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."