As a result, we now have a relatively small but very powerful standing force that is isolated from the majority of the American public and in which only a very small percentage of the population will ever serve. Consider these statistics:
• Only .5 percent of Americans serve on active duty at any given time, compared with more than 12 percent in World War II.2
• Up to 80 percent of those in uniform come from military families.3
• Both during and following their service, military members tend to live apart from the rest of society. In the United States, nearly half of all active-duty service members are concentrated in just five states—California, Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia.4
This separation has allowed the military to become a separate and distinct culture, one that does not always understand the nation it serves—and vice versa. Eighty-four percent of post-9/11 veterans say the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families.5 The majority of civilians born between 1980 and 2000 “want no part of military life.”6 A recent survey found that “60 percent of the 18 to 29-year-olds polled say they support committing U.S. combat troops to fight ISIS. But an almost equal number (62 percent) say they wouldn’t want to personally join the fight, even if the U.S. needed additional troops.”7 Surveyed civilians also felt less wedded to civilian control of the military and more willing to abdicate decisions on the military to the military itself.8
The Danger of the Divide
This civil-military divide is dangerous for two reasons. First, it makes it too easy for civilian leaders to use and abuse the military. As Madeleine Albright famously asked of General Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”9 When it does send troops, the government seeks to do so on the cheap, expecting the military to work miracles with insufficient resources. The tiny force sent by the George W. Bush administration to occupy Iraq proved wholly insufficient for securing that territory or its people.10 Speaking on the disconnect between the American people and their military, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen noted he “would sacrifice some of [the military’s] excellence and readiness to make sure that we stay close to the American people. Fewer and fewer people know anyone in the military. It’s become just too easy to go to war.”11
Second, the divide can erode the military’s belief in civilian control. While the military certainly is not on the verge of staging a coup, it is likely the divide will lead military leaders increasingly to do things such as wade into policy debates, publicly disagree with political leaders, and ignore strategic directives in combat operations because they believe they know best. Such behavior, in addition to cutting against the great weight of our traditions, blurs the chain of command and, if left unchecked, could invite more serious problems.
These may seem like doomsday scenarios, but we already have seen early signs of such independence. Senior officers (from every service) surveyed at the Marine Corps War College unanimously agreed there were circumstances in which they would disobey lawful orders.12 Retired Air Force General Michael Hayden previously posited that the military might not follow the orders of Donald Trump.13 Earlier this year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford responded to the growing trend of active-duty members speaking out on political matters, telling them to remember their place—constitutionally and otherwise—and stay out of politics.14
Nor is the military unpatriotic. On the contrary, it is ultra-patriotic; its suspicion that the rest of America is insufficiently so is the real concern. Sixty-one percent of those who have served after 9/11 view themselves as more patriotic than the rest of the country.15
The Military Should Attack the Divide
The Department of Defense (DoD) should take the lead in dealing with this divide for three reasons. First, the military is the only arm of the federal government with the resources to deal with a problem of this magnitude. DoD controls half of the U.S. discretionary budget, maintains 1.3 million active-duty members and another 826,000 reservists, and employs 742,000 civilian workers. It is the biggest single employer in the United States.16 Second, the military is the government asset best situated to conduct threat assessments and plan large-scale operations. Third, it is in the military’s own interest to close the divide, so it should be active in seeking solutions.
To attack this issue, DoD should implement a three-part plan:
• Recognize that the divide is a problem and that the military has a responsibility to deal with it
• Assess existing outreach programs and their effectiveness
• Implement creative and comprehensive reforms to foster interaction between service members and civilians
Recognize the Problem, Accept the Mission
DoD and the services should acknowledge the problem by tasking someone (or some group) with closing the civil-military divide. This could be accomplished in a host of ways, ranging from detailing the mission to an existing flag or general officer position to creating a new DoD-wide Civilian Relations Command. One promising option would be to consider this mission within the scope of “external affairs” and reorganize the various outward-facing offices and commands to create a DoD-wide external affairs community responsible for, among other things, managing engagement with the American people and civilian leaders. Public, legislative, and governmental affairs, recruiting, and an assortment of other functional offices could be part of this community, which should be headed by some form of a headquarters-level directorate within both the services and DoD. By reorganizing existing assets, this new effort could be created without much additional funding. For most services, the change would not be acute, as many of these functions already are grouped together. The Chief of Naval Personnel, for example, has responsibility for practically all these external affairs missions in the Navy. A good parallel might be the intelligence community, where every service has its own intelligence functions, but they all share common practices, policies, and responsibilities under DoD’s Military Intelligence Program.
As an initial step, the service-level commands or directorates could establish headquarters (or expand existing recruiting depots) in the most populous metropolitan areas—such as New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. These cities are large cultural and economic hubs with populations that typically do not serve in the military and are not close enough to a military base to engender interaction. Placing commands there would provide opportunities for intermingling between the military and civilian society, while staff at these commands would be reminded constantly of the world with which they were building bridges. In addition, the locations would signal to the American people that the military understands that it needs to come to their turf if it hopes to extend the olive branch.
The external affairs community also could take responsibility for coordinating engagement with universities, building closer ties with this important demographic. At Harvard Law School, for example, veterans’ organizations have facilitated events for each of the services, affording several senior officers and secretariat leaders the chance to speak to a wide—and diverse—swath of the Harvard community on topics from the laws of war to internship opportunities in the Navy. These events garnered acclaim and interest from students and faculty alike, opened lines of communication between senior military leaders and the student body, and highlighted veteran and active-duty students to their peers, fostering countless conversations about their experiences in the military.
Assessing Current Efforts
DoD then should assess existing military-to-civilian liaison programs to determine which are most helpful in accomplishing the engagement mission. While the owner of the mission should manage this study, the Government Accountability Office or an outside organization with the right skillset could offer a neutral eye. The results could show that while efforts such as sending color guards to sports events might make Americans love their military, they do little to help Americans understand their military. Conversely, programs that facilitate prolonged person-to-person exchanges—for example, sending officers to civilian graduate schools or corporate internships—work well but often are too limited in scope.
The Naval War College’s Fleet Seminar Program in D.C., which allows congressional staffers to attend night classes alongside officers, is a model for how it might be possible to tweak current programs to produce better results. Similarly, efforts such as the Coast Guard’s Industry Training Program and the Navy’s Surface Warfare Officer Industry Program—both of which place top-performing officers with private companies for brief periods—provide much needed exposure for both civilian leaders in private industry and military personnel.
In addition, funded graduate school programs and military-wide legal education programs afford top-performing officers the opportunity to earn advanced degrees at elite private universities. The social capital built in these programs is equally as valuable as the skills gained through graduate education. The cross-pollination of the military’s top officers with a diverse and vibrant student body composed of future public, private, and international leaders fosters lasting relationships and helps bridge the civil-military divide—benefiting all parties. Not only will the military’s top officers and enlisted personnel broaden their global perspectives through integration with students and professors from diverse backgrounds, but also, in the words of one observer, civilian universities will be “better off if more veterans and active members of the military (such as ROTC faculty) were on campus to present alternative—and more realistic—viewpoints.”17 This program is augmented by the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which puts veterans in civilian schools at much higher numbers than the active-duty programs can muster.
However, the review likely would find that nearly all these programs are too limited. Far more officers are funneled into the war colleges or the Naval Postgraduate School than to Harvard, Princeton, or MIT. While these military institutions offer unrivaled education in many fields directly related to the military profession, they keep officers siloed and out of the public eye.18 In addition, veterans using the G.I. Bill overwhelmingly attend state schools, where the benefit carries more financial weight.19 The result is that there are not enough active-duty members and veterans attending top schools to have a meaningful impact on the perception of the military within liberal, elite circles.
Harvard Law School provides an interesting case study. Harvard is overwhelmingly liberal and produces large numbers of high-level political and business leaders. The vast majority of students, however, have no exposure to the military before attending, and most do not gain much exposure while at school. The average class of 560 students has only ten or so veterans or active-duty members. A large portion of the vets were officers and most are double “Ivy vets”—students who went to an elite undergraduate school, spent a few years in the service, and then came back to the Ivy League. They are an exceptional group of individuals, but their backgrounds often mean they are not representative of the military at large. There are very few former enlisted, and even service academy graduates face a perception that their schools were difficult, but perhaps not academically so.20
These forces combine to turn veterans into novelties who, outnumbered and subject to skepticism about whether they are there on merit or just filling some veteran quota, tend to adapt, blend in, and bend to the social mores of the majority. As a result, there is hardly ever any real exchange of experiences or views beyond the obligatory “Thank you for your service” on Veterans Day. These issues do not arise from maliciousness on the part of fellow students but rather from ignorance. Greater exposure would evolve students’ opinions on the military and its members. In other words, it would do what higher education is meant to do: educate, inform, and broaden students’ worldviews.
DoD should implement new initiatives that will work with those already in place to narrow the divide. The following examples are by no means “silver bullets,” but they can serve as a primer on the type of creative programmatic thinking required.
DoD should target opportunities for cross-pollination. The military could admit aspiring civil servants as 10 percent of each service academy’s graduating class and allow them to serve their payback in a civilian capacity. Encouraging National Guard service after high school or college and placing its prestige on par with programs such as Teach for America, the Peace Corps, and Americorps might provide an opportunity for civilians to be exposed to the military lifestyle/personnel while offering a new path for aspiring leaders to serve communities in need. Having such programs co-administered by and filled with military personnel also may foster deeper ties.
Perhaps the military could modify some of the mission sets of combat units and vest them in new reserve units that would draw in people of different backgrounds. For example, establishing “peacekeeping and humanitarian response” brigades might entice people into the military who otherwise would have joined the Peace Corps. Vesting noncombat missions in distinct units would free the remaining units to focus exclusively on warfighting. It also might be possible to recruit individuals who would not have joined a warfighting unit but who ultimately find military life suits them and transfer to active-duty combat units.
DoD also could establish leadership programs for civilians. The service academies and the junior officer experience are some of the best leadership training programs in the world. Lessons learned from these programs could be exported to help civilians and civilian organizations reach their leadership potential. At the same time, civil-military leadership conferences and programs could be venues for creative thinking and idea sharing from which all parties would benefit.
The civil-military divide is a real and dangerous threat. Of all government agencies, DoD is best equipped to address it. It has the necessary organizational structure, planning capacity, and manpower, and is responsible for making the military as strong as it can be with the resources it is provided. A diverse force, featuring varied perspectives, is one of the most powerful weapons it can bring to bear to meet the demands of an increasingly dynamic and ever-changing global landscape.
A strong and well-informed society is key to military success. Expanding current outreach programs and creating new opportunities to open avenues of civilian-military exposure can be effective in fostering “cross-pollination” and mitigating the widening gap between the two demographics. Increasing civilian understanding of and exposure to the military will lay the foundation for seamless interaction across government branches, as well as between private industry and DoD.
2. Karl W. Eikenberry and David M. Kennedy, “Americans and their Military, Drifting Apart,” The New York Times, 26 May 2013.
3. David Zucchino and David S. Cloud, “Special Report: U.S. Military and Civilians Are Increasingly Divided,” Los Angeles Times, 24 May 2015.
4. Zucchino and Cloud, “Special Report.”
5. “War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era,” Pew Research Center, October 5, 2011, www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/10/05/war-and-sacrifice-in-the-post-911-era/#executive-summary.
6. Zucchino and Cloud, “Special Report.”
7. “Millennial Want to Send Troops to Fight ISIS, But Don’t Want to Serve,” NPR, 10 December 2015, www.npr.org/2015/12/10/459111960/millennials-want-to-send-troops-to-fight-isis-but-not-serve.
8. Morton G. Ender, David E. Rohall, and Michael D. Matthews, The Millennial Generation and National Defense: Attitudes of Future Military and Civilian Leaders (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).
9. Michael Dobbs, “With Albright, Clinton Accepts New U.S. Role,” The Washington Post, 8 December 1996.
10. Vernon Loeb and Thomas E, Ricks, “Questions Raised about Invasion Force,” The Washington Post, 25 March 2003.
11. James Fallows, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” The Atlantic, January/February 2015.
12. Andrew R. Milburn, “Breaking Ranks: Dissent and the Military Professional,” Army.mil, 26 October 2010.
13. Peter Holley, “Former CIA director: Military may refuse to follow Trump’s orders if he becomes president,” The Washington Post, 28 February 2016.
14. Barbara Starr, “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to troops: Stay out of politics,” CNN, 11 April 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/04/11/politics/joseph-dunford-joint-chiefs-chairman-politics/index.html. Former Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey extended this sentiment to retired officers: “Military leaders do not belong at political conventions,” The Washington Post, 30 July 2016.
15. “War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era,” Pew Research Center.
16. “A Closer Look at Discretionary Spending,” Congressional Budget Office, April 2012, www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/BS_Discretionary_print.pdf. “About the Department of Defense (DoD),” www.defense.gov/About-DoD.
17. David French, “Our Universities need a Military Presence,” NationalReview.com, 5 October 2010, www.nationalreview.com/phi-beta-cons/248796/our-universities-need-military-presence-david-french.
18. The importance of military postgraduate institutions cannot be overstated. However, one downside to sending top-performing officers only to one of these schools is the opportunity cost of keeping them in a “military only” environment. That said, those top-performing officers could be sent to both military and private educational institutions at different points in their careers.
19. The national “Yellow Ribbon Program” is a great step to foster more opportunities for service members who wish to attend more costly private institutions. Universities should expand this benefit, while also bolstering programs that encourage veterans to apply to these elite institutions.
20. One student actually said the United States has a historical obsession with the military and that is the only reason the service academies still are considered elite.
Lieutenant Aliano is a third-year law student attending Harvard Law School through the Navy’s Funded Legal Education Program. A 2009 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he served on board the guided-missile destroyer USS Preble (DDG-88) for more than five years.Nate MacKenzie is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School, a 2005 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and a 2012 graduate of the Naval War College. Prior to law school, he served nine years as a Coast Guard officer, the final two of which he commanded the USCGC Washington (WPB-1331).