Less than half of one percent of the American population is in uniform; only about one percent if the National Guard and Reserves are included. Most Americans do not know anyone in the military and, therefore, do not really understand what it is we have asked of them this past decade. The growing “gap” between our population and the military threatens to ensure that lack of understand increases in the coming decades.
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." 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. 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.
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:
- Whether such a gap exists in the first place.
- If it does exist, whether its existence matters, and
- If it does matter, what changes in policy might be required to mitigate the negative effects of such gap.
- What is the nature of the gap?
- Why does the gap matter? and
- 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:
- The notion of a cultural gap, i.e., the differences in the culture, norms, and values of the military and civilian worlds, and
- The notion of a connectivity gap, i.e., the lack of contact and understanding between them.
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. 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. 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. Most were persuaded that the societal effects of the Vietnam War remained central to the cultural differences.
One unique view, which does not nea
tly 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. 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.
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. 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. Others worry whether an inexperienced civilian government will undermine the military by ineffective or inappropriate policies, thus threatening U.S. national security.
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. 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 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 problemAssuming 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.
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, but none appear to have made any progress toward adoption. At the end of the day, most Americans, while publically expressing support for the the military and holding high regard for the institution, do not join and do not encourage their children to join. That says much about the real attitude held by Americans about their military forces.
Note: This was first published by D. S. Inbody on Wikipedia. It appears here in a modified format.