The enduring citizen-soldier tradition in the United States

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The conventional wisdom is that the citizen-soldier tradition in the United States is today at its historical nadir. Leading scholars of civil-military relations often argue that the installation of the all-volunteer force (AVF) in 1973 marked the end of - or even, as they sometimes boldly claim, severed - the link between citizenship and military service. Manpower trends over the ensuing three decades - an increasingly long-serving and professional force, combined with greater reliance on private military contractors - are thought to have rendered that link still more remote. Notwithstanding the ritual of Selective Service registration, Americans do not expect their national government to call on them to sacrifice for the nation, and they do not believe that their rights as citizens do, or should, hinge on their willingness to die for the nation. Whether this conclusion is warranted is of no small import. The demise of the citizen-soldier tradition is associated with a host of purported ills: a corrosive culture of rights; American national disunity; and an unstable social system in which national burdens are not equally borne. But these conclusions do not follow if the premise is faulty. Is the citizensoldier tradition a thing of the past, as so many maintain? Or has its demise, to invoke Mark Twain, perhaps been greatly exaggerated? Students of civilmilitary relations often explicitly or implicitly advance a homology between military recruitment systems and political culture: we know that the citizensoldier tradition is no more because the mass army is no more. But if the citizensoldier as a cultural phenomenon exists independently of its presumed institutional manifestation, then it can survive institutional change. In fact, the citizen-soldier tradition is more usefully thought of as a set of rhetorical conventions that, at least at one time, generally commanded assent among both elites and masses in the United States. The configuration of rhetorical commonplaces that constitutes the citizen-soldier tradition has historically been associated with a variety of military recruitment systems. To claim that the end of the peacetime mass army marks the end of the citizen-soldier is to mistake a contingent relationship for an invariant one. By reconceptualizing the citizen-soldier tradition, we become open to the ways in which it remains vibrant in the United States. Ironically the resilience of the tradition since 1973 may plausibly be ascribed in part to the challenges of raising a large standing volunteer military: in other words, the AVF did not condemn the citizen-soldier to death, but gave the citizen-soldier a new lease on life. The rest of this chapter proceeds in three moves. First, it critically reviews common claims among scholars of civil-military relations about the citizensoldier tradition in the United States and the effects of the end of the mass army. Second, it reconceptualizes the tradition as a set of specific rhetorical conventions that situate the citizen-soldier opposite the mercenary - or, in contemporary parlance, the employee-soldier of the “occupational” model of military service. Third, the chapter explores whether, viewed through this prism, the citizen-soldier tradition is dead in contemporary America and concludes that it is not. In short, the citizen-soldier lives.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe New Citizen Armies
Subtitle of host publicationIsrael’s Armed Forces in Comparative Perspective
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages25
ISBN (Electronic)9781135169565
ISBN (Print)9780415565462
StatePublished - Jan 1 2010

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2010 Selection and editorial matter, Stuart A. Cohen; individual chapters, the contributors.


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