In the decades before 1914, European militaries became increasingly distanced from their civilian populations and refused to adapt to changing methods of warfare. Today the U.S. military is in a similar position, as we have grown apart from the broader American public. Just as in 1914, this separation impedes a constructive public discourse about the use of force and does not allow for informed policymaking.
Pre–World War I European militaries had become increasingly professionalized. This shift had marked repercussions for the officer corps, who were largely drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy. Greater democratic participation changed the structure of European governments, but did not affect the military. Officers saw themselves as masters of an eroding profession, guardians of a vanishing way of life. Their lifestyle emphasized physical and mental toughness as well as honor and shame. Many believed they were superior to their civilian counterparts.
The officer corps’ conservatism prevented them from understanding their own profession. Developing technology altered the methods of war, but the military did not innovate. Strategists fixated on the offensive despite improvements in firepower that shifted the balance in favor of the defense. Thinking long wars to be irrational and thus unlikely, European militaries planned for short, aggressive conflicts. They believed the nation with the most spirited soldiers would win these battles.
Broader society emulated military values without understanding the craft that caused them. Politicians who did not understand the business of war deferred decisions to military leaders. Generals saw no reason to inform their civilian counterparts of their plans. An ongoing conversation about strategic aims and assumptions would have allowed for an informed decision about the consequences of war. By the time Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, the separation between civilian and military leadership prevented a frank discussion about the aims and possible costs of the conflict. Politicians declaring war on one another did not understand the assumptions that underlay military assessments that the war would be brief and bloodless.1
Today, despite the length of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, less than .5 percent of U.S. citizens have served in either conflict.2 Almost 80 percent of veterans have immediate family members in the service.3 Values like honor, integrity, and sacrifice pervade the military ethos, yet these are accompanied by a sense of uniqueness and superiority. Our force is becoming distinct from the broader American population. The current shift toward drone warfare and emphasis on special forces is similar to pre-1914 plans for short and simple wars.
This relationship cannot improve without a clear public understanding of military capabilities. Martial values pervade society: Spartan races and Tough Mudder runs mimic military training events, videogames like Call of Duty provide the illusion of combat without its very real effects, and exercises such as Crossfit imitate military callisthenic programs and idolize sacrifice by naming workouts after the fallen. Yet these experiences provide only a limited perception of the armed forces.
War is a political phenomenon. We cannot have an effective public dialogue on the use of force as long as civil-military relations remain polarized. The outbreak of World War I shows the dangers of this type of separation. The decades ahead will require greater coordination between the military and civilian society. As a naval service, we must do a better job of reaching out to the public. The fusion of soft and hard power cannot occur without mutual understanding between civilians and the military. Both must build, maintain, and make use of a functional relationship for a more effective national-security policy.
1. Margaret MacMillan, “The Changing Nature of European War: 1815-1914,” Cambridge University Humanitas Lecture Series, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 03-07 February 2014. Recordings of these lectures are available at www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/25379.
2. Karl Eikenberry and David Kennedy, “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart,” New York Times, 26 May 2013, Opinion Pages.
3. Eikenberry and Kennedy, “Americans and their Military.” “The Military-Civilian Gap: Fewer Family Connections,” Pew Research Centers, 23 October 2011.