The overlooked civilian-military divide

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It’s that time again. Time for political operatives on the left and right to divide America into different tribes.  Red vs. blue, urban vs. rural, men vs. women…the list goes on. But there is one divide that is largely absent from the national conversation and unlike the artificial political divides designed to get votes, this divide has a substantial impact on American society. 

The civilian-military divide, the widening split between the U.S. military and the American public, is real.  As of May 31st, there were 1.34 million active duty personnel, that’s only about 0.4% of the population.  Even when you include the 822,000 reservists, the percentage is only a paltry 0.7%.  For comparison about 2% of the population served at the peak of the Vietnam War.

{mosads}The divide is growing.  More than three-quarters of adults over age 50 have a close relative in the military; but that number drops to just 33% for those ages 18-29, according to the Pew Research Center.

Washington is moving further from the troops, as well. Since the early 1980’s, the percentage of veterans in congress has been on a continual decline, peaking around 75% in the late-1970s down to less than 18% now.

“The traditional civil-military relationship is frayed and ill-defined,” a bipartisan task force on Pentagon reform found.  “Our military and defense structures,” the task force concluded,  “are increasingly remote from the society they protect, and each must be brought back into harmony with each other.”

So what is the impact of the civilian-military divide? 

First, the divide allows several harmful stereotypes about military members and veterans to persist. For example, consider the public’s views about veterans.  When shown a picture of a homeless person, almost half of respondents assumed he was a veteran, according to a survey commissioned by the nonprofit group Got Your 6. In the same survey, over 60% of respondents said those veterans that joined the military after theSeptember 11th attacks are more likely to be unemployed than civilians. 

Wrong on both counts. In reality, veterans represent less than 10% of the homeless population.  And last month the unemployment rate for post-9/11 vets was 4.4%—less than the rate for the general public, which stands at 4.9%.  The unemployment rate for all veterans is even lower at 4.2%.  If more people had personal connections to service members and veterans, the divide between reality and these misconceptions wouldn’t be so stark.    

Second, the civilian-military divide makes it less likely that young Americans would even consider joining the Military.  In a recent Harvard University poll, 85% of 18-29 year olds said they would “probably” or “definitely” not serve “if the United States needed additional troops to combat the Islamic State,” although 60% of the same respondents supported sending additional troops.   

Third, a civilian-military divide has national security implications. Our forces are strongest abroad when they share common purpose and enjoy the support of the American people.  What does it say about our society when Americans do not have a close and enduring relationship with those who fight in their name?  In our democracy, where civilian control of the military is enshrined in the Constitution, is it sustainable for the military to become disconnected from our fellow Americans?

Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff commented, “My concern is the growing disconnect between the American people and our Military.  The military is professional and capable,” he continued, “but I would sacrifice some of that excellence … to make sure that we stay close to the American people.” 

Today’s military is the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  And I’m not suggesting that we reinstate the draft — that would make the divide worse.  But outsourcing our defense to a smaller share of the population has costs and instead of dividing ourselves into red states and blues states, this is among the things the Presidential nominees should be discussing.

So how do we bring society and the military back into harmony? General Martin Dempsey, the immediate-past Chairman of the Joint Chiefs suggests a place to start: “Together, we need to discuss who we are and what our wars mean to us.”  Gen. Dempsey continues, “Those of us in uniform [have] a responsibility to listen [to] our fellow citizens [who] may have different perspectives that we need to hear.”  For civilians, listen to the stories of our veterans.  Instead of just saying  ‘thank you for your service,’ try to understand what the experience of military service is like.

Robert W. McFarlin, IV is a naval officer and a 2013-2014 White House Fellow. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the federal government.

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