The Military-Civilian Divide – A Civilian’s Perspective (Part 1)

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?

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4 thoughts on “The Military-Civilian Divide – A Civilian’s Perspective (Part 1)

  1. Fderfler says:

    I’m a retired officer and I’ve seen the military/civilian relationship go the whole spectrum from spitting to hugging. “…what do you wish we civilians knew?” For me, that’s pretty easy. The answer is: “Why we serve.”

    There are lots of folks in the military so they can get a degree, stay out of trouble, see the world, and avoid unemployment lines. And, even after the first tour there are some who stay in because they find it a pretty good life.

    But, look at the ten year veteran and ask her/him “Why do you serve?” I suggest that if you ran a structured survey, the most common response would be, “To make a difference.”

    Now, how do you come to understand what that means when you live in the next town over from Berkley? Hmmm… the very best idea… go volunteer at the USO at SFO. Second best, find some Facebook friends who expose their military background or status.

    I’ll watch for other suggestions with great interest.

  2. David says:

    It’s not a gap, it’s a chasm. Unfortunately the “creeping sense of superiority” that Frank Hoffman sees in the military is just a replication of the superior feeling that many young civilians have had vis a vis the military for years. And it’s worst at the “best” schools and in the “best” suburbs. My kids went to those schools. We lived in those suburbs. It’s a big problem.

  3. […] Jared Leiderman ‘05 has become a guest contributor on the blog Secure Nation.  Read his first post, “The Military-Civilian Divide – A Civilian’s Perspective (Part 1)” […]

  4. Ericehrmann says:

    Hi Jared, this is a great theme to explore. It is also, in my view, a complex question that really turns on globalization of the mission of US military assets and the broader relationship between the citizen and the state at a time when the world financial crisis is creating monetary crises that pose quality problems for democracies everywhere  be they G7, G20, fake, whatever.As a military man and as a soldier-diplomat Colin Powell helped make civil – military relations a buzz phrase because he was so effective in encouraging other than democratic military cultures (some nurtured by Washington) to reconcile their methods with democratic norms, or at least give the media the appearance of such action.But these were regimes- like Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, Thailand, Egypt, Indonesia- not the United States itself. The theme resurfaces on the home front. Where concepts like community policing to promote local law and order have been floating around for decades with mixed results. The above mentioned regimes all used their military cultures for law enforcement and internal security and in the US, the distinctions are becoming more blurred as to how this same process is quietly unfolding.So one finds classic Latin Americn control of the army issues cropping up in the US military culture not over land reform or liberation theology.  But because fans of the Michigan Militia don't like or want to join an army that works for globalism, the folks in Davos and not the America  people. This is my glittering generality take, but not my personal view, having read what you wrote here.Circumspection within the military developed due to the open press coverage during the Viet Nam era. The emerging of the journalist-reporter as a hero and then the clampdown during the Reagan era. Embedding, a form of censorship and disconnection followed in Kuwait and Iraq. And self-censorship by media to maintain sources and access in a time of declining revenues was icing on the cake.  On the other side, NGOS and left of center groups have agendas that prefer the disconnect, the cognitive dissonance, because it is job creation for them, survival.  There is no blame to assign on either side (if you view the issues having sides). But it is clear that Adm Mike Mullen (ex JCS chief) was right when he said social media is causing part of the disconnect.  What is happening in this scenario is not unlike what is happened to so called inter-faith dialogue.  Except that it is politically incorrect to acknowledge that the military missions of those who wear US uniforms are now globalized and no longer just protecting America. They protect those holding dollars in a currency war, they protect oil rich kingdoms and dictatorships, and the commercial side of the American way of life.

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