The Military-Civilian Gap

Jan. 1, 2000

In this 27th year of the all-volunteer force, the vast majority of US citizens have no personal experience of military service. Less than a third of the members of Congress are veterans. The President is not a veteran, nor are the secretaries of Defense and State or the national security advisor.

Taking note of this trend in a speech at Yale in 1997, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said that “one of the challenges for me is to somehow prevent a chasm from developing between the military and civilian worlds, where the civilian world doesn’t fully grasp the mission of the military, and the military doesn’t understand why the memories of our citizens and civilian policy-makers are so short, or why the criticism is so quick and so unrelenting.”

Last October, the Triangle Institute for Strategic Studies announced the results of extensive research for its Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society. It measured the differences in opinion and attitude between “elite military officers”-those selected to attend staff and war colleges and new flag officers-and the “elite public” and the general civilian public. (The project excluded enlisted members and “rank and file” officers.)

The civilian and military elites disagreed on when and how the nation should use military force and on what role, if any, the military should have in that decision. The military officers were twice to four times as “casualty averse,” or hesitant to take combat losses, as the civilians were. A declining percentage of veterans in policy-making positions makes the nation “more likely to initiate the use of force overseas,” the report said.

Compared to “civilian elites,” the officers in the survey were more conservative; 64 percent were “partisan Republicans.” They thought civilian society could benefit from adopting some of the military’s values and behaviors. Seventy-six percent of them opposed gays and lesbians openly serving in the military, whereas a majority of the civilians were said to approve of it.

The directors of the project are Professors Peter D. Feaver of Duke University and Richard H. Kohn of the University of North Carolina. Feaver was on the National Security Council staff in the early days of the Clinton Administration. Kohn is a former chief of Air Force history. Both of them have been writing on this subject for years.

In “Out of Control” (The National Interest, 1994), Kohn called for “a concerted campaign to restore civilian control” over the armed forces. He said the concern was not a military takeover of the government, the chance of that being “virtually nil,” but rather a diminished civilian control of policies and procedures that govern matters great and small.

“The very worst breach of civilian control occurred just after Bill Clinton’s election on the question of homosexuals serving openly in the armed forces,” Kohn said. The President’s authority was undercut and “defiance at the top led to resistance all down the line.”

Feaver and Kohn decry the tendency-which arose after Vietnam but intensified in the Clinton Administration-for the armed forces to resist military forays abroad. In 1996, Feaver cited Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti as “troubling” instances of such reluctance.

Contrary to the title of Kohn’s 1994 essay, the military was not and is not “out of control.” It is well-understood that the armed forces do not define the national interest, nor do they pick the wars they will fight. That does not mean military leaders should acquiesce quietly in matters of strategy, as they did in 1965 when Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had his own way, with disastrous consequences, about Vietnam.

The armed forces owe their best military advice not only to the Administration but also to Congress and the nation. The less the civilian leaders know about military operations themselves, the more important the advice becomes. It is perhaps at its most useful when it is not what the civilian leaders want to hear. If anything, it would be beneficial for military leaders to speak up more often than they do now.

In his speech at Yale, Cohen said that “people coming into the military are leaving the military far better citizens than when they arrived.” Military people are held to higher standards of discipline and conduct.

This has always been so, but it has been underscored in recent years by constant headlines reminding us that different standards apply elsewhere and at other levels of government.

It is preposterous to say, in the name of civilian control, that basic issues of force composition–such as the ill-considered gambit on behalf of gays and lesbians in 1993–are none of the force’s business. There is no more basic military leadership function than maintaining the cohesion of the force. And furthermore, the Administration is quick enough to call on military people to bear witness on organizational and personnel issues when their views support the Administration position.

The military-civil relationship is important and it requires careful nurturing. However, there is no reason to fear that the armed forces are growing dangerously apart from the society that they defend.

One of the findings in the Triangle Institute research report was that the military “elites” were “considerably more conservative than elite civilians but not quite as conservative as the general public.” That raises the question of just who might be out of step.