It is an overused expression that the purpose of an army is to "kill people and break things". While it is undeniably true that this is the main purpose of the military, throughout history armies have done much more for the societies they defend.
This week, there is an ongoing argument about whether transgendered people should be allowed to serve in the military. One of the arguments against their serving is that the military should not be the place for social experimentation.
While I have NO pertinent data about the transgendered in the military, I can tell you that contrary to popular opinion, armies have always been the laboratory for societal experiments and the leading edge of cultural change.
Military service has always brought together people from different locations, backgrounds, and economic conditions. Think of any war movie made during the 1940’s—there is always a scene where the recruit from the Bronx, the hillbilly from the Ozarks, and the tall lanky kid from Texas all meet in the barracks. Culture shock is the norm for the newly-enlisted.
This could be called social experimentation, but military leaders since the time of the Roman Republic have learned the value of creating legions with troops in a balanced mix of age, class, and wealth. Polybius, writing in 150 B.C., said that to insure that each legion contained a proper mix, all recruits were gathered together in one place, then tribunal officers took turns selecting men in rotation, as if they were picking softball teams in a schoolyard.
Historians have long speculated that one of the reasons the fledgeling United States quickly created a sense of nationalism was the binding effect of soldiers from different colonies serving together during the Revolutionary War. Julius Caesar certainly understood this effect, since he took great pains to settle retiring soldiers in towns of captured territory.
The bond formed by men serving together during war is so strong that some historians have theorized that it delayed the American Civil War by at least a decade.
In the United States, the military has always been an important part of the melting pot that assimilates immigrants. Though rarely shown in movies, during the Civil War, a third of the Union Army were foreign born. Even today, more than 8,000 immigrants annually enlist in the US Army, where they usually do very well. Immigrants in basic training have a 10% smaller “wash out” rate than the native born. And immigrants are more likely to complete a term of service than the native born. Today, the military is actively trying to recruit immigrants, finding that cultural diversity adds value in an increasingly global mission.
The American military was also the first to break racial barriers. Long before President Truman ordered the integration of the services, military duty offered opportunities for racial minorities. The Revenue Cutter Service—one of the forerunner agencies making up today’s Coast Guard—allowed African-Americans to be hired as early as 1831. By 1887, an African American, Captain Michael Healey, commanded the cutter Bear. Healey went on to retire as the third highest ranking officer in the cutter service.
Long before women were accepted in a number of occupations in civilian life, they had access to these jobs in the military. During both World Wars, women entered the work force due to labor shortages, and after both wars, the number of women working outside the home failed to drop to pre-war levels. It was during wartime that women were accepted as nurses, as truck drivers, and even as pilots. It wasn’t just men who refused to “go back on the farm” during peacetime.
Historically, the military has been a laboratory of social experimentation for new technology and medical procedures. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington was criticized for experimenting on his troops by having them inoculated for smallpox. This radical new procedure was considered risky, yet by the end of the war it proved to be wildly successful. Vaccinated troops had a better chance of surviving to the end of the war—even though they were serving in combat—than did non-vaccinated civilians who avoided combat.
The needs of feeding large numbers of men during wartime resulted in dietary experiments, too. Canned and preserved food exist because the French government offered a cash prize to anyone who could develop a way of preserving food on French warships. The experiment was successful and was soon adopted by civilians.
The first steps towards understanding the dietary requirement for vitamins came from the military. The Egyptians, after examining the bodies of Persians following the Battle of Pelusium, in 525 B. C., noted that the skulls of the Persians, who habitually wore turbans, suffered more cranial fractures than the Egyptian soldiers who wore no headgear. The Egyptians correctly attributed this to something beneficial of the sunlight. Today, we know that exposure to sunlight enhances production of Vitamin D. The Egyptians also noted a link between the ability to see at night and the consumption of liver, a natural source of Vitamin A.
Thousands of years later, it was the British Navy that realized that scurvy could be prevented if sailors consumed citric acid. The term “limey” originates from the British naval custom of adding lemon juice to the sailors' daily grog. (Early in the 19th century, the word lime could be used interchangeably to describe either limes or lemons.)
It is the military that frequently first introduces new technology into society. Perhaps the best example is the electronic computer. It might be impossible to find an American home without some form of digital computer today, but in 1946, the world’s only electronic computer was the 27-ton ENIAC in Philadelphia. ENIAC's development was funded by the Army to calculate artillery firing tables.
The list of technological innovations that came about to fill military need is practically endless: From velcro to interstate highways, from radial tires to jet transport, from penicillin to the earliest days of plastic surgery, it is the social experiments of the military that have brought change to the civilian world.
The main goal of the military is not social experimentation, but maybe—just maybe—we need to rethink this: Perhaps it should be.