Historian says military, citizens' 'asymmetrical' relation troubling

L.A. Cicero Class Kennedy

Class Day speaker David Kennedy advised students to resist taking the first- and second-class options. “Go third class. Don’t be too comfortable. Don’t be a bystander. Get out and make things happen. Get dirty. Put your shoulder to the wheel. Make the world move,” he said.

L.A. Cicero Class balloons

Colorful balloons celebrate graduating students at Class Day, sponsored by the Stanford Alumni Association and the Class of 2005.

Like a Trojan horse, David M. Kennedy's speech at the 2005 Class Day Luncheon harbored a deadly serious message. For millennia, the obligation to bear arms and the privileges of citizenship were intimately linked. But today's military has many of the attributes of a mercenary army—citizens are not obliged to serve, and indeed few choose to become hired guns. That power dynamic may be lethal to political accountability, Kennedy told seniors and their families gathered on Angell Field Saturday.

"I happen to believe that the profession of arms is a noble calling, and I see no shame whatsoever in wage labor, but the fact remains that we have evolved a force that is extraordinarily lean, mean and lethal—and that has an unprecedented asymmetrical relation both to the world around us and to our own society," said Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for his 10th book, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.

"By some reckonings, the United States' military budget is greater than the military expenditures of all other nations combined," he said. "That money buys an arsenal of smart, precision weapons and the skilled operators to fire them that can lay down a coercive footprint in the world larger and more intimidating than anything history has ever seen. Now, we believe that our armed forces seek only just goals and at the end of the day will be understood as exerting a benign influence. But that perspective may not come so easily to those who find themselves on the receiving end of that supposedly beneficent violence. Here, surely, is why so many people, even our sister societies in Europe and North America, regard us with wariness and apprehension."

Kennedy's scholarship is notable for its integration of economic and cultural analysis with social and political history. Class Day gives seniors a chance to hear one last lecture from a favorite professor. In his speech, Kennedy contrasted today's military with the citizen-soldiers of World War II.

"From the inauguration of the draft in 1940 through the second world war's end just 60 years ago in 1945, the United States put some 16 million men and several thousand women into uniform," said Kennedy. "What's more, it mobilized the economic, social and psychological resources of the society down to the last factory and railcar and victory garden. World War II was a 'total war.' It compelled the mass participation of all citizens, and the commitment of virtually all the society's energies to secure the ultimate victory."

Thanks largely to technological achievements, today's active-duty military is about 4 percent the size of the force that fought in World War II with civilian society's deep and durable consent. Moreover, in today's $11 trillion American economy, the military budget is less than 4 percent of the gross domestic product. In World War II it was more than 40 percent—a greater than tenfold difference in the military's claim on society's overall resources.

"History's most deadly and destructive military force can now be put into the field by a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it does so—that force and that situation puts at risk very few of its sons and daughters, and only those who go willingly into harm's way," Kennedy said. "Our society neither asks nor requires any significant material deprivations on the part of the citizens in whose name that force is ultimately being deployed."

Kennedy said it's not healthy for a democracy to let such an important function—the application of military force—grow so far removed from popular participation and accountability. "It makes some supremely important things too easy—like dealing out death and destruction to others and seeking military solutions on the assumption they will be swifter and more cheaply bought than those that could be accomplished by the slower and more vexatious business of diplomacy."

Kennedy concluded by invoking a Western icon—the stagecoach. A first-class ticket guaranteed a passenger would arrive at the destination in good shape. A second-class ticket provided that in case of difficulty en route, the bearer would step out of the coach and wait until the problem was overcome. A third-class ticket obliged the bearer to get out, go to work with pickax or shovel, put a shoulder to the wheel and help get the show on the road again.

"Stanford is a first-class institution, and the sheepskin you'll be handed tomorrow is a first-class ticket to the rest of your life," Kennedy said. "My advice to you is don't take it. I don't mean don't take your diploma—of course you should take it. You've earned it and your parents would be aghast if you didn't take it. But don't take the first- or even the second-class route through life. Go third class. Don't be too comfortable. Don't be a bystander. Get out and make things happen. Get dirty. Put your shoulder to the wheel. Make the world move. And don't make the mistake of thinking that military service is something that can be safely left to the other passengers."

Also at Class DayThe Stanford Alumni Association and the Class of 2005 sponsored Class Day. Before Kennedy's talk, Alumni Association President Howard E. Wolf noted the graduating seniors would be joining about 180,000 alumni worldwide as the newest stakeholders of the university.

John Thomas "J.T." Batson was presented with the J. E. Wallace Sterling Award, which recognizes a senior whose activities demonstrate strong potential for continued service to the university and alumni community.

In addition, the Class of 2005 presented President John Hennessy with a check for $77,291.64. The funds will go to the Stanford Fund for Undergraduate Education.