For a country at war, it’s odd how little we civilians know about the military. There appears to be a civil-military culture gap that is growing quickly. And that’s not a good thing.
I don’t have a military background. Until a few years ago, I didn’t know people in the military. I grew up 10 minutes outside Berkeley, California, the home of sit-ins, walk-outs, and peace protests.
Maybe it sounds like I’m some sort of tree-hugging, military-hating, flag-burning hippie. While I can guarantee you I’m not, I will acknowledge that I am pretty ignorant about the military.
Before attending business school, I was also pretty ignorant about basic business concepts. ROI, double-entry accounting, inventory turns, disruptive innovations – it took a long time to feel comfortable with these ideas. And not having personal connections to the military simply means I haven’t been exposed to basic concepts.
Let’s start with language. Just like business or any specialized profession, the military has a unique vocabulary. We civilians don’t have immediate facility with the basics of the services, with ranks, with basic tactics and strategies. And your penchant for acronyms makes the language all but impenetrable for us (you know what I’m talking about – although some are pretty great).
More important, of course, is our poorly constructed ideas of what life is like for the troops. I can try to guess what you go through. But what ways can I get information about what training and combat is like? Movies. Newspapers. Interviews. Books. More movies. See why our knowledge about the military is pretty spotty?
The way the brain works only complicates factors. When faced with things we don’t know or understand, we fill in the blanks with assumptions – assumptions that tend to be pretty wrong. These misinformed assumptions are the same ones that help crystallize religious and ethnic conflicts around the world. Former Marine officer Frank Hoffman notes that several reports acknowledge a growing divide, “a creeping sense of superiority,” and a “growing degree of mistrust, misunderstanding and overt resentment” by some in the military.
Those are natural responses, of course. But they have deep repercussions for military morale, recruiting, and public support for future engagement overseas.
Is it the duty of American citizens to learn about our military? Yes. No doubt we need to learn more. But practically, civilians won’t seek out the information: remember, when there was overwhelming support for the war in Iraq, only 13% of young Americans could even find Iraq on a map.
That means that military folks also need to continue reaching out to us, even if it feels frustrating to explain again and again. Let’s start with this: what do you wish we civilians knew? And how can we find out more?