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October 7th, 2011
01:09 PM ET

Civilian-military divide: Is it real? Does it matter?

Dave Schechter
Senior National Editor

If it is true that, "America doesn't know its military and the United States military doesn't know America,” as Adm. Mike Mullen, the recently-retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned earlier this year, why does this gulf exist?

Perhaps because only 1 percent of Americans serve in the military.

Perhaps because fewer than 8 percent of Americans are veterans (a fraction projected to grow smaller in the coming years).

Perhaps because today only one in five members of the U.S. House and Senate is a veteran, compared with three out of every four in 1969.

Military families feel a divide. In a survey conducted last year by Blue Star Families, 92 percent of 3,600 military family members who responded agreed that the general public neither understands nor appreciates the sacrifices made by service members and their families.

And if you have that appreciation, does it suffice to say “thank you for your service” when meeting a member of the armed forces? Is it enough to applaud when you see uniformed military walking through an airport? Is it enough to stand and cheer when wounded troops are introduced at a baseball game? Is it enough that warm-and-fuzzy images of troops coming home are woven into television commercials?

What is enough?

Elizabeth Samet, a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, reviewed the “street theater” that ensues when civilians encounter uniformed military personnel: “One former captain I know proposed that ‘thank you for your service’ has become “an obligatory salutation. Dutifully offered by strangers, ‘somewhere between an afterthought and heartfelt appreciation,’ it is gratifying but also embarrassing to a soldier with a strong sense of modesty and professionalism. ‘People thank me for my service,’ another officer noted, ‘but they don’t really know what I’ve done.’ . . . These transactions resemble celebrity sightings - with the same awkwardness, enthusiasm and suspension of normal expectations about privacy and personal space. Yet while the celebrity is an individual recognized for a unique, highly publicized performance, the soldier is anonymous, a symbol of an aggregate. His or her performance is unseen.”

In a speech a year ago Duke University, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates lamented a growing divide. “Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction. A distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally. Even after 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.“ In fact, with each passing decade, fewer and fewer Americans know someone with experience in the military or in their social circle,” Gates told his audience.

A skeptical review of Gates' comments was published soon after on The Moderate Voice website, where Logan Penza wrote that "all the way back to the founding of the republic run fears about a professional military class that, isolated and removed from the broader society, would be prone to take over and short-circuit democracy." Penza refered to the idea of gap between the civilian and military worlds as " . . . a classic boogyman. It is a scary but ultimately fictional concept occasionally rolled out in hopes that it will provide motivation for some hoped-for policy change or proposal," such as a return of the draft.

Penza also wrote that, “Public respect for the military has been sky-high (especially compared to other government institutions) during precisely the same periods that concern about the “gap” is greatest.”

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to the Army’s Fort Bragg. She also is a former newspaper reporter who writes a blog on military family life. Her first encounter with a mass demonstration of public support for the military came this past summer at a country music concert in a large stadium in Nashville. When a performer’s remarks “caused the crowd to rise in a spontaneous standing ovation for the military,” Sanderlin told CNN, “I was so touched that I started to cry,” a reaction that surprised Sanderlin’s mother. “I told her it was because I've never seen that before. ‘But Rebekah, she said, ‘they do that all the time, at every concert and every game.’ I didn't doubt what she said was true and I've gotten enough mass emails about shows of military support that I know, intellectually, that the support is there. But in a decade of war, I'd never SEEN it for myself.”

Sanderlin, whose husband has deployed several times in the past decade, added, “To civilians living in a world where there are frequent and large scale shows of military support, talking about a military-civilian divide rings false to them. They don't see it because they see military support all the time, everywhere they go. The problem is that our culture is so divided geographically and economically that the average military family can't afford . . . to be in the places where the support is shown. And military spouses are virtually impossible to identify, so we're very difficult to ‘support’.”

Heather Sweeney, another military wife, offered an olive branch in a newspaper blog: “In a way, I can’t blame civilians for their lack of awareness. After all, before my husband joined the military I had no idea what it meant to be a military spouse. I had no clue about the sacrifices we would both be making in the name of patriotism, nor did I anticipate the challenges of the lifestyle I had unwittingly agreed to when my husband raised his right hand and took that oath. Everything I know about military life is through personal experience and the adventures I’ve lived vicariously through other military spouses. But for people who can’t experience the lifestyle themselves or through a friend or family member, it’s easy to overlook the military population.”

Several of the comments after Sweeney’s blog suggested that resumption of a military draft – an idea rejected by the Pentagon’s military and civilian leadership – would solve this problem by acquainting a broader cross-section of America to the challenges of military life.

The authors of “AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service and How It Hurts Our Country,” pointed to a need for more of the best-and-brightest to make a career in the military, suggesting that more parents and teachers should encourage college-educated young people to consider a life in uniform.

The book’s co-author, Kathy Roth-Douquet – the wife of a Marine Corps officer, a former Defense Department official and a co-founder of Blue Star Families – spoke to this issue a couple of years ago at Columbia University, when the proposed return to campus of the Reserve Officer Training Corps program was being debated. “The university unabashedly seeks to educate opinion-shapers and decision-makers for the generations, yet those very people are the ones that are most inadequately prepared to lead the military. The genteel distain for military service and the intellectually-dishonest dodges for educating military officers contribute mightily to a situation where the deciders throughout society largely do not understand what it is the doers do,” Roth-Douquet said. [Note: Columbia approved return of the ROTC earlier this year.]

Today’s public displays of support for the military are a change from the atmosphere 40 years ago, when the Vietnam War caused bitter divisions in society. Now, the city of Fayetteville, North Carolina, is inviting men and women who served in Vietnam – especially the 200,000 came through Fort Bragg – to visit in November for a 10-day “Heroes Homecoming,” an event “designed to give Vietnam Vets the thank you they never got back then,” Sanderlin, who serves on the planning committee. In this way, those veterans will get a taste of what has become commonplace over the past decade.

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