliver, the small one percent. And so it’s really that moral relationship between our society as a whole in the United States and this small group that have volunteered to be soldiers that we’re trying to examine and try to unpack. We’re trying to really explain this phenomenon that we’ve been feeling and sensing and hearing from soldiers across, as Mike said, our whole career, both as veterans, ourselves, and then in the academic world and teaching and working with military soldiers across the professions.


HEFFNER: At what point, gentlemen, let me ask you Michael, in recent conflicts, in which we’ve been immersed, in going back to World War /I through the present, at what point did that number, that percent, dip precipitously? Has it been incremental when we talk about the share of the body politic, if you will, or, the American core, the American people that participates in defending our country through traditional military service? If you were just to give our viewers a sense of that history, when did it really jump down?


ROBILLARD: Well, I think it’s, I mean, as I mentioned in my first answer, institutionally, it significantly went down with the advent of the professional military, all volunteer force after Vietnam. But you can see a trend of an increasing widening of the civil military gap from World War I through World War II, through Korea, Vietnam, to the first Gulf War through the War on Terror to the present. So what we’re ex… the phenomenon that we’re trying to point out here is that the civil, military divide, as I’ve just described, it’s not just a pernicious divide, but it’s also a divide that is not static. So if you consider a World War I unit, they would’ve deployed as a town together, and then came back to that same town and had the entirety of their lives to sort through what it was that they just collectively went through. Same thing, somewhat less so with World War II, we have the, you know, case of the Sullivan family and Saving Private Ryan family, that then activated certain institutional reforms where you’re not collectively lumping the same groups of towns and family together. Then Vietnam, obviously with the various rotations of tours that disrupts the civil, military collective war fighting feeling, more so than the all-volunteer force. Then the global War on Terror, you have the operations tempo gets more and more thin and disconnected. And now we’re at a point where at least towards the end of the War on Terror, the majority of war fighting was done by special forces units and drone pilots. So we’re not just talking one percent, we’re talking a fraction of that one percent is now bearing the collective responsibility and dirty hands for the rest of the polity. So I think it’s a, it’s a widening effect that has been occurring with each generation.


HEFFNER: You’re identifying multiple factors that contributed to the diminishing of that percent. One thing you’re alluding to is, you know, the draft versus a volunteer or professional military. You know, it, you’re implicitly both identifying economic circumstances of inequity in this country that would motivate a certain group of people to potentially enlist. You know, it’s interesting that we call it a volunteer military, right? And this is a paradox that I think you both are familiar with in the sense that how much of that one percent is driven by this being you know, the last best option that folks have on the table for economic security, Bradley?


STRAWSER: Yeah, no, absolutely. I, we actually do talk about it explicitly in the book. We look very closely at the different sorts of socioeconomic and demographic trends of people who decide to serve. And we actually speak about our own decisions as well. And I think the decision to serve is complicated for any human being. But no doubt, there are a lot of factors driving it besides some sort of idealized notion of just, I want to serve my country. Now I need to stress up front before I say a little more about this a thing, a different kind of paradox that Mike and I talk about quite a bit, which we call the veterans paradox, which is to say on the one hand, we’re not trying to suggest the veterans are somehow victims or needing pity or sorrow. We’re not, we don’t want to have that sort of view as somehow suggested what we’re arguing for here. On the other hand, we also are not arguing that veterans and soldiers need to be lionized as some kind of superheroes and, and myth and legend and sort of some hyper patriotic nationalist, you know, pro warfare either. And we think that those are sort of the two traps that when we talk about veterans and soldiers, we often fall into: either thinking of them as victims or thinking of them as somehow these superheroes that we must adore and deify. So rather something in between, which is like you say, the complicated reasons people serve. Absolutely of course include often a dearth of other reasonable economic options or educational options, or other paths towards trying to do something with their life. And the military service is often a great way to do that. Unfortunately, what that can create are conditions where many people join the military as a good viable option for economic or educational reasons, without really understanding perhaps the moral weight and the moral realities that then they’re taking on when our society then sends them to a faraway land and puts a gun in their hand and asks them to make horrible, massive life and death decisions that in a sense, all of us are making, but we’ve decided to outsource to this small few who, because of the variety of factors we’re talking about, ended up in this circumstance.


Sebastian Junger is a great author who’s written about this phenomenon through other means. And he says pretty poignantly, he says, look, when that 18-year-old kid from Flint, Michigan, who didn’t have a lot of options, who’s an E-3 in the army, in the infantry, and he’s over in Baghdad. And that guy makes a life-or-death, quick decision and kills a civilian, something awful. Well, in a sense, we all did that. All of us killed that, killed Bagdad, but what we’ve found is this separation, society has put that burden on that kid from Flint. And we are no longer sharing in that sort of collective duty of our military adventurism around the world. And that phenomenon and that relationship between society and its soldiers is what we’re trying to unpack.


HEFFNER: Michael, have you come to the conclusion, and I’ll ask each of you this, that a draft or some kind of system, if you want to call it conscription or a draft or lottery, but some kind of system that shares the burden more fully across geography, across economics, across race and religion, that is the only kind of system that is going to mitigate that burden, basically mitigate the current dynamic so that there is greater equity across all of those lines?


ROBILLARD: Yeah. So this is towards, yeah, towards the end of the book, we look at various prescriptions. And one prescriptive model that we’re fond of, I mean, this is the classic skin in the game argument, so to speak. And one version of that would be a draft or lottery model. Another version of that might be a national service model like South Korea, Israel, Norway, Switzerland, where you just, two years of your life or something, you’re, you’re doing something that’s committed to some element of national service, doesn’t even need to be national military service. But it is something that is where we are collectively taking part in being citizens. And I think right now to my mind, and I would imagine likewise would Bradley that seems to be a very plausible prescriptive model to attend to one, the unfairness of this phenomenon of moral exploitation of soldiers that we described in the book.


But furthermore as Andrew Bacevich has pointed out in his book “Breach of Trust,” that actually could function also as a governing device to prevent a lot of adventurous expeditionary projects that the majority of society is not invested in because they’re not seeing people in their hometown disappear, right? They’re not seeing the actual effects of what these expeditionary projects are doing. So I think on those three metrics, re-instilling a sense of shared citizenship across demographics, mitigating moral exploitation soldiers, and three preventing unnecessary wars, a skin in the game model of some variety could actually solve a lot of those things.


HEFFNER: I’ll pose the same question to you Bradley with the addendum that I think Michael’s point about moral clarity in the pursuit of military objectives is something combined with a more equitable model for service. But it’s interesting because you almost had the perfect storm in the last several decades with a number of conflicts that did not have the clarity in the military thesis or objective combined with in increasing inequality in the American system and in a declining overall.


STRAWSER: Yeah, absolutely. So what you’re discussing here is what we call broadly Just War theory, right? And the process, through which philosophers and thinkers and societies for millennia have wrestled with the question of when is it right to go to war. If you’re not a pacifist, if you believe that war can be justified in some cases, then presumably there’s a set of conditions or arguments we have to work through to make that conclusion. And in theory being a liberal democratic state, we should make that decision collectively, right? We should make that decision as a societal level. We believe this is the right war to go fight. Think about the way the United States after Pearl Harbor rallied and said, look, we’ve been attacked, enough with the isolation arguments or non-interventionist arguments. We’ve got to go fight this just cause. Compare that to the wars of the past 20 years, which you’re right. If nothing else, at least they’ve been morally opaque. There are a series of arguments and different ways. You can understand various military action in the War on Terror. But it’s been morally muddy, shall we say, or at least very difficult compared with that kind of clarity. Or you could look at the kind of moral clarity we have today in the Ukraine. Ukraine’s fight of defense, actual existential defense against the Russian invasion has the recently rare quality of being not morally ambiguous at all. This is quite clear that they are justly defending their home against an invader. That gives a kind of moral clarity to society as a whole, which I’m sure is tragically the case in Ukraine today. Compared to the U.S. situation over the past 20 years, you’ve had a continuous perpetual, never ending deployment, a never ending war against a tactic, a terror, as opposed to even maybe a clear enemy set, where the morality of the situation is ambiguous and difficult. And so when, when society is asking its soldiers to go fight that on their behalf, but they’ve actually checked out from the moral decision itself and you already have a morally ambiguous, difficult, hard wrestling match, we think the burdens that place is on soldiers is that much greater. And it can actually instill certain types of what are called moral injuries and moral wounds to soldiers as they engage in these projects where they don’t know actually where they stand morally in their own engagement with it, or the justice of the cause for which they fight itself. You had asked Mike about conscription and national service. Perhaps that’s a way we can try to bridge this divide and actually have the skin in the game from across society. Certainly that is an upshot of our book, but it’s important to stress that there is no magic wand here.


There is no silver bullet. There is no quick fix. And any of the prescriptions we described, the broader point is that we’re talking about a structural societal relationship problem that needs to change, a sort of a reorientation towards how America views its soldiers. A quick example of this. Every year I ask hundreds of my students here at the Naval Postgraduate School, I ask them who here has had some random stranger walk up to them and say, thank you so much for your service. And they all raise their hand, of course. Or countless other examples. People put a yellow ribbon bumper sticker on their car, or at football games we ask soldiers to stand and be appreciated. Or Applebee’s gives them a discount, a veterans’ discount or whatever it might be. There’re these little things we do across society. Then I ask them who here has felt a little bit uncomfortable when you’ve been thanked in that way. Every single hand goes up. For veterans and soldiers, it’s not that they don’t appreciate being thanked for their service it’s as if there’s a misunderstanding or a category mistake as to really what these soldiers are doing morally. And what we’re asking them to do, and society seems to have made an unspoken deal with itself. Well, I thank soldiers for their service. I’m pro military, hey, I put a yellow bumper sticker on my car. I’ve done my part. Whereas the soldier says, I think you might be misunderstanding the situation.


HEFFNER: If you’re being intellectually honest as a lay person or a non-military member, you also feel uncomfortable. And that leads me to this question, why have we not demanded as a country, some sort of service model, if not a draft or lottery? Why has it come to this point? You know, and, and let me just add one thing so our viewer doesn’t feel detached from the reality of U.S. military engagement, like when we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, on 9/11, you know, there became a consensus and a rallying cry. And that probably that single moment in recent memory was the largest enrollment in, you know, American history over the last 50 years.


I don’t know if the Cuban Missile Crisis would’ve had that effect or other moments during the cold war. Certainly Pearl Harbor probably triggered that even though there would be a draft. My point is that, you know, I think there was a consensus at those moments right after Pearl Harbor, after 9/11, not just about having moral clarity of purpose, but that the system should call for a collective responsibility in shouldering that burden. But why haven’t people come to that conclusion enough that our, that our, our system is what it is today?


ROBILLARD: I think it comes back to two things. One is that, yeah, we have normalized this radical civil military divide for the last 50 years, at least. So it’s just become the, these expeditionary projects and these forever war involvements just become a background refrigerator hum in the social imagination as other issues, crowd out the public consciousness. And I think that the absence of a draft or a citizen soldier or national service model institutionally would have been a fail-safe against that in terms of the broader civil, military divide. And then secondly, there’s the civil, military divide in our organs of government as well, right? So the, the civil military divide in the populous at large repeats itself within the organs of government and within our political representation. And as we go further and further with the civil military divide by, you know, just mathematics, we’re going to have fewer and fewer representatives within our organs of government that have seen military service and can speak in a way that is both competent, but also translatable to the, their other civilians.


HEFFNER: The sad thing, Michael, is that this corresponds with or is happening simultaneously with the un-Republican or anti-democratic values that or value, I hate to use that expression, right? Because you don’t want to think that those things have virtue, but, but the emerging anti-democratic or un-Republican way of being, right? And that overlaps, that is exactly what 1 percent serving means. It is anti-democratic and un-Republican, and you have that in the cultural milieu right now. But as we close, I just want to ask you both very directly about the Russia Ukraine situation. You know, do you find there to be any potential for that kind of coalescing of moral authority and moral attention of the country to understand the nature of what you’re describing?


STRAWSER: Well, it’s interesting. I, on the one hand, of course, it’s not the United States’ war. So from, from a U.S. perspective we’re not thankfully involved, on the one hand. On the other hand, it is a case of tremendous moral clarity war as Mike was just alluding to should even, you know, if you’re not a pacifist, if you’re just war theorist, you believe that war can be justified. Of course it should be an extraordinary state of affairs. We are at war. And what happened in the United States was that we have been at war for so long and they were so odd and so different, a different kind of war. And, and we’re not really sure, frankly, with the withdrawal in Afghanistan from this past summer, which was so tragic and so sad for many veterans to, to watch that unfold. As many of us have lost friends and, and, and known great lives given to that effort to see it fall apart so horribly as the Taliban quickly defeated the Afghan forces, suddenly Americans paid attention. Again, suddenly everybody cared about the war in Afghanistan. And I kept wanting to scream and say, well, you sure didn’t care a year ago. We were, we were serving, a fighting in Afghanistan a year ago and the year before that, and the year before that, and that’s the problem. Now, this moment in Ukraine truly is, you know, everybody says, this is a, you know, a historic turning point in world affairs. It seems like people say that every year, this one really is, we haven’t had a great power committed, direct act of aggression against a sovereign state, effectively a war of Congress, you can argue, at least in the European theater, since 1939, when German rolled into Poland, Germany rolled into Poland.


And so you can argue that this is a historic really kind of world-shaping event that is unfolding in real time before us. And, and it seems also like we said, to have incredible moral clarity here, which is the side of justice and which side is fighting the unjust cause here. And so as we try to support and help your Ukraine, I do see a lot of Americans kind of waking up a little bit to this, and you can argue more broadly in the big scope of our understanding of liberalism and kind of democratic process that maybe we take that for granted, maybe we’ve taken for granted freedom and security to have a, the democratic ideals we want for our nation. And maybe something like Ukraine is waking people up to say, oh, you know, authoritarianism can win the day. If we are not willing to fight and defend it through civic engagement and caring, and really having the right orientation towards our democracy and towards what we need to defend. So perhaps Ukraine in this scary, horrible moment can spur some of that, that, that reigniting of the moral imagination towards our military forces that, that Mike and I are arguing for that that would be a hopeful silver lining to come out of this tragic case.


HEFFNER: Mike, we only have seconds left, but is it ultimately a lack of knowledge of history or a lack of moral willpower? Or both?


ROBILLARD: I would say it’s probably both. And, and one thing informs the other positively, or the absence of one informs the other negatively. So I think, yeah, a re-orientation to history and a proper earnest discussion about the nuances of ethics and the ethics of our, the wars that we fight needs to be something that the American politic engages in more. And that veterans begin speaking up and speaking their mind more as well, because that’s part of the equation as well and helpful.


HEFFNER: Michael and Bradley. I’m so grateful that you took the time to explain this crisis. The lack of, of imagination and knowledge in the American psyche and body politic right now it’s such an important book. And as much as there are challenges to the Republican or democratic order in the legislative or political process, this as is as much of an un-Republican or undemocratic, or anti-democratic notion that moral exploitation of the American soldier, Michael and Bradley co-authors of “Outsourcing Duty” by Oxford University Press. Thank you so much, gentlemen.


Thank you. Thank


You so much for having us


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