By Other Means

The moral cost of the civilian-military gap

In my last column, I wrote about the civilian-military gap, and asked whether the most common laments about it make sense when examined closely. We tend to think that the military is "special" in some way, and fundamentally different from other occupations.  I asked whether that belief in military "differentness" is justified, and suggested that ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In my last column, I wrote about the civilian-military gap, and asked whether the most common laments about it make sense when examined closely. We tend to think that the military is "special" in some way, and fundamentally different from other occupations.  I asked whether that belief in military "differentness" is justified, and suggested that in many respects, the military isn’t as different as we assume.

That is: If members of the military deserve special consideration and respect, it can’t be simply because careers in the military are dangerous, since there are other occupations that are equally dangerous that we don’t view as similarly "special."  It can’t be simply because military service often involves extreme hardships (time away from families, long hours, physical discomfort), since here too, many civilians have jobs that involve such hardship. And finally, the military’s specialness can’t be based simply on the fact that military careers provide a vital public service, since millions of other Americans also do work that serves the nation in critical ways, whether that involves teaching our children, building our roads, mining our coal or staffing our hospitals.

Some readers objected to these arguments, viewing them as an offensive implied comparison between military personnel and the likes of truck drivers or sanitation workers. But the comparison shouldn’t cause any angst — why should we regard those who do the exhausting, dangerous, and invisible work of hauling goods or hauling our trash with anything other than respect? Millions of Americans give their all — their energy, their health, their time — on cold, windy oil drilling platforms, in dark, methane-filled mines, and in decaying inner-city classrooms. Noting that military service is less different from such other jobs than many assume is no insult to the military. In a better world, we’d respect and honor all the Americans — military and civilian alike — who do difficult, dangerous work for the benefit of the nation.

But there are two key ways in which serving in the military is deeply different from serving the country as a school teacher or working in a coal mine.

For one thing, our nation, like some many others, arose out of war, and the cauldron of war has profoundly shaped our history. For this reason, the military is deeply linked to our sense of national identity — to dearly held national narratives about where we come from and who we are — in a way that is true for no other profession.  

No other profession has shed so much blood at the nation’s behest. For members of the military, the shedding of blood (that of others and that of their own) isn’t a strictly incidental part of their work — something that could happen, might happen, but isn’t supposed to happen.  Historically, the shedding of blood has been the fundamental purpose of militaries.

Some service members will never hear a shot fired in anger, of course — and in my own experience, military personnel tend to be a great deal less bloodthirsty than the average civilian, perhaps because they’ve been forced to consider what it truly means to be prepared to kill and die. Most military personnel I know fervently hope killing and dying will never be required, that the mere existence of a robust American military prepared to kill and die will help deter conflicts, and ultimately reduce bloodshed.

Yet the fact remains: Even as our military finds itself moving into unfamiliar terrain (cyberspace, the information domain, intelligence gathering, humanitarian aid, development work), it’s still the only public institution that’s inherently defined by the willingness of its members to kill and die.

There’s a second and related reason to view military service as fundamentally different from other kinds of work. However tough and dangerous their jobs are, loggers and miners and commercial pilots can always quit. A commercial pilot who doesn’t like his odds can decide from one day to the next to become a realtor; a miner ordered into a situation he deems dangerous can tell the foreman to go to hell. His pay may be docked — he may be fired and face consequent economic hardship —  but he won’t go to prison for his refusal to risk his life.

That’s not the case for service members. Yes, we have a volunteer military, but once you sign up, there’s no changing your mind until you’ve fulfilled your service obligation. A soldier ordered to engage the enemy can’t politely decline. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, disobeying a lawful order will land you behind bars-and desertion in wartime is still punishable by death.

When someone volunteers for the military, they do more than just sign on for a career that may have its difficulties and dangers. They’re asked, in effect, to embrace those dangers, and from that moment on, to waive their fundamental right to preserve their own lives. The Declaration of Independence tells us that all men have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but those who volunteer for military service effectively give up those rights. Once in the military, their lives belong to the nation. Their time, their comfort, and ultimately their lives are subject to the whims of their military superiors, who, in turn, are subject to the whims of elected civilian leaders.

In the end, this is why civilians in a democracy have a moral obligation to understand the military, treat service members with respect and concern, and try to ensure that military force is used wisely and only when necessary. Members of the military voluntarily place their lives in our hands.

I suggested at the end of my July 26 column that there’s a pragmatic reason to worry about the civilian-military gap: When senior military officials and senior civilian officials engage with each other at the national level, a lot of vital questions just get lost in translation. Too often, that leads both to an impoverished decision-making process and to poor policy outcomes.  (I’ll discuss this more next week.)

But the moral cost of the civilian-military gap is also real. Civilians have the luxury of voting or not voting, tuning in or tuning out, deciding to pay attention to the war in Afghanistan or deciding to watch American Idol instead. But if we — through our votes, our choices or our simple lack of interest in events that feel distant and unimportant — allow our troops to be ordered into harm’s way, our troops have no choice but to go. Service members entrust us with their lives.

Is their trust in us misplaced?

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.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola