Third, military officials -- particularly when compared to their civilian bosses -- express a great deal of humility about their personal accomplishments and knowledge. This humility stems from the scope, depth, and breadth of their experience, and the fact that they are generally older than their civilian counterparts. For example, the average U.S. Army colonel is 48 years old. The official leadership biographies for colonels and above contain the same basic information: education, assignments, major awards and decorations, and effective dates of promotion. However, these data points do not begin to describe the actual scope of responsibilities, although if you ask, they are more than happy to share.
These uniformed officials will caveat almost every statement with the phrase, "This is merely Colonel (or General) X's opinion." Because they live in a hierarchical organization that constantly emphasizes civilian control and oversight, many refuse to address topics that are either "above my pay grade" or better asked to "our bosses in suits."
Civilian officials often describe themselves as playing a central role in interagency debates, and happily name drop important senior officials as evidence. While only a few years younger than their military counterparts, they have absorbed the Washington-centric conventional wisdom surrounding most national security topics that tends to frame and limit their perspective. They are also more likely to use definitive and dramatic statements about U.S. foreign policy, like the State Department official who once remarked -- regarding the overseas deployment of nuclear weapons -- "This president would never leave any of America's trusted allies hanging." Essentially, this official anticipated a criticism from the opposing political party, even though it was not an issue I had raised.
Based solely on the impressions of one person (myself), the consequences of the civil-military split on engagement with national security researchers are unclear. It raises important ethical questions in light of some of the revelations and critiques about David Petraeus's relationship with the media and think tanks. Full disclosure: I was able to speak with Gen. Petraeus in February 2010 while he was serving as combatant commander for U.S. Central Command. If he tried to "shape" my opinion of the U.S. military in his area of responsibility, he was not successful. And as I noted in the opening vignette, I had witnessed this phenomenon long before I had any conceivable influence on anything -- not that I do today.
As someone with the enormous privilege to think and write about national security issues, I recognize the absolute necessity of talking to people who actually develop and implement policy. This is often where academics writing for peer-reviewed outlets diverge with researchers writing timely, policy-relevant pieces in a think tank. For the latter, such as myself, there is a fundamental belief that personalities, relationships, and processes influence outcomes. I know for a fact that the willingness and openness of military officials to help me understand national security policies has an impact on how I perceive them. (Please be wary of this shortcoming when reading this column.) And to all the civilian officials in the U.S. government: I am happy to buy you a coffee, if you are willing to talk.