By Other Means

Generals Are from Mars, Their Bosses Are from Venus

But does the civilian-military gap really matter?

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Most Americans know roughly as much about the U.S. military as they know about the surface of the moon. It’s not that we don’t like the military — we love it! We just don’t have a clue who’s in it, what it does, what it costs us, or what it costs those who join it. And as a nation, we don’t particularly care, either.

Commentators routinely lament this civilian-military gap, and admittedly, it’s more of a gulf than a gap these days. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Duke University audience in 2012, "For a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do." Even with the post-9/11 patriotic surge, only about one half of one percent of the population served during any given year in the last decade.

Congress has fewer veterans within its ranks than at any other point since World War II, and many worry that the military is particularly disconnected from elites. In AWOL: The Unauthorized Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service, Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer note that only a third of a percent of Ivy League graduates enter the military. What’s more, military personnel are drawn disproportionately from non-urban areas and from the South, the Southwest and the mountain states. Compared to the civilian population, members of the military (particularly the officer corps) are also substantially more likely to self-identify as politically conservative.

As Tom Ricks observed in his 1997 book, Making the Corps, members of the military often perceive themselves as "different" from the civilian population — and, on the whole, as better. And military personnel certainly feel misunderstood. In 2011, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told graduating West Point cadets that although the public supports the troops, "I fear they do not know us." Similarly (as I noted last week), the Military Times2012 annual survey found that more than 75 percent of all active duty personnel and reservists believe, "The military community has little in common with the rest of the country and most civilians do not understand the military."

But so what?

In my day job I teach at a medium-sized university, and I can guarantee that if you asked a national cross-section of American academics to evaluate the statement, "The community of university professors has little in common with the rest of the country and most non-academics do not understand professors," 99 percent of my colleagues would agree — and in many ways, they’d be right. Reframe the question to make it about police officers, nurses, garbage truck drivers, elementary school teachers, mortgage brokers, screenwriters, or flight attendants and I suspect you’d get similar results. We’re all tragically misunderstood.

Why should it matter, though? The mere fact that a particular occupational group is not fully representative of the U.S. population — or is not fully understood by other Americans — isn’t in itself a cause for hand-wringing. So why get worked up about the civilian-military gap?

Let’s look at the arguments usually advanced by those who decry it. The first argument generally put forward by those who lament the civilian-military gap is that since members of the military sacrifice on our behalf, the nation owes it to them to understand them better. Writing in the Joint Forces Quarterly, former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Ike Skelton worries that Americans need more awareness of "the long-term implications of the sacrifices Service members are making…. Today, the public may not show the military as much gratitude as it deserves."

This argument has a strong emotional pull, but in the end, it’s more about sentiment than reason. After all, members of today’s military are volunteers, not conscripts (and contrary to popular belief, they do not hail mostly from the least-advantaged segments of society). Just like civilian pilots, loggers, fishers, miners, and farmers (who face roughly comparable occupational fatality rates) — or for that matter, just like the journalists and humanitarian aid workers who operate in conflict zones and unstable societies — military personnel get paid to take certain risks in order to provide an important benefit for the rest of society.

Americans need to be protected from external attack — but Americans also need food, shelter, transportation, and a functioning economy. So I’m not sure what it means to suggest that the civilian population has a special duty to try to understand the military better, or to participate in it to a greater degree, simply because military service entails risk and hardship and produces public benefits. If that’s true for the military, shouldn’t we equally feel obligated to understand pilots, fishers, miners, and the many others who enter risky or unpleasant occupations from which the rest of us benefit?

And believe me, there are plenty of risky and unpleasant occupations out there, many offering low pay, minimal benefits, irregular schedules, and extended, unpredictable periods away from home and family. Long-distance trucking, for instance, makes the top ten list of most dangerous civilian jobs — 683 truckers died in occupation-related incidents in 2010 — and requires long periods of solitary, mind-numbing travel. Sanitation workers get to stay close to home, but they too have the dubious honor of being on the annual fatality rate top ten list (getting crushed to death in trash compacters is more common than you’d think) — and who wants to spend every day handling everyone else’s garbage?

Other decriers of the civilian-military gap, such as Stanford’s David Kennedy, focus less on the inherent worthiness of military service and more on the manner in which the military is used. Rather than making a moral argument about what the nation owes the military, they make a prudential argument about the value of increasing the public’s sense of connection to the military. As Kennedy puts it, "The more civilian engagement, the more prudence in decisions for usage of the force." When most of the population has no stake in the military, such critics claim, the nation may be more likely to enter into and remain in bloody conflicts.

This argument also has a strong intuitive appeal: if it’s your spouse or child deploying to a combat zone, you’re going to spend a whole lot of time pondering the whys and what-ifs — and you’re likely to demand accountability from political decision-makers. Logically, then, a civilian population more strongly connected to the military might be more skeptical of claims about the necessity of war. You hear this suggestion from both the right and the left: would we have been so willing to go to war in Iraq if there had been a military draft, for instance?

But despite its intuitive appeal, I’m not sure there’s much evidence to support this hypothesis, either in this country or in others. The generation that fought (mostly as conscripts) in World War I didn’t prevent World War II, and post-World War II America — saturated with veterans — can hardly be said to have avoided reckless and bloody foreign entanglements.

Conversely, even though fewer Americans today have served or have relatives who’ve served, it would be tough to claim that Americans are less solicitous towards the military than in previous decades: military benefits are far more generous now than they were in earlier periods of American history (if you treat volunteers too badly, they’ll leave), and the American public has never been less tolerant of risks to the lives of troops. In World War II, the United States lost nearly 300,000 troops in combat; in Korea the figure was roughly 35,000 and in Vietnam close to 50,000. In over a decade of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve lost roughly 5,000 troops in combat — a slow bleed that has fueled popular discontent with both wars. Americans may be less strongly connected to the military than in previous eras, but they’re also far less willing to see American blood spilled abroad.

A third common reason commentators give for bemoaning the civilian-military gap relates to civilian control of the military. "It is a dangerous situation when civil society and its military grow distant from another," warns Paul Kennedy. "Disaffected veterans brought Mussolini and Hitler to power, born and bred in the soil of increasing misunderstanding between civil and military sectors." Kennedy’s a very smart guy, but this argument has never made a lot of sense to me: events in pre-World War II Italy and Germany notwithstanding, I see absolutely zero likelihood of a military coup in the United States. Civilian control of the military is a cultural commitment with which the U.S. military is deeply imbued.

In the end, I’m skeptical of common arguments about why the civilian-military gap is something to moan about. But that’s not because I don’t think the gap is a problem. I do think it’s a problem — but not for the reasons usually advanced.

The real downside of the civilian-military gap? At the national level, there are systematic cultural differences in how senior military officials and senior civilian officials have learned to think about what it means to plan and strategize, evaluate risk, and define problems in the first place. Too often, these differences lead to mutual incomprehension and frustration at the highest levels of national decision-making — and ultimately, to bad policy outcomes and incoherent strategies.

Next week, I’ll talk about why that’s so — and how the civilian-military cultural gap causes vital points to get lost in translation.

Correction: This article originally mistakenly referred to David Kennedy as Paul Kennedy.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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