The Civilian-Military Gap and the Undermining of the US Military

Civilian control of the military is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society. A government whose military is not under civilian control is effectively an authoritarian government, with the power to conduct state-sponsored violence on a whim.

As mandated by the Constitution, the U.S. Armed Forces are under complete civilian control, meaning the decisions surrounding peace and war are solely the prerogative of elected officials. This fact remains a source of pride for the most capable military in the world. However, civilian control of the military comes with its own weaknesses, as identified by what a handful of individuals are labeling The Civilian-Military Gap. This term describes the “gap in perceptions and attitudes between the military and the wider civilian society,” and it represents a growing but elusive issue that could undermine not only the effectiveness of our military but also our system of government.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired U.S. Marine Corps General, illustrated the Civilian-Military Gap in his remarks to the White House press corps in October: “Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of [our] soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Coast Guardsmen in combat . . . Who are these young men and women?… Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them.”

A lack of understanding between the military and wider civilian society slowly but surely diminishes the public and political support for the military. People begin to ask why the government is spending so much on defense well before they make any evaluative judgment regarding which needs of the military we are addressing, and which we are not. The result is defense spending plans that reflect prevailing political trends more than strategic trends, the lowering of morale due to the public being at odds with the military’s mission, and difficulty with recruiting and retention as a result of pay cuts and downsizing. In an organization that is made up of volunteers that are strongly committed to what the military stands for, this trifecta of consequences negatively affects military effectiveness at every level.

Unfortunately, the United States is in a position where people have become largely detached from the military and are generally less informed on why it exists, how it functions and how it is controlled. The military becomes more of a tool to be used to position oneself politically before election day than the enduring symbol for American democracy it was meant to be. As proof of this, one only need to look to the war in Afghanistan, which has almost become an afterthought among the American public and media–only to be brought up by presidential candidates every four years.

Consistent and constructive dialogue is what we need in order to bridge the gap between the military and the public, a feat which is surprisingly difficult in today’s sociopolitical climate. In particular, military leaders must make a conscious effort to avoid in-group and out-group biases and refrain from comments that “minimize the value of non-military service.” To do so is to alienate the military from the public even further.

That said, the public must also make a concerted effort to understand the less than one percent of citizens that carry the full moral, physical, and psychological burden of “the use of state-sanctioned violence to accomplish [the] political aims” of elected officials and in defense of the United States. It is not enough to occasionally remember that this small number of citizens exists. Listening to veterans and their stories, learning about the military’s history and policies, or taking a course related to this topic are all ways to expand one’s understanding of one of the most unique professions in the world, the profession of arms.

It is difficult to ask more of an American public that is already so detached from the military. So, one effective policy to address the Civilian-Military Gap is to embed important military concepts such as “just war” theory and the laws of war into public school curriculum, along with the purpose and mission of the U.S. military as an instrument of power. When public school curriculum already mandates education in fields such as history and government, an addition to the curriculum that emphasizes the military as a function of government would be practical and potent. Again, the purpose of teaching military concepts in class would not be to create a public that reveres the military or war, but rather to provide the public with a sufficient knowledge of the consequences of, and justifications for, war. This awareness allows them to make more informed decisions as citizens.

In higher education, there has already been a promising example of bridging the gap in a recent cooperative effort between the U.S. Army War College and neighboring Dickinson College “to create a unique course that brought together senior officers and undergraduates” in an open forum setting. Likewise, most ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) classes at universities around the country are already open to every student, unbeknownst to many students. These courses benefit both parties involved, and they highlight the benefit of incorporating the study of war, politics, and American civil-military relations into academic curricula. Increasing awareness of these different opportunities would be of great benefit.

Changes in educational policies notwithstanding, another effective method to potentially bridge the Civilian-Military Gap would be to create an online speaker series for veterans who want to share their stories. There are already videos of military service members and veterans speaking at various venues, but they are dispersed across the internet and are not very related to one another. Having a consolidated, online platform that empowers veterans to share their stories and give insights into the world they experienced provides the public with a more transparent view of veterans, and of the people currently serving in the Armed Forces.

In a time where the United States is engaged in what is soon to be the longest war in its history, and international adversaries are becoming increasingly more aggressive, conversations between the military and the public are of the most importance. The conflicts we face now, and the conflicts we will eventually face, will only be won with the support of a public that adequately understands the consequences of war and the needs of those who fight it.