A recent article in the New York Times (June 27, 2021) reported on the inclusion of Muslims in the French armed forces. Although French society remains generally unfriendly towards Muslims, the French military has welcomed them, offering accommodation for their religious practices and increasing the numbers of Muslim chaplains. The article reminded me of the role that armies can play, sometimes unwittingly and reluctantly, in social change, particularly in the enfranchisement of marginal groups. The demands of military service are great, and those willing and able to shoulder them are accepted often despite outer differences which in less demanding occupations might be considered disqualifying. Gays and lesbians were marginalized in civil society and long denied the right to serve in the armed forces unless they concealed their sexual identity. Many have served, however, especially in World War II, when the draft resulted in the services taking on a massive cross section of young American men, and when women served in much higher numbers than ever before. Historian Allan Bérubé makes the argument that World War II saw the birth of the gay rights movement by giving gays a much stronger sense of identity and self-respect, and by creating networks of gay men and lesbians which would be turned towards political activism.
Military service on the part of members of a marginal group, even if honorable and in large numbers, does not guarantee that acceptance will be extended to them by the larger society. The black soldiers who served in the Civil War and in World Wars I and II may have hoped that their service would be acknowledged by greater acceptance from American society at large, but this was not to be. The military eventually integrated, however, and when it did so it was in advance of much of civil society. Many black Americans have found the military a personal vehicle to social mobility and status. In this, they have echoed the experience of immigrant groups since our founding. The army of the Revolutionary War had a high percentage of recent arrivals. This has likely been the case with all American armies since and, as the recent French experience indicates, we are not alone.
The role of the armed forces in social change is obviously complex. Some would deny that the armed force should concern themselves with social change, sticking instead to their warfighting role and other assigned missions. Regular, volunteer militaries such as the one America has had since the 1970s tend to attract socially and often politically conservative individuals, people drawn by tradition and generally comfortable with the exercise of authority. In my book, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Fought and Thought the Modern World into Existence, I make the argument that armies have been agents of civilization as well as warfighting entities, that armies guard, build, and create as well as destroy. Military service can also be highly instructive, introducing members to a broader experience and conception of humanity itself.
The recent remarks of CJCS General Milley about the desirability of service members having an understanding of such matters as critical race theory and the Capitol insurgency might be considered in this context. Soldiers educated or self-educated in important historic, political, and social issues might become agents of social stability and change. Such agency would have to take place within the limits placed on partisan political activity. Soldiers so educated might also become more effective as leaders and teammates, fueled by a greater understanding of human rights and their importance in the Constitution and the oath of service they swear. Military forces have long been viewed as schools of citizenship, and they may serve their societies in a variety of ways, to include contributing to necessary social change. The armed forces and individual servicemembers can set an example of inclusion and act the role of informed citizenry. As veterans, we can also participate more freely in the electoral process and other public matters, promoting necessary social change and inclusion, and thus providing a service to our country as great and valuable as that which we rendered in uniform.