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Mind the civil-military gap: The Republic depends on all citizens

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A side effect of choosing a professional all-volunteer military is that it widens the divide between the armed forces and civilians. The symbiotic relationship between armed forces and society characterized by the return of draftees back to society is less developed in a professional force. Many of the volunteers will serve a full career and will only cycle back to society upon retirement. Their period of military service may take place on isolated military bases complete with shopping, schools, chapels, day care, medical facilities, and a variety of recreational options, which may result in little interaction with the public. Consequently, the 95.5 percent of the population not currently in military service have weaker ties to those who serve than previous generations and increasingly consider military service to be something “that other people do.”

These “other people,” furthermore, are not representative of American society. Socio-economically, societal elites as well as the poor are largely absent from the ranks. Most military members come from the middle class. However, 71 percent of American youth are ineligible for military service due to the lack of a high school degree, poor health and fitness, or record. With regard to elites’ service, ROTC programs are rare at the nation’s most selective colleges and produce a fraction of the graduates they once did.

The military also diverges ideologically from the public. Exit polling in the 2016 presidential election showed that military members and veterans voted two to one for Republican candidates. The perception that the military has a partisan preference comes to the fore in every close election when the absentee military ballots are assumed to favor the Republican candidate in the race.{mosads}

Geographically, as a result of post-cold war base closures, military bases have become concentrated in the South and Far West. For example, the Army has consolidated its forces in posts in Texas, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina, leaving vast portions of the country with little or no military presence. One result is the over representation of recruits from the South and Far West (excluding California) and the underrepresentation of volunteers from the Northeast and Midwest in terms of those states’ share of 18-24 year olds.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned of the risk of “developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.”

Meanwhile most civilians’ lack of familiarity with military life leads to less interest in and knowledge of national security affairs. This collective decline in national security expertise and attention contributes to the weak oversight of the seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Constituents are not clamoring for an end to wars that they barely notice and that do not directly affect them.

Perhaps the greatest impact of the trend of a military “apart” from the society it serves is the loss of the common unifying experience of military service. In a polarized social and political environment, opportunities to live, work, and depend on people from all parts of the country for a higher purpose are increasingly rare.

One solution to mitigate the effects of the civil-military gap is to expand the opportunities for regional and national service. Another solution is to draw upon the experiences of those who have such experiences to share their perspectives.

The new 116th Congress has 19 veterans among the ranks of freshman legislators. While veteran representation in Congress has declined by six seats, continuing the steady downward trend since the adoption of the All-Volunteer Force in the mid-1970s, this latest wave of young and diverse veterans promises to make a positive impact on the civil-military gap and the broader national divide.

Many of these new officeholders ran on their military service, pointing to their ability to work with diverse people and to focus on a mission greater than any individual interests. Bipartisan PACs such as With Honor and Serve America supported their campaigns in exchange for the expectation they would join cross-partisan coalitions, co-sponsor legislation and serve with civility.

Those advocating for the All-Volunteer Force 45 years ago assumed that the decisions to employ the military were so weighty that the public would stay engaged in military affairs. This has not been the case.{mossecondads}

The expectation that military service is an obligation of citizenship has waned, imperiling the link between the body politic and the people. In the 5th century BC the great Greek historian, Thucydides, reported on how Athens, the world’s first democracy, deliberated the decision for war. He described how the Assembly met to hear both sides of the debate to bring Athens to war: “Every argument was made, heard, and discussed before the full assembly. The same men who would be required to fight in any war that might result debated the issues and determined the course to take by their own votes.”

There was no civil-military gap in Athens.

While much needs to be done to better connect the armed forces with the people it defends, the new congressional vets’ focus on citizenship is a step in the right direction. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis echoed this sentiment in a December defense forum when he argued that the solution to closing the civil-military gap was to focus on making all Americans better citizens. Such citizens appreciate the value of civil discourse and paying attention to national security affairs.

“We better all go back to finding a way to embrace one another,” he said. “And the military, we’re not that special. We’re simply patriots who decide this is how we pay our dues.”

Mind the gap. The Republic depends on it.

Dr. Marybeth Ulrich is the General Maxwell D. Taylor Chair of the Profession of Arms at the U.S. Army War College. She is a 34-year veteran of the US Air Force. Follow her on Twitter @ulrich_mb

Tags civilians James Mattis Military Military recruitment Military service

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