The Civilian-Military Gap: Keep It, Defend It, Manage It

By John Hillen

The gap, like it or not, is a public policy problem. Thomas Ricks, in his well-received book Making the Corps and in his July Proceedings article "Is American Military Professionalism Declining?" maintains that a significant and possibly corrosive gap exists between the values of civil society and those of the Marine Corps. Military sociologists have fretted about the impact of a small and discrete professional military in a liberal democracy and warned of a "nearly unbridgeable cultural divide." Leaders on the Hill (Congressman Ike Skelton) and in the administration (Secretary of Defense William Cohen) have called for efforts to "reconnect the military to society." After 40 years of trying to close the missile gap, defense intellectuals now are concerned with closing the values gap.

But is there really a fundamental, irreconcilable, and ultimately dangerous gap in values between America and its military? No doubt, the values, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that define the culture of military organizations are different from the culture of society in general. But I believe that most of America appreciates that difference, recognizing that the unique values and attributes of military culture are an occupational necessity for an institution tasked with winning under the unnatural stresses of war. The middle class appreciates this—sometimes in a naive or even voyeuristic way—but they get it. When Parade magazine excerpted Ricks's book, it did so under the title "What We Can Learn from Them" and unabashedly celebrated the code of conduct and ethos of the Marine Corps as a model for an America that has in many ways lost its moral compass.

What gap in basic values that does exist is between certain segments of American elites and the military. The counterculture all grown up and gone to work in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles are the ones offended by military values. New York Times Magazine readers may have problems with a military that holds its officers to a higher code of conduct, but I doubt that Reader's Digest subscribers begrudge the armed forces an ethos that allows it to succeed in war.

More realistically, the gap as it exists (and as it must, given the very different tasks of these two groups) is characterized not by diametrically opposed value systems and cultures, but by different cultures that complement each other and coexist. In the age of the all-volunteer force, the real gap that must be managed is one of shared experience, understanding, and appreciation. As Senator Charles S. Robb noted, "With less interaction between the civilian and military cultures, we're going to have progressively less understanding of one another." Indeed, during the Flinn controversy, even Senator Trent Lott told the Air Force to get "in touch with reality"—clearly intimating that the service was out of touch with the social mores of contemporary society.

This sort of gap needs to be managed, but it does not have to be closed. Eliminating the gap might solve the "problem" that the military does not look like society, but it might create a greater one—that the military will look too much like society. Most Americans realize that it serves no one to have boot camp look like Ridgemont High. It is possible to have a healthy civil-military relationship without the military directly mirroring society. What is needed are criteria that would help the military define where it should be on the cultural spectrum when the battlefield and society pull it in different directions. If it goes too far in pleasing the social mores of contemporary society, it may lose the culture needed for success in war. If it goes too rigidly in a purely martial direction, it could create a praetorian force contemptuous of the society it protects—with military disobedience toward civilian superiors being the first sign of trouble.

Unfortunately, the search for these criteria is so tough that many public leaders have left the impression that closing the gap completely should be the goal. Senator John McCain, for example, has said that "it's a fundamental principle that the armed services can truly serve a democracy only if they are a reflection of that society and are impacted by the same social trends." But what exactly does that mean? If society is slouching toward Gomorra, must the military slouch along with it? Should it go just part of the way? It would be hard to imagine Senator McCain approving of a military even slightly characterized by the narcissism, relativism, and "culture of complaint" that social critics tell us mark American society today.

In a cultural tug of war, Mohammed (the military) will be forced to come to the mountain (society) long before the mountain goes to Mohammed. Nonetheless, civilian and military leaders must accept the friction of civil-military relations in those moments when they clash. If they seek to avoid this friction by blithely asking the military to compromise its ethos to conform to society at large, then they could compromise our forces' ability to fight and win in situations we cannot even imagine. Managing the ever-present cultural gap is not easy, but it is infinitely preferable to a "reshaped" military culture that cannot withstand the rigors of war.

Mr. Hillen , an Army combat veteran, is the Olin Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is adapted from a presentation at the McCormick Tribune Foundation’s 1998 conference “Soldiers and Citizens.”


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