“I’m angry. I’d like to ask President Clinton why is my dad dead? And what are we doing fighting in Bosnia in the first place?” Coming from the 15-year-old son of Sergeant First Class Donald A. Dugan, the first operational fatality of the United States intervention in Bosnia, those questions command respect. But they are the last questions the Clinton White House wants to hear.

With Bill Clinton’s much-hyped Bosnia trip earlier in the year, the President’s relations with the military seemed to turn the corner. Although the trip came and went without consequence, it succeeded as a Kodak moment, producing as its chief legacy widely reprinted images of a grinning Commander-in-Chief enthusiastically embracing and being embraced by “the troops.” To the extent that any public gesture by any politician can be considered genuine, the President in these photos appears to be genuinely enjoying himself. Indeed, our journalists reported that for the first time in his presidency, Mr. Clinton seemed relaxed and comfortable when venturing onto the military’s own turf.

But to attribute any significance to a skillfully staged photo-op would be an error. Indeed, more than is usually the case, the image of Clinton surrounded by excited young soldiers is misleading. It further obfuscates a civil-military relationship freighted with contradictions that most government officials, journalists, and scholars seem determined to ignore.

Clinton’s Bosnia visit did not mark some great reconciliation between soldiers and the former antiwar protester who now issues their orders. Rather, it was an elaborate exercise in role-playing. Clinton slipped into the routine with which he is most comfortable: the ebullient campaigner. Pressing the flesh in Tuzla, he behaved precisely as he would have in Dubuque or Denver. The young Americans assembled for the occasion responded less as soldiers paying obeisance to their political chief than as fans reacting to the arrival of a celebrity visiting from afar. They would have done much the same for Tom Hanks or Tom Brokaw.

Yet if largely instinctive, such political theater is also profoundly ironic. Whereas the military that a draft-eligible Clinton once professed to “loathe” as alien to the nation’s ideals was in fact composed largely of conscripts, “the troops” with whom Clinton now strives to identify himself are without exception volunteers, part of a force that self-consciously styles even its most junior members as “professionals” and that emphasizes a cultural identity that sets it apart from the rest of society.

No doubt the distinction is one to which Clinton would prefer to remain oblivious. But it deserves emphasis. Indeed, the gap between what this military professes to be and the imagery commonly employed to describe it lies at the heart of America’s unacknowledged problem with civil-military relations.

The tradition of the citizen-soldier resonates powerfully among Americans. And with good reason: citizen-soldiers achieved victory in two world wars this century, stood the long watch against the Warsaw Pact, and endured the misery of Korea and Vietnam. At home, a military establishment based on the citizen-soldier helped bind together a racially and ethnically diverse polity—the memory of which inspires periodic calls for the reintroduction of some form of “National Service.”

Yet the heroic figures of that G.I. of yesteryear—the Sergeant Yorks, the Audie Murphys—has become all but irrelevant. Given the challenges of maintaining order in an unruly and restless post-Cold War world—and the United States position as a superpower that for now faces no major threat to its security—a large standing force of citizen-soldiers is the last thing we need. Rather, this is the time of the professional: the tough, disciplined, career-minded specialist in military affairs.

Nominally, the United States appears to possess a military establishment well suited for the times. Suited except for one point: despite the continuing assertions of the thoroughgoing professional character of today’s force, no American political leader will venture a definition of professionalism appropriate for the post-Cold War era. Instead, all are content to recycle the language and imagery harkening back to the days when global crises required the dispatch of throngs of “American boys” (Lyndon Johnson’s term) to distant lands.

For several generations, participation in such an enterprise marked a crucial rite of passage and a signifier of full citizenship. Yet when their turn came in the 1960’s, the best and brightest of Mr. Clinton’s generation shunned that rite. They absolved themselves of any obligation to serve. Indeed, they derided those who accepted it.

Thirty years later, now elevated to positions of prominence, those who evaded service now truckle and fawn to demonstrate the depth of their regard for men in uniform. Whether to assuage their consciences, remedy past injustices, or just cater to the folks back home, the motives hardly matter: the effect is to sentimentalize “the troops” in a way that society would never dream of sentimentalizing other professionals—the police, firefighters—upon whom in extremis it must rely.

The military itself is only too happy to play along. The moral leverage embedded in “the troops”—manifested in a sensitivity to casualties without precedent among history’s major military powers—provides the Pentagon with enormous political clout. Senior military leaders do not hesitate to exploit that clout for their own purposes. They deflect or modify tasks not to their liking— contributing, for example, to the months of government hesitation and indecision over Haiti and Bosnia. They pass off on others the responsibility for failure—as was the case, for example, when Les Aspin absorbed the blame for botched operations in Mogadishu. Indeed, the sentimentalization of the American military conceals a second contradiction in present-day civil-military relations: at a time when the officer corps proclaims its professionalization, it has become more highly politicized than at any time in recent memory.

Obsessed with safeguarding a reputation built on Desert Storm and with protecting from further injury a psyche devastated by Vietnam, the military has ample cause to pursue its own political agenda. While such behavior may not be acceptable, it is to some extent understandable. The real culprit lies not in the Pentagon but in a polity that does not take seriously—indeed does not acknowledge—the imperative of defining the prerogatives and obligations of a professional military force in the new circumstances that exist following the Cold War.

This imperative transcends partisan politics, arguments over foreign policy, and the debate over specific controversies such as Bosnia. Indeed, absent a commonly accepted understanding of the risks inherent in being a soldier and the role that Americans expect their military forces to play, coherent debate over policy becomes next to impossible. Rather than questions of interests and strategy commanding the attention they deserve, cynical maneuvering—such as positioning your political opponent to take the fall should American blood be shed abroad—takes precedence. Neither United States policy nor the well-being of American forces is served as a result.

Feel-good images of Mr. Clinton visiting “the troops” notwithstanding, fundamental questions relating to civil-military relations demand attention. The obligation for addressing these questions rests not with the military but with the nation’s elected civilian leadership. Alas, it is an obligation that the present administration will continue to evade.