The Military Aren’t Heroes or Villains. They’re Us.
The gap between soldiers and civilians is hurting democracies.
Eighty percent of Germans say they respect their armed forces, the Bundeswehr, a recent survey shows. They just don’t want to serve in it themselves: The German military is currently some 20,000 soldiers short. The situation is the same across the West, from the United States to Britain and Italy. The public respects—worships, even—the military but knows precious little about what it does and wants even less to do with it personally.
“About 4 in 10 young Americans say they have never even considered military service,” reported the U.S. National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service in an interim study this past January. The bipartisan commission, appointed in 2017, is tasked with examining the growing civil-military divide and proposing solutions. The United States is far from the only country to suffer this problem: In the United Kingdom, for example, only 7 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds have a family member serving in the armed forces.
That divide directly affects the armed forces, which are struggling to recruit officers and soldiers from an ever-decreasing pool of military families. In 2016 there were, for example, 2.5 million armed forces veterans in the U.K.; by 2028, the number is projected to plummet to 1.6 million. “Today there’s no place to learn about the military,” said Pete Newell, a retired colonel who led the U.S. Army’s innovative Rapid Equipping Force. “The armed forces are consolidated on large bases behind fences. It has become a multi-generational profession.”
“Here are the makings of a self-perpetuating military caste, sharply segregated from the larger society and with its enlisted ranks disproportionately recruited from the disadvantaged. History suggests that such scenarios don’t end well,” warned retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry and the history professor David Kennedy in a New York Times op-ed six years ago.
On the other side of the divide are companies, business leaders and ordinary citizens who have minimal interaction with the military. The military “is out of sight and out of mind, except when engaged in high-profile and generally unpopular campaigns such as Afghanistan and Iraq,” noted Gen. Richard Barrons, a former commander of Britain’s Joint Forces Command.
The average member of the public has almost no interaction with soldiers; their knowledge of the military comes through war movies and reporting about recent wars. And that applies across society: Fortune 500 companies today are led by the MBA generation—fabulously well-educated, but mostly without experience in national security. The divide can give rise to damaging decisions: Last year, Google pulled out of the Pentagon’s Project Maven after a large number of engineers refused to work on the contract. If the engineers had a better understanding of the wide role the military plays, they might have been less uneasy about the cooperation and more trusting of the military’s ability to maintain ethical standards.
The divide can have dangerous results, especially when it comes to decision-makers. Whereas earlier generations had a taste of war’s consequences, today those making the decisions to deploy troops often do not have a clue about service themselves. “In 1975, 70 percent of members of Congress had some military service; today, just 20 percent do, and only a handful of their children are in uniform,” noted Kennedy and Eikenberry. Most other Western countries show a similar trend: The widespread suspension of national service after the end of the Cold War means an ever-growing number of policy-makers and other citizens have minimal, if any, exposure to the armed forces. That includes President Donald Trump himself.
Having served in the armed forces is, of course, not a requirement for having opinions about the military or even making decisions about it. Today’s dilemma is, however, that decision-makers and the wider public have so little exposure to the armed forces that they have little idea what it is they are spending taxpayer money on or how it should be spent. Yes, politicians have military advisors, but without expertise of their own they are held back.
Every member of the public is acquainted with the work of doctors, teachers, police officers, and fire fighters. Because they know the nature of that work, they can react with some insight when it is under discussion. They can consider joining their ranks and can encourage their children to do so. The armed forces, by contrast, are so distant that most decision-makers and ordinary citizens are only able to treat them with veneration or contempt. Trump has appointed so many generals and basks in the expertise of the U.S. military, not because he’s intimately familiar with their work but because he is not. U.S. airlines offer pre-boarding to soldiers because they are considered different from the rest of society. Trump shows appreciation for the military but treats its representatives as convenient backdrops for photos. Through no fault of its own, the military is becoming an alien component of liberal democracies, worshipped or vilified but rarely understood.
The democratic benefit of civil-military interaction is obvious, but the benefits of practical collaboration go both ways. Israel’s successful high-tech industry is largely a result of its armed forces training highly capable young Israelis in specialist units, an effect the sociologists Ori Swed and John Sibley Butler label “military capital.” By contrast, a measly 4 percent of British ex-service members end up in tech after leaving their military. Western countries don’t need Israel’s mandatory universal conscription—but they, too, could reap business results from national security needs.
In comparison, countries as different as Finland and Israel show joint civil and military efforts have a distinct advantage. As Newell and the tech entrepreneur Steve Blank explain in a 2017 paper, “our adversaries are continually innovating faster than our traditional systems can respond.” To be sure, defense contractors’ cooperation with the armed forces is as strong as ever—but that’s not the case for the tech sector. With cutting-edge technology increasingly being developed not by government agencies or traditional manufacturing firms but by start-ups, that is a problem.
A small number of military crossovers such as Newell already perform valiant efforts. After leaving the Army, he founded the Palo Alto-based innovation company BMNT and teamed up with Blank to launch Hacking for Defense—a course now taught at 22 universities, where students solve real-world government problems. Hackathons for university students also foster invaluable exposure between the worlds and could be expanded. Few students would scoff at the chance to help protect, say, the grid against enemy attacks, as in the popular Cyber 9/12 challenge, which invites tech-oriented students to role-play security decision-making during a cybersecurity crisis. Another model is the—very small—summer program for 16-year-old programmers run by the FRA, the Swedish signals intelligence agency, which is part of the armed forces.
Secondments pose another opportunity. Young military officers could be lent to key companies for, say, a year. The U.S. Navy already operates such a program, the three-year-old Secretary of the Navy Tours with Industry, though it includes only a very small number of young officers and noncommissioned officer, as does a similar program in the British Army. That model could be scaled up. To be sure, young officers must focus on gaining field experience, and secondments also pose the risk that those sent become more tempted by the opportunities of the private sector than a military career. But seconding a limited number of specialists from all services to key companies—and vice versa—would bring mutual benefits.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense is developing a promising new concept labeled the Enterprise Approach, with which it wants to develop closer relations with industry and jointly produce leaders with particular expertise. To facilitate C-level interaction, Barrons proposes “a well-constructed program that exposes private-sector executives to military leadership.” The U.S. Navy runs a tiny initiative with similar goals, the Navy Reserve Direct Commission Officer program, which allows civilians to become Navy reserve officers specializing in public affairs. Last year, the program accepted 112 candidates. It also invites a small number of business leaders for brief visits on aircraft carriers. (According to the military participants, the executives love the experience.) Even the Bundeswehr is testing civil-military innovation, with its new cyberinnovation hub establishing links with the Israeli start-up community.
Bridging the civil-military divide is not about militarizing business or making executives love the armed forces. It’s about the recognition that the military cannot and should not perform its task in isolation—and that businesses, executives, and indeed all citizens of liberal democracies rely on top-notch armed forces to keep them safe.
No single tool will, on its own, mend the divide. Universal conscription as it used to be practiced in Europe and the United States comes with its own wealth of problems and can leave more people embittered than knowledgeable of the military. Today’s hyperselective conscription practiced by Sweden, Norway, and Denmark allows the armed forces to select the best and the brightest—and having been a conscript takes on the prestige of an Ivy League degree while, of course, providing valuable military knowledge to a key segment of the young population. It’s in both the democratic and the national interest to shrink the civil-military gap that adversaries are skilled at exploiting.