This is the third installment in our series of essays written by veterans. We asked service members to share how their time in uniform shaped their perspectives on American life.
One day in August 2014, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. A news alert tersely stated that an American journalist, James Foley, had been beheaded by militants from the Islamic State, which had swarmed through northern Iraq just two months prior. Service members and veterans looked on with horror as Islamic State fighters committed atrocities and overran bases which had once housed tens of thousands of US troops—overturning everything US service members had struggled to build. I showed the news to a fellow soldier, who simply shrugged and said, “Most Americans just don’t care about this sort of thing like we do.”
For years—usually in November, around Veterans Day—military observers have penned articles decrying the widening “civil-military gap.” Many blame society for not understanding the men and women fighting and dying on their behalf. But I would argue servicemembers share some of the blame for the civil-military divide in our nation. As servicemembers, we cannot understand ourselves unless we understand the nation we serve.
Most civilians have little understanding of servicemembers or military issues in general. Less than half of American civilians report having socialized with a service member or spouse in their lifetime. Worse yet, civilians are largely indifferent to military affairs—polls indicate civilians are more likely to answer “I don’t know” or “no opinion” to questions regarding military policies than they are for most other issues. Many servicemembers, for their part, often see themselves as apart from, rather than a part of, the American public. A retired Army colonel, recalling the advice of one of his mentors, put it aptly: “The longer you stay in uniform, the less you will really understand about the country you protect … you may defend democracy, but you won’t understand it or be part of it. What’s more, you’ll always be a stranger to your own society. That’s the sacrifice you’ll be making.”
Neither attitude is healthy. Democracy thrives on informed voters casting votes for representatives who exercise control over the military—some suggest that heads of state who are more involved in military affairs tend to be more successful in wartime. Servicemembers, likewise, can be tempted to ignore many of the problems which plague the American public. The bitter battle over health care went largely unnoticed in military circles, where service members and their families benefit from government-funded medical care. Thousands of people stood in the cold for hours to receive no-cost dental procedures this past year—for most troops, annual dental exams can be a nuisance. And state and local taxes? Thanks to lax tax laws, servicemembers can often avoid paying state and local income tax. These issues barely register for many military service members—but they do for most Americans.
But while it’s tempting to dismiss domestic issues, veterans must understand that most of the issues which affect America will ultimately affect the military. U.S. servicemembers are drawn from a society where nearly three-quarters of the public do not meet the minimum standards to enlist in the military—and much of that is due to thorny issues such as health care, teenage pregnancy, poor health, juvenile delinquency, and childhood obesity. When the Defense Department announces that it wants to add thousands of cyber warriors to its ranks or makes sweeping statements about tech savvy millennial soldiers, it often does so unaware that there is a profound digital divide in our country, where many American teens grow up with insufficient computer skills. When the military cites obesity as one of the main disqualifiers for military service—and a cause for booting thousands from the services each year—servicemembers should be aware of the myriad factors which drive obesity in both civilian and military life.
The American public, likewise, has an obligation to be informed where and why troops are placed in harm’s way. Many Americans were shocked to learn that four American soldiers were killed in Niger—but perhaps an even bigger shock was that nearly 800 military personnel are active in the country. The troop presence was hardly a secret either, as U.S. Africa Command issued regular press releases and the operation was even highlighted in the Wall Street Journal. Likewise for the war in Afghanistan, a war nearly as old as its participants, and one which the majority of Americans have largely tuned out.
Veterans Day is a time all Americans need to look at the ever-growing civil-military divide, with most articles placing the blame on the public for not understanding its soldiers. I would argue servicemembers are just as guilty for not understanding our fellow Americans. We cannot understand them if we don’t understand the nation we come from, protect, and ultimately, return to as veterans.