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Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations

Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations by Jason K. Dempsey. Princeton University Press, 2010, 266 pp.

Armed with a stockpile of new data, LTC Jason Dempsey, USA, assaults the conventional wisdom that the US Army is a uniformly conservative and Republican institution. Dempsey leverages reams of new survey data to paint a textured portrait of the social and political attitudes of the 2004 US Army—a mosaic that is neither uniform in its opinions nor reliably Republican. His purpose is twofold: first, he offers the American public a more nuanced appreciation of its heterogeneous Army. Second, Dempsey cautions his own institution, awakening members of the Army to the “dangers, and impropriety, of conflating identification with a political party or political ideology with military service.”

Dempsey writes with military and academic credibility, and boasts a Petraeus-like pedigree of infantry command and Ivy League bona fides. A West Point graduate and faculty member with a PhD from Columbia University, he is also an infantryman who spent 2009 as the operations officer for a brigade combat team in Afghanistan. One of 13 2010 White House Fellows, Dempsey published Our Army as the mass-market edition of his doctoral dissertation from Columbia.

This work contributes to the study of American politics and civil-military relations with a statistically significant and rigorously analyzed gold mine of new data. Dempsey designed and administered two massive research surveys—one to the Army at large and the other to cadets at West Point on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. Whenever possible, he structured the survey questions to align with existing national surveys of social and political attitudes, thus making possible meaningful comparisons to a civilian population. He used sophisticated regression analysis to mine the data set. Readers should note, however, the snapshot captured by the data: the surveys were conducted in 2004, at the outset of a protracted season of withering deployments for the Army. The social and political attitudes of today’s Army likely differ—slightly or significantly—from the sample collected in 2004.

After a brief introductory chapter outlining the work, chapter two offers an historical account of the American soldier’s unsteady relationship with domestic politics. Folding together historical trends with civil-military commentary from Huntington and Janowitz, Dempsey succinctly outlines the “convergence of events and personalities [that] led senior military officers to an overt affiliation with the Republican Party at the beginning of the 21st century” (p. 33). On this thin but sufficient theoretical foundation, the author builds a seven-chapter tower of data. Chapters 3–9 present detailed analyses of Army demographics, social and political attitudes, conservative self-identification, party affiliation, political participation, and the politicization of the service’s next generation at West Point. These data-rich chapters comprise the core of the book, largely influencing its overall readability. Readers with an appetite for and appreciation of statistical methods—or scholars with an acute interest in its findings—will likely enjoy Dempsey’s admirable effort at both tabular and textual presentation. Readers who are less inclined to “stop and smell the variance” will likely move more quickly through the data tables to each chapter’s concluding paragraph, as Dempsey aptly summarizes his key findings in each chapter’s conclusion.

While these chapters make for cumbersome reading at times, they do offer a rich harvest of valuable information. As he combs through the data, Dempsey teases out the insights that ultimately reject the conventional view of a reliably conservative and Republican Army. On many key social issues, the Army as a statistical whole holds social and political views that are in step with the broader American public. This appraisal, however, belies a marked distinction between two key subgroups within the Army: officers and enlisted soldiers. These subgroups differ both in the content of their social views as well as the extent of their political activity. The visible minority of officers within the Army is more likely to self-identify as conservative, more likely to have a political party affiliation, and more likely to be politically active than its enlisted counterparts. While the officer corps tends to match the civilian population in rates of party affiliation and political participation, the vast majority of the Army—the enlisted soldiers—affiliates and participates to a much lesser degree. On the whole, Dempsey’s findings offer a valuable corrective to misleading labels of the entire Army as a politically active Republican cohort.

Following this statistical tour de force, chapter 10 considers the implications of the data for the Army and the nation. This is Dempsey at his readable best, offering incisive commentary on the Army’s need to recapture its reputation for apolitical neutrality. His critique of politically active retired generals is especially valuable, probing a theoretical niche outside the warehouse of traditional civil-military-relations theory. He warns convincingly of the damage done to the Army by its senior elite peddling “military prestige [for] political power” (p. 191), and notes wisely the “paradox of prestige”: the military’s reputation for being apolitical confers credibility that politicians are eager to exploit for partisan advantage. Nevertheless, the Army and its generals must resist: “a reputation for political neutrality best serves the Army and ultimately the nation’s interest” (p. 190). Building on a solid statistical foundation, chapter 10 is no doubt the most compelling section for readers interested in emerging trends in American civil-military relations.

Ultimately, Our Army enriches the literature of American politics and civil-military relations with its vast infusion of new data and analysis. The many chapters of statistical analysis make for plodding reading at times, but the genuine value of Dempsey’s insights more than compensates. Furthermore, while the statistical presentation dominates the book, the civil-military commentary at the end is particularly strong, whetting this reader’s appetite for a full-length treatment of its own. One can only hope the capstone of Dempsey’s current book will become the foundation of his next.

Maj Jeff Donnithorne, USAF

Georgetown University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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