Thought Cloud

The real problem with the civilian-military gap.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the civilian-military gap is that it is cultural -- the national security version of the red state-blue state divide.

But the distance between those in and out of uniform isn't fundamentally a matter of Texas vs. Massachusetts or NASCAR vs. Wimbledon. At the most basic level, it encompasses deeply different understandings of how we think -- how we plan, how we evaluate risk, even how we define problems in the first place. Ironically, the one place where the gap should be the most avoidable is the place where its effects are the most pernicious: Washington.

It's avoidable because if there's any venue where which civilians and military personnel work together side by side, day after day, it's in the national security establishment. In theory, this constant interaction ought to breed familiarity, not contempt.

In practice, though, too many senior civilian officials know virtually nothing about the structure of military organizations, the chain of command, or the military planning process, while some senior military officers have forgotten that there's any other way to run an organization or think about problem-solving.

During my time at the Pentagon and the State Department, I watched numerous interagency discussions devolve into exercises in mutual misunderstanding and frustration. Some of these discussions made front-page news (think of the squabbling over troop levels in Afghanistan and the split-the-baby outcome). Others never registered in the public consciousness, but rankled those involved.

Here's a small but not atypical example. A few readers may remember the spring 2010 crisis in Kyrgyzstan. Several hundred people were killed by police and ethnically aligned mobs, many more were wounded, and thousands of refugees (mostly from the Uzbek minority population) fled their homes.

Within the White House, these events triggered fears of a possible ethnic cleansing campaign to come, or even genocide. One day, I got a call from a member of the White House's National Security Staff (NSS). With little preamble, he told me that Centcom needed to "move a surveillance drone over Kyrgyzstan, ASAP, so we can figure out what's going on there."

This wasn't such a crazy idea. Drones and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets have the potential to be powerful tools in human rights monitoring. The ability to watch troops or mobs or refugees move in real time, to see weapons being stockpiled or mass graves being filled, might help us take timely and appropriate action to stop a genocide before it gets off the ground.

There was one enormous problem with my NSS colleague's request, though: Neither of us had the authority to order Centcom to immediately shift a potentially vital asset from wherever it was currently being used to the skies over Kyrgyzstan.

"It's an interesting idea," I told him. "Has the president discussed it with [Defense] Secretary Gates?"

"We don't have time to spin up a whole bureaucratic process," he responded irritably. "The president doesn't want another Rwanda. This is a top priority of his. I need you to just communicate this to Centcom and get this moving."

This, I explained, wasn't going to work. The chain of command doesn't go from a director at the NSS to an advisor to the defense undersecretary for policy to Centcom -- and the military doesn't put drones into foreign airspace without a great deal of planning, a lot of legal advice, and the right people signing off on the whole idea.

My friend was incredulous. "We're talking about, like, one drone. You're telling me you can't just call some colonel at Centcom and make this happen?"

"I'm afraid so."

"Why the hell not? You guys" -- meaning the Pentagon writ large -- "are always stonewalling us on everything. I'm calling you from the White House. The president wants to prevent genocide in Kyrgyzstan. Whatever happened to civilian control of the military?"

"You," I told him, "are the wrong civilian."

This was a minor issue, in many ways, but the exchange was far from unusual. My White House colleague -- a smart, energetic, dedicated guy -- went away furious, convinced that "the Pentagon" was refusing to take atrocity-prevention issues seriously (an attitude that soured many later interagency discussions about Sudan, Libya, and more).

My military colleagues reacted to the request with equal frustration: This guy was a fairly senior White House official, and he didn't understand why sensitive, expensive military assets couldn't instantly be moved from a war zone to foreign airspace with a simple phone call to a Pentagon acquaintance? If the president wanted to make this happen, he could call the defense secretary and direct him to have Centcom undertake such a move (though he'd be unlikely to do so without plenty of discussion at lower levels first), but the chain of command can't be accessed midway down and more or less at random. My military colleagues were insulted: How incredibly ignorant -- and arrogant! -- those White House people were.

Some months later, similar misunderstandings plagued interagency planning on Sudan. With a referendum on South Sudanese independence in the offing, officials at the White House and the State Department were concerned about a resurgence of ethnic violence in the wake of a pro-independence vote. The Defense Department was asked -- this time more formally, at the assistant secretary/deputy assistant secretary level -- to produce plans for preventing or responding to mass atrocities. "We need to give the president some options in case all hell breaks loose," explained White House officials.

Once again, the military response was to express polite frustration. What assumptions and constraints should guide planning? What kind of plans did they want? To respond to what kind of mass atrocities, against whom, and in what likely places? Respond for how long and through what means, and to what ultimate end? Peace in Sudan? Peace on Earth? Would this mean fighting Sudanese government forces on northern Sudanese soil? Going to war with a foreign (and Muslim) state? If so, it was hard to imagine the president signing off on such a thing -- we already had two ongoing wars -- and it was a foolish waste of scarce planning resources to plan for something that was never going to happen.

Or maybe the goals were narrower? Should we be planning to evacuate displaced people? Where to? Should we just focus on protecting a humanitarian corridor? Was the White House prepared to have boots on the ground, with the inevitable risk that events could easily spiral out of control if U.S. troops were attacked? Did they want planning for targeted strikes designed to degrade the military capacity of the bad guys, whoever they might be?

The ensuing back and forth was tense and occasionally broke out into open expressions of anger and mistrust. At best, White House staff members considered their military counterparts rigid, reductionist, and unimaginative. At worst, they were convinced that the Pentagon was just being difficult -- that the military "didn't care" about Sudan or about atrocity prevention and was determined to flout the president's wishes by stonewalling and foot-dragging at every turn instead of getting down to work.

The military representatives involved in the discussions were equally exasperated. What was wrong with these civilians? Didn't they know what they wanted? Were they too naive -- or uncaring -- to understand that the potential mobilization of thousands of people and millions of dollars of equipment required greater specificity in terms of assumptions, constraints, and desired end-states? Without that specificity, the range of possibilities was endless. The United States could use nuclear weapons against the Sudanese regime; we could withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and shift them to Sudan; we could do nothing whatsoever; and we could do a great many things in between. But unless the president wanted to move into crisis-planning mode, ginning up serious plans for any of these options would require months, not days or weeks, and planning for all of them just wasn't realistic.

In a sense, it was a civil-military version of the chicken-and-egg problem. White House staff wanted to be able to give the president a sense of his options: In the event of mass atrocities, what was it realistic for him to consider doing? How complicated, time-consuming, risky, expensive, and effective would it be to protect a humanitarian corridor, as opposed to engaging in limited military strikes to degrade the capacity of those committing atrocities? Without help from military planners, White House staff couldn't properly advise the president. But without political and strategic direction from the White House (How much money are we willing to spend? How many troops are we willing to move? What tradeoffs are we willing to make in terms of other ongoing operations? What constitutes success?), military personnel couldn't properly advise their civilian counterparts.

Eventually, the issue got semi-resolved. The White House staff was forced to get more specific; the Pentagon was forced to let go of the elaborate planning process it preferred and cough up some back-of-the-envelope assessments. Fortunately for everyone, the feared genocide in Sudan hasn't happened (yet).

At the national level, however, the costs of the civilian-military gap are real, and high. Such mutual ignorance -- and such systematic cultural differences in how to think about problems and solutions -- leads frequently to misunderstanding, inefficient decision-making, and, too often, bad policy.

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But does the civilian-military gap really matter?

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."

This argument has a strong emotional pull, but in the end, it's more about sentiment than reason. After all, members of today's military are volunteers, not conscripts (and contrary to popular belief, they do not hail mostly from the least-advantaged segments of society). Just like civilian pilots, loggers, fishers, miners, and farmers (who face roughly comparable occupational fatality rates) -- or for that matter, just like the journalists and humanitarian aid workers who operate in conflict zones and unstable societies -- military personnel get paid to take certain risks in order to provide an important benefit for the rest of society.

Americans need to be protected from external attack -- but Americans also need food, shelter, transportation, and a functioning economy. So I'm not sure what it means to suggest that the civilian population has a special duty to try to understand the military better, or to participate in it to a greater degree, simply because military service entails risk and hardship and produces public benefits. If that's true for the military, shouldn't we equally feel obligated to understand pilots, fishers, miners, and the many others who enter risky or unpleasant occupations from which the rest of us benefit?

And believe me, there are plenty of risky and unpleasant occupations out there, many offering low pay, minimal benefits, irregular schedules, and extended, unpredictable periods away from home and family. Long-distance trucking, for instance, makes the top ten list of most dangerous civilian jobs -- 683 truckers died in occupation-related incidents in 2010 -- and requires long periods of solitary, mind-numbing travel. Sanitation workers get to stay close to home, but they too have the dubious honor of being on the annual fatality rate top ten list (getting crushed to death in trash compacters is more common than you'd think) -- and who wants to spend every day handling everyone else's garbage?

Other decriers of the civilian-military gap, such as Stanford's David Kennedy, focus less on the inherent worthiness of military service and more on the manner in which the military is used. Rather than making a moral argument about what the nation owes the military, they make a prudential argument about the value of increasing the public's sense of connection to the military. As Kennedy puts it, "The more civilian engagement, the more prudence in decisions for usage of the force." When most of the population has no stake in the military, such critics claim, the nation may be more likely to enter into and remain in bloody conflicts.

This argument also has a strong intuitive appeal: if it's your spouse or child deploying to a combat zone, you're going to spend a whole lot of time pondering the whys and what-ifs -- and you're likely to demand accountability from political decision-makers. Logically, then, a civilian population more strongly connected to the military might be more skeptical of claims about the necessity of war. You hear this suggestion from both the right and the left: would we have been so willing to go to war in Iraq if there had been a military draft, for instance?

But despite its intuitive appeal, I'm not sure there's much evidence to support this hypothesis, either in this country or in others. The generation that fought (mostly as conscripts) in World War I didn't prevent World War II, and post-World War II America -- saturated with veterans -- can hardly be said to have avoided reckless and bloody foreign entanglements.

Conversely, even though fewer Americans today have served or have relatives who've served, it would be tough to claim that Americans are less solicitous towards the military than in previous decades: military benefits are far more generous now than they were in earlier periods of American history (if you treat volunteers too badly, they'll leave), and the American public has never been less tolerant of risks to the lives of troops. In World War II, the United States lost nearly 300,000 troops in combat; in Korea the figure was roughly 35,000 and in Vietnam close to 50,000. In over a decade of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, we've lost roughly 5,000 troops in combat -- a slow bleed that has fueled popular discontent with both wars. Americans may be less strongly connected to the military than in previous eras, but they're also far less willing to see American blood spilled abroad.

A third common reason commentators give for bemoaning the civilian-military gap relates to civilian control of the military. "It is a dangerous situation when civil society and its military grow distant from another," warns Paul Kennedy. "Disaffected veterans brought Mussolini and Hitler to power, born and bred in the soil of increasing misunderstanding between civil and military sectors." Kennedy's a very smart guy, but this argument has never made a lot of sense to me: events in pre-World War II Italy and Germany notwithstanding, I see absolutely zero likelihood of a military coup in the United States. Civilian control of the military is a cultural commitment with which the U.S. military is deeply imbued.

In the end, I'm skeptical of common arguments about why the civilian-military gap is something to moan about. But that's not because I don't think the gap is a problem. I do think it's a problem -- but not for the reasons usually advanced.

The real downside of the civilian-military gap? At the national level, there are systematic cultural differences in how senior military officials and senior civilian officials have learned to think about what it means to plan and strategize, evaluate risk, and define problems in the first place. Too often, these differences lead to mutual incomprehension and frustration at the highest levels of national decision-making -- and ultimately, to bad policy outcomes and incoherent strategies.

Next week, I'll talk about why that's so -- and how the civilian-military cultural gap causes vital points to get lost in translation.

Correction: This article originally mistakenly referred to David Kennedy as Paul Kennedy.

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