Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Civil-Military Culture Gap Thesis

Most debate in civil-military relations assumed that a separation between the civilian and military world was inevitable and likely necessary. The argument had been over whether to control the gap between the two (Huntington) or to minimize the gap by enacting certain policies (Janowitz). Following the end of the Cold War in 1989, however, the discussion began to focus on the nature of the apparent gap between civilian and military cultures and, more specifically, whether that gap had reached such proportions as to pose a danger to civilian control of the military. Part of the debate was based on the cultural differences between the more liberal civilian society and the conservative military society, and on the recognition that such differences had apparently become more pronounced than in past years.

Alfred Vagts had already begun the discussion from an historical point of view, concentrating on the German/Prussian military experience. He was perhaps most influential with his definition of militarism, which he described as the state of a society that “ranks military institutions and ways above the prevailing attitudes of civilian life and carries the military mentality into the civilian sphere."[1]  Louis Smith, whose work pre-dated Huntington's, discussed issues of congressional and judicial control over the military as well as executive civilian control of military matters.[2]  However, all that discussion predated a general recognition that the American experience was going to change in the post-World War II era. Once it became apparent that the American military was going to maintain historically high levels of active-duty personnel, concerns about the differences between civilian and military cultures quickly came to the forefront. The ensuing debate can be generally divided into three periods with different emphases in each.[3]

The first period, roughly beginning with the end of World War II and ending in about 1973 with the end of the military draft in the United States, was primarily concerned with defining civil-military relations, understanding the concept of professionalism, and learning how civilians actually controlled the military. As discussed above, Huntington and Janowitz dominated the debate.
The second period started in about 1973, with the end of conscription and the establishment of the All-Volunteer Force, and continued until the end of the Cold War. This period was concerned with the supposed lessons of the Vietnam War, how the volunteer force changed the nature of the armed forces, and whether those changes led to wider gaps between military and civilian societies.

The third period, beginning with the end of the Cold War and continuing today, has seen an increasing interest in and concern about the existence of a “civil-military culture gap.” The discussion has centered around three questions:
  1. Whether such a gap exists in the first place.
  2. If it does exist, whether its existence matters, and
  3. If it does matter, what changes in policy might be required to mitigate the negative effects of such gap.
Most agree that a gap does exist, but there is widespread disagreement as to whether the gap matters. There has been even less discussion about what policies may be required to mitigate any such gap. However, few have predicted disaster in civil-military relations and most of the discussion has centered on the nature of the gap and what might be causing it. Most discussion has concentrated on the third period and the debate tended to lay around three principal questions:
  1. What is the nature of the gap?
  2. Why does the gap matter?
  3. How can the problem be corrected?
What is the nature of the gap?
While the debate surrounding a presumed culture gap between civilian and military societies had continued since at least the early 1950s, it became prominent in the early 1990s with the conclusion of the Cold War. The promised “peace dividend” led to a debate over changes in American national security strategy and what that would mean in terms of the transformation of the mission, composition, and character of the armed forces.

The gap debate revolved around two related concepts:
  1. The notion of a cultural gap, i.e., the differences in the culture, norms, and values of the military and civilian worlds, and
  2. The notion of a connectivity gap, i.e., the lack of contact and understanding between them.[4]
Few argued that there was no difference between the two worlds, but some were convinced that the difference itself was the primary danger. Charles Maynes[5] worried that a military force consisting primarily of personnel from the lower socio-economic classes would ultimately refuse to fight for the goals of the upper classes. Tarr and Roman,[6] on the other hand, were concerned that the similarities between military elites and civilian elites enabled a dangerous politicizing trend among the military. Chivers[7] represented a small number who believed that the differences between the cultures were so small as essentially to be irrelevant.

Reasons for the cultural and connectivity gaps vary widely. The self-selective nature of the All-Volunteer Force is seen by some to have led to the unrepresentative nature of the armed forces.[8] One argument, put forward by a Navy Chief of Chaplains, was that the drawdown in the size of the military was exacerbating differences and making the separation between the military and civilian societies potentially even more divisive. He worried that unless an effective dialogue could be maintained between the military and civilian branches of society, especially in the area of ethical decision-making, the American military risked losing the support of society or becoming dangerously militaristic.[9]  Others argued that the increase in diversity among military personnel has actually strengthened ties between society and the military, especially those ties weakened by the results of the Vietnam War.[10]  Most were persuaded that the societal effects of the Vietnam War remained central to the cultural differences.[11]

One unique view, which does not neatly fall into either of the cultural- or connectivity-gap categories, centers on the organizational differences between the military and civilian societies. This view claims to explain much as to why the military has been or may be used to press ahead of society's norms.[12]  This view goes beyond the simpler cultural-gap approach and emphasizes the ability of the military society to control the behavior and attitudes of its members in ways not possible in the more open civilian society, as evidenced by such phenomena as desegregation of the military and inclusion of women in the military.[13]

Why does the gap matter?


Ultimately, the cultural gap matters only if it endangers civilian control of the military or if it reduces the ability of the country to maintain an effective military force. Those who concentrate on the nature of the gap tend not to be concerned about dangerous trends. However, those who are concerned about the lack of understanding between the civilian and military worlds are uniformly convinced that the civil-military relationship in the United States is unhealthy.[14]  Specifically, they have voiced concerns about a military that may become openly contemptuous of civilian norms and values and may then feel free to openly question the value of defending such a society.[15] Others worry whether an inexperienced civilian government will undermine the military by ineffective or inappropriate policies, thus threatening U.S. national security.[16]

This debate has generally settled on whether or not the gap is too wide. If too wide, civilian control of the military may be jeopardized due to serious misunderstandings between the two worlds. While most agree that such a gap is to be expected and, in and of itself, is not dangerous, some do concede the aspects of that gap have led directly to misunderstandings between the two worlds. In particular, some have argued that the culture of political conservatism and the apparent increase in partisanship of the officer corps has approached a dangerous limit.[17]  Nearly all agree that it is possible for the cultural gap to be either too wide or too narrow, but there is wide disagreement as to where the current situation rests on that continuum. While Elizabeth Kier[18] argues that “structure and function do not determine culture,” most agree that a difference between the two is necessary because civilian culture was “incommensurate with military effectiveness.”

Correcting the problem


Assuming that a problem exists, many have offered suggestions for narrowing the gap and correcting the problems arising from it. In general, those suggestions are along three lines. The first is that the military must reach out to the civilian world. Given the essentially universal agreement that civilians must control the military, the duty falls upon the military to find ways to talk to civilians, not the other way around. The second is that civilians must articulate a clear vision of what they expect in terms of the military mission. And the final suggestion is that the most practical and effective means of bringing about dialogue and understanding is to be bilateral education, in which both military and civilian elites would jointly attend specialized schools. Such schooling would emphasize military-strategic thinking, American history and political philosophy, military ethics, and the proper relationship between civil and military authority.[19]

Some argue that the root problem is that the military is self-selecting, rendering the culture a self-perpetuating one. Solutions such as the reinstatement of the draft and a European-style national service obligation have been offered,[20] but none appears to have made any progress toward adoption.


[1] Alfred Vagts. 1937. A History of Militarism: A Romance and Realities of a Profession. New York: W.W. Norton & Company., 11-15.
[2] Louis Smith. 1951. American Democracy and Military Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[3] Lindsay Cohn. 1999. “The Evolution of the Civil-Military “Gap” Debate.” A paper prepared for the TISS Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society. The organization for this section is based on Cohn's detailed discussion and survey of the Culture Debate literature.
[4] Lindsay Cohn. 1999. “The Evolution of the Civil-Military “Gap” Debate.” A paper prepared for the TISS Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society.
[5] Charles William Maynes. 1998. “The Perils Of (and For) an Imperial America.” Foreign Policy. 111(Summer): 36-47.
[6] David Tarr and Peter Roman. 1998, October 19. “The Military is Still in Close Contact with Civilians.” Biloxi Sun Herald.
[7] C.J. Chivers. 1999, September 14. “Military Fights an Imaginary Rift With the Public.” USA Today, 17.
[8] Mark J. Eitelberg and Roger G. Little. 1995. “Influential Elites and the American Military After the Cold War. U.S. Civil-Military Relations: In Crisis or Transition. ed.s. Donald M. Snider and Miranda A. Carlton-Carew. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies. Andrew J. Bacevich and Richard H. Kohn. 1997. “Grand Army of the Republicans: Has the U.S. Military Become a Partisan Force?” The New Republic 217 (23-8) Dec): 22 ff. Charles William Maynes. 1998. “The Perils Of (and For) an Imperial America.” Foreign Policy. 111(Summer): 36-47.
[9] Donald K. Muchow. 1995. “A Preliminary Analysis of American Values of Life and Community.” JSCOPE 95.
[10] Fred Tasker. 1990, September 27. “Who Are Today’s Soldiers – And Why?” The Seattle Times, F1. Martin Binkin. 1993. Who Will Fight the Next War? Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
[11] Judith Hicks Stiehm. 1996. “The Civilian Mind.” in Judith Hicks Stiehm, ed. It’s Our Military, Too! Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Don M. Snider and Miranda A. Carlton-Carew. ed.s 1995. U.S. Civil-Military Relations: In Crisis or Transition? Washington DC: The Center for Strategic and International Studies. George Will. 1997, May 25. “Lott, and Others, Need to Butt Out.” The Plain Dealer, 5F. May 25. Richard Danzig. 1999. The Big Three: Our Greatest Security Risks and How to Address Them. Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.
[12] Elizabeth Kier. 1998. “Homosexuals in the U.S. Military: Open Integration and Combat Effectiveness.”  International Security 23(2): 5-39.
[13] Lindsay Cohn. 1999. “The Evolution of the Civil-Military “Gap” Debate.” A paper prepared for the TISS Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society.
[14] Andrew J. Bacevich and Richard H. Kohn. 1997. “Grand Army of the Republicans: Has the U.S. Military Become a Partisan Force?” The New Republic. 217 (23-8) Dec): 22 ff. C.J. Chivers. 1999, September 14. “Military Fights an Imaginary Rift With the Public.” USA Today. 17. Peter D. Feaver. 1999. “Civil-Military Relations.” Annual Review of Political Science. 2: 211-241.
[15] J.F. McIsaac & N. Verdugo. 1995. "Civil-military relations: A domestic perspective." In D. M. Snider & M. A. Carlton-Carew (Eds.), U.S. civil-military relations in crisis of transition? (pp. 21-33). Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies.
[16] Mark J. Eitelberg and Roger G. Little. 1995. “Influential Elites and the American Military After the Cold War." U.S. Civil-Military Relations: In Crisis or Transition. Donald M. Snider and Miranda A. Carlton-Carew (eds). Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies.
[17] Andrew J. Bacevich and Richard H. Kohn. 1997. “Grand Army of the Republicans: Has the U.S. Military Become a Partisan Force?” The New Republic 217 (23-8) Dec): 22 ff.
[18] Elizabeth Kier. 1999. “Discrimination and Military Cohesion: An Organizational Perspective.” In Mary Fainsod Katzenstein and Judith Reppy, eds. 1999. Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discrimination in Military Culture. New York: Alexshan Books.
[19] Lindsay Cohn. 1999. “The Evolution of the Civil-Military “Gap” Debate.” A paper prepared for the TISS Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society. Donald S. Inbody. 2009. Grand Army of the Republic or Grand Army of the Republicans? Political Party and Ideological Preferences of American Enlisted Personnel. Faculty Publications-Political Science. Paper 51. Donald K. Muchow. 1995. “A Preliminary Analysis of American Values of Life and Community.” JSCOPE 95.
[20] Thomas E. Ricks. 1997. Making the Corps. New York: Scribner.