Can the growing gulf between those in the military and civilians ever be bridged?

There was in interesting article in the Washington Post Magazine (requires signin) this weekend about the ever-widening gap between people in the military and their civilian counterparts. Here are some facts/opinions mentioned in the article that should be taken into account:

  • Less than 1% of the US population serves in the military (active and reserve). It was 4% in Vietnam, 12% during WWII, and 11% during the Civil War.

  • “WWII headlines celebrated accomplished military killers and called them heroes. [snip]… Today, US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan win medals get local coverage. But the brightest national spotlight is reserved for killers who are war criminals.”

  • According to polls, nearly 2/3 of military leaders believe they share the same values as the American people, while only a third 1/3 of their civilian counterparts agree. The vast majority of civilians believe service members are intolerant, stingy, rigid, and lacking in creativity. More than 20% report they would be disappointed if their children joined the military.

  • Many American newspaper editorial boards encouraged the use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a search yielded none that encouraged people to enlist to support the effort. “President Bush urged civilians to go shopping.” Or as Maryland sociologist, David Segal succinctly stated, “the military is at war, but the country is not. And the military resents that.”

  • While pre-Vietnam generations saw military service as an apolitical civic duty, today’s civilians see it as a career choice for the underprivileged, and a choice that depends on whether they approve of the policies of the moment.

  • Military recruiters are increasingly unwelcome in affluent communities. In addition, recruitments goals have been harder to meet even as the recruitment restrictions are relaxed . This has led to job related stress that is causing some of them to consider suicide.

  • Until Vietnam, the military broke down along the same political lines as the rest if the country. The enlisted ranks still do. But int eh past 30 years, the officer has undergone a revolution. Republican officers outnumber Democrats 8 to 1.

  • Nearly half of all Army recruits are following in the footsteps of a parent who has served.

  • More and more, civilians have no contact with the people who do the fighting, yet civilians decide when and where those people fight. Additionally, fewer military officers are graduating form elite civilian universities, whereas a greater number of civilian political elites are. At Yale, there are only 2 ROTC members among the 5400 undergraduates there. In 1956, at Princeton, 400 members of the graduating class of 750 went into the military (today, Princeton has 9). The opposite trend is has occurred on the public sector. Most of our recent presidents have had degrees from either Harvard or Yale (and few have ever been in combat).

  • More than 1/3 of civilians leaders believe the military is dishonest, and fewer than half believe it’s attracting high-quality recruits.

My questions to you are as follows:

  1. Do you feel we are at war? Why or why not?

  2. Do you feel you have been personally affected by the war?

  3. Would you approve of a family member joining the military?

  4. What do you think the long-term implication of the trends discussed above will be?

  5. What can be done to create a more meaningful dialog service members and civilians?

It’s going to have to be bridged some way. While 1% may be serving currently, according to the VA, nearly 1 out of 10 US citizens has served in the military, and nearly a quarter are closely related to a living or deceased vet. Link

Military service just isn’t as popular these days. Back when tyrants were throwing their weight around the globe and attempting to enslave entire continents, I can see where regular citizens felt as if the entire country were part of a war effort. It’s a big, scary deal to face off against fascism.

Now, the military feels bloated to most of us. We ooh and ahh over how powerful the new technology is, but we’re all thinking “what the fuck is that new bomb actually FOR? It’s pretty cool that it can blow up a building without damaging anything around it, and knock out a hole 40 feet deep, but seriously, 70 million dollars for a bomb?” at the same time. A powerful military almost seems like an antique to people like me. We know the marines aren’t gonna stop Al Quaida, but that if anyone can it’s the intelligence agencies. We don’t need to topple any world-threatening dictators conquering everyone around them, but the military folk still cling to the idea that we do.

Most of our peers have realized for a long time that having a powerful fancy world-class military just isn’t in their best interests anymore. Successful military operations are done by coalitions of dozens of countries pooling military resources together, so what’s the point of spending so much money that you can carry out an extended military operation on your own? I think the military people see this, but twist it in their minds so that it comes out as something like “we need a strong military, because nobody else is contributing their share! they all depend on US for protection!” which is just goofy.

If there comes a time in our history when the military is needed for a legitimate purpose, public opinion will shift overnite.

"Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;…

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy how’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of 'eroes” when the drums begin to roll…

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide…"

The dialogue will take care of itself.

In the interim most of the folks I know can distinguish between the military and and the country’s leadership when it comes to deciding who is responsible for how the force is actually used.

  1. Do you feel we are at war? Why or why not?

First off, I am a veteran, have several good friends on active duty, and work with active duty soldiers. For that reason, I feel we are at war. However, other than my job and my military contacts, I do not feel we are at war. Outside my job I’m not being asked to make even the slightest sacrifice for the war effort.

  1. Do you feel you have been personally affected by the war? Yes, see above. Happily, none of my friends has been killed or maimed and the war has actually helped them in their careers.

  2. Would you approve of a family member joining the military? Absolutely. Just not when the Bush administration or anyone connected to it is running the show. Actually, I am a lot more skeptical of how the American public will treat and use its military than I ever was before. I think we may have ruined what used to be a good thing.

  3. What do you think the long-term implication of the trends discussed above will be? Among other things this war has done is greatly diminish the American people’s trust that our military will be used nobly. Potential recruits will be even more mistrustful than before. I suspect we might just privatize the whole damn military.

  4. What can be done to create a more meaningful dialog service members and civilians? I couldn’t tell you. I’ll come back to this thread later after I’ve given it some thought.

Interestingly, I am very stingy, somewhat intolerant, and a little bit rigid. But I’m extremely creative. Also, what civilians don’t seem to know is that military people also had civilian lives before, during, and after their military service. I went to college, dammit. My greatest wish isn’t to kill foreign babies.

  1. Do you feel we are at war? Why or why not?

No. We’re just sending targets over for the different Iraqi factions to shoot at when they aren’t trying to kill each other. Acts of terror are criminal acts, and response to criminal attacks should be tracking down and bringing to justice those responsible, not invading nations. I did support the Afghan invasion because the Taliban government was providing support for criminals and thus were outlaws themselves.

  1. Do you feel you have been personally affected by the war?

No, except to the extent that our civil liberties are under threat from the criminals in the White House. Without a draft and without extra taxes to fund the war, no sacrifice has been asked of the people, other than of course the soldiers themselves.

  1. Would you approve of a family member joining the military?

No. Perhaps if we had sanity in the White House, I’d feel differently. But to this administration, the troops are cannon fodder or photo op props, nothing more.

  1. What do you think the long-term implication of the trends discussed above will be?

I think fewer people will join the military and National Guard enlistment in particular will plummet.

  1. What can be done to create a more meaningful dialog service members and civilians?

Why should there be a more meaningful dialogue?

There’s a trade off to deciding you don’t want to have a significant military force anymore, it’s called geopolitical irrelevancy.

Note that China sure as hell hasn’t decided it’s going for a small, European-style military. There’s actually strong evidence that China is intentionally trying to make it seem like they spend significantly less money on defense than they actually do (how much they actually spend is a contentious issue, but everyone agrees it is significantly more than what they say), this suggests that states which are or seek to be super powers still find military force to be very important.

Thinking about it, I seem to be mentally creating a seperation between “The Military” and the individual soldiers. I don’t particularly trust “The Military”. I don’t like how it’s being used. I don’t like how it’s being reorganized/reinvented. I don’t trust that we are fighting for the best interest of people here, or in the combat areas.

None of those feelings carry over to the soldiers themselves, either the few I know or the many I don’t. Generally, I have feelings of goodwill towards them. When you get to the commanders, my reactions get all mixed. Yes, they, like the basic soldiers, have volunteered to do a job I don’t want to do, but they are also mixed up in the decisionmaking process. The part I don’t like.

All in all, it turns out kind of like my feelings about Walmart. I don’t like the company’s policies, but I don’t hold it again the guy stocking shelved.

As for your questions:

  1. Do you feel we are at war? Why or why not?
    Yes. Which part of being an occupying force engaging in conflict that kills folks, on both sides, isn’t a war?

  2. Do you feel you have been personally affected by the war?
    Not really. Other then lots of news coverage, and increase security at the airports.

  3. Would you approve of a family member joining the military?
    If they want to, go for it.

  4. What do you think the long-term implication of the trends discussed above will be?
    The military will become more like a big corporation. Outsourcing, PR and all. Rather then fighting for a noble cause, it will be seen as another part of the US government, doing what the officials want it to do.

  5. What can be done to create a more meaningful dialog service members and civilians
    As soon as the US is faced with a war that the citizens really connect with, this will probably swing back the other way. Attutudes would change if we were faced with a WWII type war again (lots of troops being sent, noticable impact on peoples daily lives, in a location more of the US population connects with).

I think the main point is that wars are now fought by professionals. large, draftee-based armies are obsolete. Plus, the ineptness of our leadership (geeting the US involved in unwise wars like Iraq, Vietnam) has turned off a lot of people. Plus, the temptation to send troops into places like Somalia-that made no sense to me. I agree though-the leadership of this country had better re-evaluate the circumstances that require us to send our young people to war-if the children of the elite WON’T serve, I can see trouble ahead!

Fascinating OP.

On the bullet points I only have one brief comment to make (don’t want to hijack):

I just wanted to highlight this, as I think its more important than a lot of folks realize. It makes me wonder if liberals and Democrats realize what it really means…and why this is such a bad trend for both of those groups.

Now, to the OP’s questions:

Certainly. I don’t see how anyone could not feel this way when we have troops in harms way. Whether you think its an ‘official’ war or you want to wave your hand with some kind of clap trap about ‘police actions’ or some other weasel words, the US has troops in the field who are in harms way in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers are dieing every day. Thats pretty much my definition of being at war.

Yes. I had a son serve in Iraq. I’ve had several cousins also serve in Iraq, and a nephew as well. In addition, as citizens I think we are all personally affected by the war, if for no other reason that we are PAYING for it (both in terms of money and in terms of the psychological impact it has on us collectively).

Yes. I encouraged my son to join the Navy, though he picked the Marines. I am encouraging my next oldest son (now 16) to also join the military when he graduates. I think its an honor and a duty for citizens to serve in the military, and to encourage their children to join…and then leave the final decision up to them whether they do or not.

I think its very bad for the country that the military is looked down upon from so many diverse factions in this nation. I think its a very bad trend that people don’t encourage their children to serve in the armed forces…and that they would be disappointed if they did make that choice. The most disturbing trend I see is that the affluent are discouraging their children from service…and that the trend where liberals continue to treat the military and military service like its practically a disease. And the trend listed in the OP where only 1 of 8 officers is self described as a Democrat shows a VERY disturbing trend IMHO.

In the current climate I don’t think anything can be done.


Well, how many of those people had parents who served? Nothing quite like growing up in a military or ex-military household to get the idea that “service members are intolerant, stingy, rigid, and lacking in creativity.” In an effort to understand the world we assume our experiences are universal and, if a parent has the discipline that is developed in the military, their kids will often equate discipline with those negative traits. If the only experience the kids’ friends have with vets is with those same parents they may also make the same assumption. Recruiters may want to get out in the community more and be positive role models. By showing young kids that military people can be good humans and even be fun they will have an easier time recruiting those kids later.

1. Do you feel we are at war? Why or why not?

“War” may be a little strong for what we’re involved in right now; I think that describing it as a conflict or something like that might be more appropriate now than in past wars, where “conflict” was inappropriate, and “war” was accurate.

I think that economically and socially, we’re generally not at war. 3500 or so dead isn’t a large enough amount to bring it home to most of the country, and there aren’t any major disruptions to daily life brought on by the conflict, so in most ways, it’s something we hear about in the papers and watch on TV. We may know people involved, but it’s in a sort of divorced-from-reality kind of way, unless you’re really close to them, or are in the military yourself.

2. Do you feel you have been personally affected by the war?

No. About the only direct personal impact is that a friend of mine joined the Army about 9 months ago, and I’m wondering if he’s going to be deployed to Iraq or not once he’s assigned his first platoon.

3. Would you approve of a family member joining the military?

Absolutely. In my family and social group, military service is highly respected and looked at as a very noble career choice. There’s no penatly for not serving, but those who do are respected for their choice.

To put it in perspective: every one of my friends’ fathers growing up had been in the military, our Scoutmaster was a Distinguished Service Cross winner, my grandfather completed 25 missions as a B-17 gunner, my other grandfather was in the Army during WWII but never saw combat, my father was in the Air Force, my father-in-law(to-be) was in the Army and so was his brother, my uncle was a career Army officer (paratroopers), and I have two close friends who have joined the military as officers, one Marine, and one Army.

I myself was seriously considering trying for a West Point appointment, but my banged-up knee disqualified me.

4. What do you think the long-term implication of the trends discussed above will be?

I actually think it will be less than you think. In many ways, I think it’s a regional thing. I read somewhere (no cite) that a large majority of the military recruits and new officers come from the South, where there’s more of a military-centric culture than there is elsewhere in the country.

Also, historically, the military hasn’t been particularly big, except during wartime and since WWII. Having a small military relative to the population size isn’t necessarily an unprecedented thing, or even a bad one.

I think that the Republican officer thing is a matter of self-selection. Sometime in the '70s and '80s there was a certain revolution in the officer corps, and the US gained what is called a ‘professional military’, as opposed to draftees and short-term officers. Instead, now we tend to have officers and even enlisted men who choose to make the military a career, not just something to do for 4 years out of college or high school.

I think that it’s a fairly safe bet that the type of person who would want to be a career military officer would also be more conservative than the average person.

A better way to look at the statistics you mention would be by rank; I’d be willing to bet that pre-Vietnam, officers above O-3 (Army/Air Force/Marine Captain, Navy Lieutenant) would be similarly conservative to today’s officers, while the junior officers would be more similar to the nation at large.

Also, the political parties were somewhat different back then; the South was a Democratic party stronghold, with relatively conservative Democrats being the norm. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the officers that would have been Democrat back then, would be Republican now.

5. What can be done to create a more meaningful dialog service members and civilians?

I think a good starting point would be if the news media would have less sensationalistic and less anti-military coverage, and some pro-military coverage instead. If all people hear is about Abu Ghraib and things like that, then they’ll come to believe that it’s all the military does. The problem is, that stuff sells, and talking about good things the troops do isn’t particularly sensationalistic.

  1. Do you feel we are at war? Why or why not?

Not really. The wars are just background news, hardly more relevant than the other clashes around the globe where the US has no involvement.

  1. Do you feel you have been personally affected by the war?


  1. Would you approve of a family member joining the military?

If they’re in adequate physical and psychological shape, more power to them. If I didn’t have disqualifying medical conditions, I would have enlisted about four years ago. I still would if I could. I’d probably profoundly regret it at either point, but that’s par for the course.

  1. What do you think the long-term implication of the trends discussed above will be?

The biggest constraint on America’s wars abroad will come from other powers, not internal factors. The population is willing to bitch about wars a little, but stop short of any meaningful action. PETA is far more motivated than any antiwar movement here.

  1. What can be done to create a more meaningful dialog service members and civilians?

Any likely cure would be worse than the disease.

No. There has not been the mobilization of national resources that a war would need. I don’t think anyone thought we were at war in our various military adventures of the past. Those like the Marines in Nicaragua in 1910, the Army going into Mexico chasing Pancho Villa in 1917, or our adventuring in China in the 1930’s. Nothing is asked of the people of the US in support of the war, other, of course, that to agree that whatever the administration does is right.

I have noticed lately that news of events in Iraq has pretty much disappeared from the front page of The Los Angeles Times.


Certainly not the Army or Marines. Possibiy the Air Force or Navy.

Civilian-military alienation has always been the case when a nation had a professional military force. It was true for the British when their army was fighting along the Afghan border and Rudyard Kipling wrote, “It’s Tommy this and Tommy that and throw him out the brute, But it’s ‘Thank you, Mr. Atkins’ when the guns begin to shoot.” During the 1930’s members of our army, particularly, were thought of, when they were thought of at all, as professional bums.

I don’t know. The matter hasn’t been improved for a lot of years by much better informed people than me.

My questions to you are as follows:

  1. Do you feel we are at war? Why or why not?
    I’ll echo what others have said. We haven’t had to sacrifice anything or ration a thing. We see it in the prices of oil, and that may or may not have anything to do with the war. We were encouraged to go shopping instead of saving or creating food banks for soldiers or something. The economy, or profits, if you want to go that route, are more important than the people fighting the war. At least, that’s what the Prez said between the lines.

  2. Do you feel you have been personally affected by the war?
    I define “personally” very broadly. Some of my rights have been taken away, some people resent me just because of where I live, and for christ’s sake, people are needlessly dying. Seeing the names and pictures of the people that die for the day on PBS is sobering, to a degree. I can’t even IMAGINE how a family feels when one of the family members gets called away for the 4th or 5th time. That really does have to be heart wrenching and devastating.

  3. Would you approve of a family member joining the military?
    I wouldn’t want them to, but if they wanted to, it’s certainly not my place to bitch about it. I’d just hope they’d come back safe.

  4. What do you think the long-term implication of the trends discussed above will be?
    For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. When the war starts dying down (maybe even when a new administration gets in control), we’ll hear about some of these stories. Then, we’ll realize some of the ramifications and click.

  5. What can be done to create a more meaningful dialog service members and civilians?
    The Internet. City halls across the country could have webcams and talk to someone in Iraq and connect with them. The Internet can be an amazing tool, but it hasn’t been implemented yet.

The obvious factor was the end of the draft. Up until 1973, the armed forces was an accurate representation of average young American men. Since then it’s become a self-selected system and it’s not surprising its demographics have changed.

I disagree strongly with the last part of the last sentence. Tons of newspapers were sold during WWII via headlines like “Our boys smash Japs.” I’d bet the ratings for the US advance into Baghdad were terrific.

Pro-US and Pro-military stories can be sensationalized just as easily as the negative ones (“Exclusive footage: Marines take down insurgents, and YOU are there!”) If nothing else, they could sensationalize the gruesome things the enemy is doing in Iraq. Abu Ghraib was on the news for weeks; documented mass graves of children decapitated by Al Quaeda are back-page material (if mentioned at all). Instead, they’d rather lead with unsubstantiated allegations against US troops.

People interested in this topic might want to look at a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office called “The All-Volunteer Military: Issues and Performance.” (Disclosure: I was the editor.) It’s available at (under “Recent Publications”).

Among other things, the report examines the demographic and socioeconomic (but not the political) composition of the military. Somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway), it concludes that the all-volunteer military is still fairly representative of the overall population, in terms of race, ethnicity, economic background, etc. The study also looks at trends in educational and other recruiting standards in recent years. In addition, it discusses the pros, cons, and logistics of reinstating a draft.

Your tax dollars at work . . .

I was amazed to read this, since I have never heard any such thing (as claimed, it isn’t in the major media) so I googled “decapitated children al-qaeda” and I found a bunch of links to WorldNetDaily, and a few to an article by a guy named Michael Yon. This guy is the source of the story, and it is not documented or confirmed anywhere else. Yon says that he was with several other reporters but claims they wouldn’t go to the gravesite and that he even offered them his photos.

*"The fourth update for what I call “The Battle for Baqubah” described a mission to a village about 3.5 miles from the military base where I — and varying numbers of journalists (now down to one photographer) — stay while covering Operation Arrowhead Ripper. No journalists came along when I accompanied American soldiers to the abandoned village whose nearby palm groves offered the overpowering stench of decaying human flesh. I photographed and videotaped Iraqi and American soldiers as they disinterred the remains of adults and children. In one grave, soldiers recovered the heads of decapitated children, some with still partially recognizable remnants of flesh and hair. When I left the village, the digging was still ongoing, but I had seen and heard enough for the update I published the next day.

Thinking that the reporters here or their editors back home might have been scared off the topic of mass graves, I offered my source material. These included map coordinates, names of Iraqi and U.S. Army officials, my photographs and videotape, and even, in the end, permission to take what I’d written and photographed and use that free of charge.*"

For some reason he decided not to use the photos or the videos or the map coordinates or the names of Iraqi and U.S. Army officials in his story. The “documentation” consists of one guy and some unnamed soldiers. Other reporters for some reason decided that they would just take a pass on what would be a page one headline in any paper in the world.

Yeah, right.

This could possibly be the first time I’ve seen someone say “I am my cite” and it flies.
Nice work, by the way.