Lt. Col. Shawn McKinstry of the Canadian Army Reserve shows a picture of his great-grandfather with his regiment from the First World War.  Photo credit here.

My  father, like his father before him, was a soldier, as were my two older brothers. My earliest memories are of life on an army base in West Germany.  Even after dad aged out and fitfully pursued a second career as a high school teacher, there were his army mementoes around the house as well as the books of military history that he pursued voraciously.  When my brothers visited, there were stories of army life in the air, which burnished their heroic auras to my young eyes.  No surprise, then, that I should want to “go for a soldier” as a young man.

Sociologists use the term “professional inheritance” to describe the influence of parents on their children’s career choices.   Whether its the law, the clergy, the factory or mine, or the military, there is “an increased probability of a child entering his or her parent’s career field”.   Amy Schafer, a scholar with the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), makes professional inheritance the focus of her recent study, Generations of War: The Rise of the Warrior Caste and the All-Volunteer Force.   Her study of data from a variety of sources notes that having a family member with militarys service, particularly a parent (and thus usually a father) is a strong predictor for a person to join te military.  US Army data from the year 2015 shows that 36 percent of recruits had a father who had served (6 percent had a mother who had served) and a stunning 60 percent of general officers surveyed in 2007 had children in service.

The implications of Schafer’s survey can be outlined broadly as follows:

1) As the generations of veterans who were conscripted into the military (Korea and Vietnam) fade away, the total number of veterans as a percentage of US society declines correspondingly.
2) With the end of the draft after the Vietnam War, the rise of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) has meant that fewer and fewer Americans have any contact with the active-duty military.
3) This “familiarity gap” has been exacerbated as the US military was reduced in size after the Cold War, and as military bases were closed.  Today only .4 percent of the US population serves in the active duty military, while many of the military bases are concentrated in the US South.
4) As military service becomes more and more multigenerational, it becomes more homogenous.  Over half of recruits now come from one region, the south.  Multigenerational service, particularly in the primarily white officer corps, limits the growth of diversity in the military.
5) While military children may take better to military life and may be more resilient, multi-generational service has the adverse effect of reducing the overall  recruiting pool and limits the growth of diversity in the military.
6) A military that is slowly evolving into a “warrior caste” becomes increasingly isolated from the democratic society that it serves, meaning that fewer and fewer Americans know anyone in uniform, while voters and legislators become increasingly ignorant of issues surrounding the use of military force.  Conversely, while the military is revered and largely trusted by the American population, unlike other organs of government, the lack of civic connection to the military poses risks to the stability and endurance of democracy.

As always, I try to translate this article into the Canadian context, though I am far less qualified than Schafer to do that well.

Canada’s population in 2016 was in excess of 35 million, while the Canadian Armed Forces numbers approximately 68,000 Regular Force and 28,000 Reserve Force members, for a total of approx. 96,000.  The CAF is thus a miniscule percentage of the total national population, even though the CAF and the civilian personnel of the Department of National Defence together make up Canada’s largest single public sector employer.  The CAF Regular Force is primarily concentrated on a few bases, only a few of which are near or in large population centres, with the Navy being a significant exception (based in Halifax and Victoria).   The CAF is primarily white, and recruited from smaller communities, particularly from Atlantic Canada.  The Reserve Force is distributed more evenly through urban centres.  The CAF has worked hard to recruit a more diverse military, but has had difficulty meetings its goals.  Persistent budget cuts, pay freezes, limited training opportunities and many antiquated base facilities all work against the goal of making the CAF a career of choice for many young Canadians.

There is no data that I am aware of to suggest that military service in Canada is as multi-generational as it is in the US, though given the dynamics I have outlined above, I would not be surprised that it is similar.   Speaking purely anecdotally, roughly one in four of my colleagues have family members with military service, and some have children in the CAF.   Several past Chiefs of the Defence Staff, Canada’s ranking military officer, have or have had children in uniform.  So one can assume that a Canadian generational dynamic that is roughly equivalent to the US is in play.

Whether there is the same civil-military familiarity gulf in Canada as there is in the US, and whether it matters as much, is debateable.   Canada is not a military superpower.   Our citizenry feels good about seeing military personnel hauling sandbags to help flood victims, but not so good about seeing them fight, kill, and even die.  While there was considerable national pride over the Afghanistan deployment, there was little argument when a casualty-adverse Conservative government ended the combat mission, and then ended the training mission.  Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror, did not fit into a national narrative (however unrealistic) of Canadian soldiers as peacekeepers.   The current Liberal government has clearly signalled that defence spending is not a high priority, and there has been little public complaint over the fact that Canada lags in the bottom half of NATO countries in terms of percentage of GDP spent on defence.  Not since the end of the Cold War has any Canadian government convincingly argued for a large military or for its role on the world stage.

In summary, the same multigenerational trends in military service that Shafer observes in the US may well apply in Canada, though the data deserves closer examination.   The political and social stakes in Canada are less important because our military, frankly, is far less important to the national identity.  Nevertheless, Canadian citizens, like their US neighbours, should ask whether they can afford to entrust their military to an hereditary warrior class.  

0 Responses

  1. Interesting reading.
    Perhaps a conscription system is better socially, if less desirable than an all volunteer force?
    Some would like to tie military service with social privileges, but I am reminded of Starship Troopers in which the Recruiting Sergeant tells our hero that if you want to serve then they have to find a job that fits your capabilities.
    Of course there are other ways to serve other than militarily.

  2. I don't see this as particularly odd, if you take the long view.
    The United States has had a draft army for only 37 of its 240+ years: 4 in the American Civil War, 2 in World War I, about 6 years in World War II, and almost 25 years during the Cold War, though even during Korea and Vietnam only a small number of those called actually served.
    At most other times the United States has had an extremely small standing army, a far smaller fraction of the population than is serving now.
    It stands to reason that it would tend to become a hereditary profession.

    And that goes double for Canada (though we've had a draft for only 9 of our 150+ years)!

  3. When the Athenians debated whether to launch their ultimately disastrous campaign in Sicily in 415 BC, they made their decision knowing that they themselves would be the ones doing the fighting and dying. This is no longer the case in the US. The rise of an all-volunteer force has the effect of reducing the average American’s visceral investment in war. Fewer people are willing to question the country’s participation in questionable ventures because they have no skin the game. Does anyone think we would still be in Afghanistan if there was a draft? It’s far easier to intone the Pledge of Allegiance before ever sporting event and make sure your ‘Support the Troops’ bumper sticker is suitably shiny than it is to question whether sending a ‘volunteer’ to die where you would not send your own flesh and blood is anything other than rank hypocrisy.