Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide: Some Thoughts From the Military Side

What does a nation owe its military? An audience at the Naval War College has a few ideas.

Aerial view of the Naval War College in Newport, RI (US Naval War College)

I am storing a batch of recent incoming emails in the digital counterpart of a cooling-off tank. The messages have arrived in response to the items I ran last month on the tragic episode in which an Air Force F-16 fighter jet crashed into a civilian Cessna 150 single-engine propeller plane near Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force pilot ejected to safety; the two people on the Cessna both died. The previous items are: “Why Would an F-16 and a Cessna Be in the Same Part of the Sky?”; “Why an F-16 Hit a Cessna”; “Civilian and Military Aviation Styles”; “Can the ‘Right Stuff’ Become the Wrong Stuff?”; and “What an F-16 Pilot Sees—and Misses.”

I’m letting the mail cool because so much of it is so angry. From military pilots, active duty and retired, there are frustrated elaborations on the theme laid out by the former F-15 pilot I quoted in this early post. That is, a complaint that media, investigators, and civilian pilots are unfairly pointing the finger at one Air Force pilot and a larger military flying culture, before all the evidence is in and without taking into account the special demands of the military flying life. From civilian pilots and a growing number of civilian air-traffic controllers, an opposite perspective about self-indulgence and entitlement on the military side.

I’ll selectively quote from these messages in a little while, when I can find a way to do so without seeming just to promote a flame war. For now I’ll use the episode as the occasion for a more positive look at dealing with different senses of duty and responsibility across the civil-military divide.

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Early this year the magazine published my Chickenhawk Nation piece, officially called “The Tragedy of the American Military.” In the following weeks I published several dozen rounds of reader response pro and con; you can see a list of some of those entries at the end of this post.

Two months ago I went to the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island, to make my case—and in specific to explain why I thought a Chickenhawk culture, in which the rest of America “is willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously,” was a threat to long-term military values despite its guise of unquestioning support. Charles Edel, a Naval War College professor who had become a friend back when we were both living in Beijing (he was there as a Luce scholar), had suggested the visit. Even if he weren’t a friend, I would mention and recommend his book about foreign policy two centuries ago, which has surprising resonance with the present. It is Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic.

The video below is of my full evening appearance at the Naval War College. I strongly suggest starting around time 42:00. That’s when I am wrapping up my opening discussion by saying: I have a few ideas about bridging this divide. But what about you? If you agree with me that it’s a problem, what do you think should be done?

Over the next half hour I heard a lot of good ideas, plus a few bad ones, all of them evidence of much more serious involvement with the question that we see in the daily press or have heard from any candidates. I think you will find the Q&A portion worthwhile.


For your reference and for the record, here are some earlier exchanges on the Chickenhawk front:

"The Tragedy of the American Military," my article in the Jan-Feb issue. A C-Span interview is here; an NPR "All Things Considered" interview is here; a PBS NewsHour interview and segment is here; and the Bill Maher show is here.

1) Initial responses, including an argument for the draft

2) Whether Israel comes closer to a civil-military connection than the U.S. does

3) “Quiet Gratitude, or Dangerous Contempt?” How veterans respond to “thank you for your service”

4) “Actually We Keep Winning.” An argument that things are better than I claim

5) “Get the Hell Back in Your Foxhole.” More on the meaning of "thanks"

6) “Showing Gratitude in a Way that Matters.” What civilians could do that counts

7) “Winning Battles, Losing Wars.” A response to #4

8) “The Economic Realities of a Trillion Dollar Budget.” What we could, or should, learn from the Soviet Union

9) “Meanwhile, the Realities.” Fancy weapons are sexy. Boring weapons save troops’ lives

10) “Chickenhawks in the News.” The 2012 presidential campaign avoided foreign-policy and military issues. What about 2016?

11) “A Failure of Grand Strategy.” Half a league, half a league, half a league onward ...

12) “Careerism and Competence,” including the testimony of an A-10 pilot who decided to resign

13) “Vandergriff as Yoda.” A modest proposal for shaking things up

14) “Lions Led by Lambs.” On a possible generation gap among military officers

15) “Is it all up to the vets?” Whether correcting the civil-military divide is primarily the responsibility of recent veterans

16) “We Are Not Chickenhawks.” A critique (of me) from the left

17) “Genuinely Bad News About the F-35 and A-10.” Whether new weapons are being assessed honestly

18) “Two Young Officers,” with the laments of Captain X and Captain Y

19) “The Reforms the Military is Undertaking,” with a reading list of ongoing internal dissent

20) “Brian Williams and the Guitar Hero Syndrome.” What the problems of the former NBC anchor showed about civilian attitudes toward the military

21) “Sebastian Junger on Chickenhawk Nation.” My response to his critique​

22) “The Scandal of the anti-A10 Campaign.” About one of the hardware issues I raised in my article. There have been many developments on this front in recent months, which I will report soon.