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DURHAM, North Carolina (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned on Wednesday that nearly a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has heightened trends that could ultimately alienate the all-volunteer military from the society it defends.
Gates, in a speech at Duke University, said U.S. military officers and recruits are increasingly drawn from rural and small-town areas of the South and Mountain West, a shift that could divide them politically and culturally from largely urban America.
He also noted that fewer than 1 percent of the U.S. population had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan during America's longest period of continuous combat, leaving the wars largely an abstraction for most and further exacerbating the divide between the military and the rest of society.
"With each passing decade, fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle," Gates said, citing a study showing that the share of 18-year-olds with a veteran parent had fallen from 40 percent in 1988 to 18 percent by 2000.
Gates, who is expected to leave the administration next year, offered no solution to the issues he raised. A Pentagon official said it marked a return to the kinds of speeches he was making toward the end of President George W. Bush's administration, before he was asked to remain as President Barack Obama's defense secretary.
He later fielded questions from students, telling them eastern Afghanistan "is increasingly an unholy syndicate of terrorist groups working together: al Qaeda, the Haqqani network, the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. A success for one is a success for all."
Gates raised his concerns about the stresses on the all-volunteer force at Duke because it has a concentration of military bases and has maintained an active reserve officer training program, the Pentagon official said.
The U.S. defense secretary said while the military is now broadly representative of the country as a whole, service members are increasingly based and recruited from rural and small-town areas of the South and Mountain West.
"Basing changes in recent years have moved a significant percentage of the Army to posts in just five states: Texas, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky and here in North Carolina," Gates said.
"For otherwise rational environmental and budgetary reasons, many military facilities in the Northeast and on the West Coast have been shut down, leaving a void of relationships and understanding of the armed forces in their wake," he said.
Gates said the trend also affected training and recruitment of new officers. Alabama, with only 5 million people, has 10 Army reserve officer training programs in its colleges and universities. By comparison, the Los Angeles metropolitan area, with 12 million people, has only four programs and the Chicago metro area, with 9 million people, has three.
"There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend," he said.
Gates noted that reserve officer training programs had been shut out of many elite Ivy League universities, initially as a result of opposition to the Vietnam war and later due to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy requiring gays in the military to remain silent about their sexual orientation.
"Institutions that used to send hundreds of graduates into the armed forces," he said, "... now struggle to commission a handful of officers every year."
Despite the strains on the volunteer military, Gates said there was no desire to return to military conscription.
"Going back to compulsory service, in addition to being politically impossible, is highly impractical given the kinds of technical skills, experience and attributes needed to be successful on the battlefield in the 21st century," Gates said.
Editing by Paul Simao