Most Americans know roughly as much about the U.S. military as they know about the surface of the moon. It's not that we don't like the military -- we love it! We just don't have a clue who's in it, what it does, what it costs us, or what it costs those who join it. And as a nation, we don't particularly care, either.
Commentators routinely lament this civilian-military gap, and admittedly, it's more of a gulf than a gap these days. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Duke University audience in 2012, "For a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do." Even with the post-9/11 patriotic surge, only about one half of one percent of the population served during any given year in the last decade.
Congress has fewer veterans within its ranks than at any other point since World War II, and many worry that the military is particularly disconnected from elites. In AWOL: The Unauthorized Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service, Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer note that only a third of a percent of Ivy League graduates enter the military. What's more, military personnel are drawn disproportionately from non-urban areas and from the South, the Southwest and the mountain states. Compared to the civilian population, members of the military (particularly the officer corps) are also substantially more likely to self-identify as politically conservative.
As Tom Ricks observed in his 1997 book, Making the Corps, members of the military often perceive themselves as "different" from the civilian population -- and, on the whole, as better. And military personnel certainly feel misunderstood. In 2011, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told graduating West Point cadets that although the public supports the troops, "I fear they do not know us." Similarly (as I noted last week), the Military Times' 2012 annual survey found that more than 75 percent of all active duty personnel and reservists believe, "The military community has little in common with the rest of the country and most civilians do not understand the military."
But so what?
In my day job I teach at a medium-sized university, and I can guarantee that if you asked a national cross-section of American academics to evaluate the statement, "The community of university professors has little in common with the rest of the country and most non-academics do not understand professors," 99 percent of my colleagues would agree -- and in many ways, they'd be right. Reframe the question to make it about police officers, nurses, garbage truck drivers, elementary school teachers, mortgage brokers, screenwriters, or flight attendants and I suspect you'd get similar results. We're all tragically misunderstood.
Why should it matter, though? The mere fact that a particular occupational group is not fully representative of the U.S. population -- or is not fully understood by other Americans -- isn't in itself a cause for hand-wringing. So why get worked up about the civilian-military gap?
Let's look at the arguments usually advanced by those who decry it. The first argument generally put forward by those who lament the civilian-military gap is that since members of the military sacrifice on our behalf, the nation owes it to them to understand them better. Writing in the Joint Forces Quarterly, former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Ike Skelton worries that Americans need more awareness of "the long-term implications of the sacrifices Service members are making.... Today, the public may not show the military as much gratitude as it deserves."