The Civil-Military Gap: Macro and Micro Divides

kennedy_mugEarlier this week, David M. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus at Stanford University, visited Berkeley as this year’s guest lecturer in the Nimitz Memorial Lectureship series.  Among other distinctions, Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1999 book Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War. You can read more about him here.

During his visit, Professor Kennedy was gracious enough to swing by the Goldman School of Public Policy and chat with a small group of us about the issue of a growing civil-military divide in the United States. The problem, as he sees it, presents three questions of concern (which I paraphrase—probably poorly—from handwritten notes):

  1. Does the force structure of today’s military affect national security decision-making in a negative way? (Speaking primarily here of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) structure and technology and how they widen the gap in a way that makes commitment of military forces easier than it perhaps should be.)
  2. Is the military, which draws personnel heavily from the low-income demographic, filling its ranks in fair and equitable ways? Or, perhaps a better way of phrasing it: is there equity in the recruitment of service members?
  3. Is the US military fiscally and demographically sustainable in the long run? (Professor Kennedy was especially keen on emphasizing the rapidly shrinking proportion of American 18-24 year olds who are even physically fit or competent enough to qualify for military service.)

(We briefly discussed a fourth question revolving around the ambiguity of the military’s mission and design, but it was more of an offshoot than a specific topic of concern directly related to the civil-military gap, so I don’t include it here.)

In 2013, Kennedy and retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry penned a New York Times Op-Ed titled “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart,” in which the two argue that the rift between the American people and its military was caused by three developments: the establishment of “a large, professional, all-volunteer force,” technology, such as drones, which has insulated the civilian leadership and people from military actions, and the expansion of military roles from strictly combat missions to missions of nation-building, infrastructure development, and humanitarian relief. Without diving too deep into the specifics, Kennedy echoed most of the proposed solutions from his opinion piece in our group discussion, all of which are aimed at forcing the civilian government and population to “get some skin in the game” when making military decisions.

Feeling the Pain: The Macro Civil-Military Divide

There is no denying the emergence of a gap in our society since the establishment of the AVF. I myself take pride in being a third generation US Army soldier, and there are too many others to count that I have met throughout my career who have similar legacies. And while I have certainly witnessed the cultural dichotomy between civilians and military service members, I don’t necessarily find this difference particularly alarming. For this and other reasons (such as the existence of generations of families that successively served in wars, like WWI and WWII, before the AVF), I don’t have as much trepidation about the emergence of a separate “warrior caste” as some.

Easy Button

Where the real danger emerges is when there is very little restraint in punching the “easy button” of the military to handle any number of issues. The AVF, which provides a readily available force for action, enables this mentality, and the generally free hand of broadly-defined Presidential War Powers, barely limited by the 1973 War Powers Resolution, exacerbates it. (In the US’s nearly 240-year history, it has only fought in five Congressionally-declared wars, the last of which was World War II. However, the US military has deployed several hundred times.)

Not only is there very little civilian skin in the game, the American population at large feels no pain when the military is tapped and deployed.

I disagree with the idea that some sort of draft is the way to handle this disconnect, but there is merit to concepts like direct taxes on the population to fund military deployments and a significant increase in Reserve Component (RC) mobilization. To address the latter, several recommendations in the report released in January by the National Commission on the Future of the Army aim to increase the role of RC forces in Army deployments and to integrate Active and Reserve Component assignments and organizations in a way that develops multi-component and cross-component capacities that don’t currently exist. If accepted, these recommendations would bolster the concept of the “Army Total Force” with the beneficial side effect of forcing American communities to feel the effect of its RC soldiers and units being activated for deployment.

The more pain the American public feels when its military is activated to deploy, the less likely it might be to allow its representatives to use that method with such ease. The pain would cause the gap to shrink.

Not that Different: The Micro Civil-Military Divide

As part of my master’s program, I’m required to do an internship over the summer. The organization I’ve already begun to work with is an educational non-profit program, and I’ll be working on a veteran outreach project. One of my roles is general consultation on veteran issues as they relate to the program, and I’ve learned two big lessons in my limited interactions so far:

  1. Even with a little research, civilians generally don’t know anything specific about service members or military culture. That fact is often lost on me, so I know others must miss the point too. The best reason I can come up with is that service members are so utterly immersed in the military culture for years or even decades at a time that we simply take for granted the everyday knowledge and jargon that pervades our military careers. Veterans can bridge that divide by talking, although I’ve also learned from my graduate school experience that civilians very often don’t ask anything. Nevertheless, be open, honest, and earnest when confronted with questions about the military. Don Gomez wrote an article for Task & Purpose in 2014 about how student veterans are very well positioned to help bridge the civilian-military gap. His advice: “Be polite, be humble, have an open mind.” (Check out Don’s blog, Carrying the Gun.)
  2. Most veterans come away from service with a generally good work ethic, personal discipline, and professionalism. This (and maybe some technical skills, depending upon their specialization in the military) is their edge among peers, and that’s the point I try to make with anyone who asks about what makes veterans different or perhaps more employable. Besides that, however, veterans are like every other member of American society, with the same interests, life goals, and problems. Laying aside the occasional bout of Veteran Outrage Syndrome, I think a point that’s lost in the discourse surrounding the idea of a civil-military divide is that the military is recruited from the civilian population. We’re not so different, and if living in different parts of the country have taught me anything, it’s that cultural differences can be bridged, and there are usually more things in common than different.
(via Wikimedia Commons)

At a macro level, there are issues that are not easily solved through politically feasible means—I doubt any of the presidential candidates would be willing to degrade the executive power that the POTUS currently exerts over military operations.  But at the micro (read: personal, one-on-one) level, much can be done to bridge the civil-military divide. Open and candid conversations top my list of suggestions, but I can’t write anything new that hasn’t already been suggested on this front. So, instead, here are a few links that address this very topic:

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