Just what exactly is the military?
On one level, this question has an obvious answer. "The military" is "the armed forces," which in this country essentially means the active duty Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, together with their respective reserves and the National Guard. (Yes, yes, under certain circumstances the Coast Guard could be considered part of the military, and then there's the Merchant Marine, and the Public Health Service, and even a bunch of uniformed officers with commissions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- did you know that? -- but let's keep it simple for now.)
Sticking with the obvious, if we know who's in the military, then presumably we know what the military is: the military is what it does. In other words, military functions are those functions performed by members of the military.
This is a nice tautology. (That's why they pay columnists the big bucks!) Granted, it's not very enlightening, since military personnel do a whole lot of not-very-military-ish things at Uncle Sam's behest, but more on this in a moment.
Okay: maybe it's more useful to define the military as a specialized, hierarchically structured organization that's legally authorized to use lethal force to protect the state and advance its interests. This dovetails with our commonsense assumption about what our military is: it's an organization that fights wars. It's a group of people bearing weapons -- whether swords, rifles or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles -- who use those weapons to deter, disable, capture, or kill those who threaten U.S. security interests.
Superficially, this seems like a more helpful and precise way to define the military. But is it really? After all, the vast majority of military personnel don't "fight." Instead, they serve in a myriad of headquarters, logistics, administrative, and support positions: they cook, play in bands, draft memos, file papers, fix computers, write articles for the base newspaper, drive trucks, do archival research, analyze signals data, investigate crimes, build roads, and so on, rather than serving in combat roles.
True, truck drivers and file clerks can drive over IEDs or fall prey to insurgent ambushes. The same is true for civilian government employees, journalists, aid workers, and children walking to school in the morning. Here in the United States, 9/11 reminded us that violence can also come to airline passengers and Wall Street secretaries. But though the distinction between the frontline and the rear has eroded, being targeted and fighting back isn't the same as serving in a combat role.
Military analysts refer to the ratio of combat versus non-combat troops as the "tooth to tail" ratio (T3R, if you want to get really wonky). In 2007, the Army's Combat Studies Institute published a fascinating study by John McGrath, who found that the U.S. military's tooth-to-tail ratio has declined substantially over the last century.
During World War I, for instance, the United States initially fielded about twice as many combat troops as support troops, for a 2-to-1 tooth-to-tail ratio. By 1945, as World War II wound down, that had changed; only about 40 percent of troops in the European theater were combat troops, while the rest were headquarters, administrative, logistics, and support troops of varying kinds (giving a T3R of roughly 2-to-3). By 1953 -- in Korea -- the tooth-to-tail ration was 1-to-3. By the 1991 Gulf War, it was even lower: McGrath estimates it as 1-to-3.3. During the Iraq War, the ratio of combat to non-combat troops deployed ticked up slightly, but primarily as a function of the increased use of civilian contractors.
McGrath -- himself a retired Army Reserve officer -- concludes that "combat elements have progressively declined as a proportion of the total force since 1945." And "[A]s the percentage of combat troops deployed declines, it raises the question of whether such a deployment is, in fact, a military deployment at all, or some other type of operation."
That's a vital question.
Go back to my initial query: just what is the military? If it's defined formalistically, it's the Army, Navy, and so on. If it's defined functionally, it's a lot less clear.
Let's complicate matters some more. McGrath's important study defined combat troops not by whether troops actually engaged in combat, but by rather by job description: thus, for instance, he counts as combat troops all "company size and above units of infantry, armor, cavalry, field artillery, air defense, artillery, attack and assault aviation, and combat engineers...special operations forces" and so on.