In April 2006, I was glacially writing a doctoral dissertation while working another full-time job as a research associate at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In a habit I had honed while working in even more lowly and less fulfilling research and/or administrative positions in Washington, I often attempted to arrange interviews with mid-level and senior civilian and military officials to discuss a range of national security topics.
On this particularly fortuitous day in April, I secured a late afternoon interview with Maj. Gen. Scott Gration (later the U.S. ambassador to Kenya), who was enrolled in a senior executive course with American and Russian military leaders and looking forward to his retirement from the Air Force shortly thereafter. For over an hour, Gration patiently and thoughtfully answered all of my questions, and provided leads to other Air Force leaders to whom I might speak -- even giving me their call signs and spelling out last names. At the end of our conversation, when I asked Gration what his class was doing that evening, he mentioned that it had been unexpectedly dismissed several hours earlier so that people could PT (physical training) or see the Red Sox game. I will never forget how Gration casually remarked, "I stayed here, because I knew you wanted to talk to me."
This small act of kindness from a senior military officer has been the norm throughout my experience researching and writing on national security issues over the past dozen years. The same cannot be said for civilian officials, however. After attempting to meet with hundreds of current and former U.S. government leaders, I consistently encounter a civil-military split that you will not read about in a political science class: uniformed officers are much more willing to meet and are much more forthcoming with their thoughts than civilian officials. This dichotomy manifests itself in several ways.
First, military officials will take the time out of their busy schedules to meet with you because they feel obliged or obligated to help a naïve civilian better understand their service or their experiences in the military. A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff once called me from his home in North Carolina -- as dogs barked in the background -- to clarify how military plans flow from the planning staffs at combatant commands, through the Joint Staff, to decision-makers in White House.
Civilian officials, meanwhile, are much less likely to meet -- especially if they are political appointees. While members of the military have an institution to defend and protect, civilians largely seek to protect the images of their bosses or the administration in power. And given that the average tenure for a senior Pentagon political appointee is between 11 and 20 months, why spend your time defending what you will soon leave?
Second, military officials are more candid and explicit about their opinions, even when they might be informed by classified information. Many argue that, due to the unnecessary loss of life in Afghanistan and Iraq as the result of flawed political guidance or military strategies, they would rather be honest than temper their thinking on sensitive issues. I have also been told by several that they are also simply unafraid to voice their opinions, given that most have served multiple overseas tours in combat zones.
On the other hand, civilian officials rarely venture beyond preapproved talking points and will point you to a recent strategy document or speech by a more senior official -- which, of course, you have already read -- for additional clarity. Even when asking the most benign questions about an administration's strategy, you often hear the equally benign response, "I can't discuss that matter." Occasionally, they will pull the classified card -- even when it is not germane, such as in matters regarding interagency processes. The primary concern, however, is that the information they reveal will appear the following day on the front page of the Washington Post, even if the issue is not remotely newsworthy and you have no history of blabbing.