Some readers wonder if I'm exaggerating the general cluelessness -- with regard to military matters -- of civilians on the National Security Staff. I wish. There are plenty of impressive exceptions -- there are military detailees on the NSS, for instance, as well as retired military and civilians with DoD experience, but on the whole, cluelessness seemed fairly rampant during my two executive branch stints.
Another example: Frustrated at the "lack of traction with the military" on a particular issue, a senior NSS official sought my advice: "There's this general who comes to our meetings and he sits there and nods, but nothing ever seems to happen."
I asked for the general's name, and looked him up. Turned out that he worked in the manpower and personnel directorate of the Joint Staff, and his portfolio had nothing to do with the issue my colleague was concerned about. My NSS colleague wasn't getting any traction with "the military" because the wrong guy was at the meetings (what he was doing there, I don't know). It was the equivalent of wondering why someone working in human resources wasn't fixing a manufacturing or marketing problem.
"Oh," said my NSS friend said -- a little sheepishly -- upon hearing this. "I was just happy to have a guy with a star on his shoulder at our meetings."
Those guys with the stars on their shoulder aren't interchangeable. Granted, there's no reason for a senior civilian official to memorize the Joint Staff's organization chart. (Plenty of military people don't know it, either). But it helps to know that there is an org chart.
None of this is meant to knock the intelligence, dedication or general good sense of those civilians who don't know much about the military. Unlike the military, which has the money and the mandate to send its senior officers to school after school (where they may take courses on everything from international relations to how the U.S. national security decision-making process is meant to work), civilian executive branch personnel -- particularly political appointees -- have fewer structured opportunities to learn about the military. The civilian-military gap is wide, and that's not the fault of anyone in particular.
And it cuts both ways: there are moments when military frustration with civilian decision-makers reflects just as much willful obtuseness or rigidity. Military hierarchies serve vital functions, and the military is extremely good at developing standardized processes for addressing complex issues. But in some contexts, these inevitably get in the way: in my Sudan example last week, for instance, all the White House really wanted was a rough, ballpark sense of how complicated and risky various potential U.S. responses might be. Several mid-level officers involved in the discussions could have answered their questions with quick back-of-the-envelope calculations. But none had the authority or the will to circumvent the sacred planning process, even informally, so months of tense discussions ensued.
The civilian-military gap strikes me as eminently bridgeable, at the senior level. Not 100 percent bridgeable, perhaps, but certainly 90 percent bridgeable. I have some thoughts on potential reforms that might address this problem, but will save them for later. Meanwhile, readers: do you have ideas on how to bridge this gap? Send them to me here, and let me know if it's okay to quote you in a column or blog.
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In my last column, I wrote about the civilian-military gap, and asked whether the most common laments about it make sense when examined closely. We tend to think that the military is "special" in some way, and fundamentally different from other occupations. I asked whether that belief in military "differentness" is justified, and suggested that in many respects, the military isn't as different as we assume.
That is: If members of the military deserve special consideration and respect, it can't be simply because careers in the military are dangerous, since there are other occupations that are equally dangerous that we don't view as similarly "special." It can't be simply because military service often involves extreme hardships (time away from families, long hours, physical discomfort), since here too, many civilians have jobs that involve such hardship. And finally, the military's specialness can't be based simply on the fact that military careers provide a vital public service, since millions of other Americans also do work that serves the nation in critical ways, whether that involves teaching our children, building our roads, mining our coal or staffing our hospitals.
Some readers objected to these arguments, viewing them as an offensive implied comparison between military personnel and the likes of truck drivers or sanitation workers. But the comparison shouldn't cause any angst -- why should we regard those who do the exhausting, dangerous, and invisible work of hauling goods or hauling our trash with anything other than respect? Millions of Americans give their all -- their energy, their health, their time -- on cold, windy oil drilling platforms, in dark, methane-filled mines, and in decaying inner-city classrooms. Noting that military service is less different from such other jobs than many assume is no insult to the military. In a better world, we'd respect and honor all the Americans -- military and civilian alike -- who do difficult, dangerous work for the benefit of the nation.
But there are two key ways in which serving in the military is deeply different from serving the country as a school teacher or working in a coal mine.
For one thing, our nation, like some many others, arose out of war, and the cauldron of war has profoundly shaped our history. For this reason, the military is deeply linked to our sense of national identity -- to dearly held national narratives about where we come from and who we are -- in a way that is true for no other profession.
No other profession has shed so much blood at the nation's behest. For members of the military, the shedding of blood (that of others and that of their own) isn't a strictly incidental part of their work -- something that could happen, might happen, but isn't supposed to happen. Historically, the shedding of blood has been the fundamental purpose of militaries.
Some service members will never hear a shot fired in anger, of course -- and in my own experience, military personnel tend to be a great deal less bloodthirsty than the average civilian, perhaps because they've been forced to consider what it truly means to be prepared to kill and die. Most military personnel I know fervently hope killing and dying will never be required, that the mere existence of a robust American military prepared to kill and die will help deter conflicts, and ultimately reduce bloodshed.
Yet the fact remains: Even as our military finds itself moving into unfamiliar terrain (cyberspace, the information domain, intelligence gathering, humanitarian aid, development work), it's still the only public institution that's inherently defined by the willingness of its members to kill and die.
There's a second and related reason to view military service as fundamentally different from other kinds of work. However tough and dangerous their jobs are, loggers and miners and commercial pilots can always quit. A commercial pilot who doesn't like his odds can decide from one day to the next to become a realtor; a miner ordered into a situation he deems dangerous can tell the foreman to go to hell. His pay may be docked -- he may be fired and face consequent economic hardship -- but he won't go to prison for his refusal to risk his life.
That's not the case for service members. Yes, we have a volunteer military, but once you sign up, there's no changing your mind until you've fulfilled your service obligation. A soldier ordered to engage the enemy can't politely decline. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, disobeying a lawful order will land you behind bars-and desertion in wartime is still punishable by death.
When someone volunteers for the military, they do more than just sign on for a career that may have its difficulties and dangers. They're asked, in effect, to embrace those dangers, and from that moment on, to waive their fundamental right to preserve their own lives. The Declaration of Independence tells us that all men have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but those who volunteer for military service effectively give up those rights. Once in the military, their lives belong to the nation. Their time, their comfort, and ultimately their lives are subject to the whims of their military superiors, who, in turn, are subject to the whims of elected civilian leaders.
In the end, this is why civilians in a democracy have a moral obligation to understand the military, treat service members with respect and concern, and try to ensure that military force is used wisely and only when necessary. Members of the military voluntarily place their lives in our hands.
I suggested at the end of my July 26 column that there's a pragmatic reason to worry about the civilian-military gap: When senior military officials and senior civilian officials engage with each other at the national level, a lot of vital questions just get lost in translation. Too often, that leads both to an impoverished decision-making process and to poor policy outcomes. (I'll discuss this more next week.)
But the moral cost of the civilian-military gap is also real. Civilians have the luxury of voting or not voting, tuning in or tuning out, deciding to pay attention to the war in Afghanistan or deciding to watch American Idol instead. But if we -- through our votes, our choices or our simple lack of interest in events that feel distant and unimportant -- allow our troops to be ordered into harm's way, our troops have no choice but to go. Service members entrust us with their lives.
Is their trust in us misplaced?
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More from readers of last week's inaugural column: On the one hand, several people argued that military benefits aren't all they're cracked up to be, and pointed to high levels of poverty and homelessness among veterans, food stamp use by active duty personnel, and other problems. Similarly, several readers noted that financial benefits can hardly compensate military personnel for the danger, the disruptions to family life, and the high suicide and divorce rates.
On the other hand, some readers argued that the risks and problems associated with military service are often de-contextualized, and that if all factors are considered, military personnel have no more reason to complain than many civilians. The military may be a dangerous and important career, but it's no more so than several other occupations, and the risks depend greatly on which branch of the service we're talking about.
My own view? Little here is black and white. I'm not very interested in questions about whether particular groups "deserve" this or that; I'm more interested in getting a nuanced and fact-based view of what's actually happening out there, how we came to the place we're at, and where we might be able to go from here.
To that end, I've been doing some research on the issues mentioned above. Here's some of what I've gleaned so far (still much more research to be done, so take this for what it is: preliminary). I'll leave readers to decide for themselves what it all means.
Within the adult civilian population of the U.S. overall, about one person in 10 is a veteran. Veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless, however: As of 2011, roughly one in seven homeless Americans was a veteran.
According to USA Today, ex-servicemembers under the age of thirty make up only 5 percent of the nation's veterans, but they make up 9 percent of the population of homeless veterans.
That's not because veterans are less-educated that other Americans. On the contrary, as a group, veterans are less likely to have dropped out of high school and more likely to have some college or an associates degree.
Suicide and divorce in the military:
DoD statistics show military suicides at a record high. According to the New York Times, military personnel are slightly more likely than the general civilian population to die as a result of suicide: In 2008, there were 20 suicides out of every 100,000 members of the military population, while the figure for civilians was 18 per 100,000. These figures change when you adjust them to reflect for age: comparing military personnel to comparably-aged civilians, military personnel were actually less likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts, according to a 2012 report by the Armed Services Health Surveillance Center.
How about divorce? Counter-intuitively, members of the military are less likely than civilians to get divorced, the strain of deployments notwithstanding. Depending on which demographic slice of the military you look at, however (enlisted versus officers, men versus women, older versus younger, different service branches and occupational specialties, etc.), the statistics change.
How dangerous is military service?
This seems like it should be an easy question to answer, but it's actually a rather difficult one, since it's hard to get apples to apples comparisons. Some data points:
The Armed Services Health Surveillance Center reports that from 1990 through 2011, about 29,000 U.S. military personnel died of all causes (combat deaths, illness, accident, homicide, suicide, etc.), leading to an average "crude mortality rate" per 100,000 person-years of 77.5. (In other words, in any given year, an average of 77.5 military personnel out of each 100,000 could be expected to die.)
Although those statistics cover two decades that included the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military mortality rate remained substantially lower than the crude mortality rate among civilians aged 15-44, which was 127.5 per 100,000 person-years in 2005.
Does this make the military a safer career choice than others? Not necessarily: The military only accepts reasonably fit and healthy people, and it's hard to determine the self-selection effects.
Another way to measure danger is to look at on-the-job deaths. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2010 fatality rate per 100,000 workers was 116 for the fishing industry, 92 for the logging industry and 71 for airline pilots.
How about differences between services and occupational specialties? Unsurprisingly, combat occupational specialties increase your risk of death: Across all services, the mortality rate for those in combat-specific occupations was 128.5 per 100,000 person-years. Comparing the services, mortality rates were highest for Marines (104 per 100,000 person-years) and the Army (96/100,000). In contrast, the Air Force had a mortality rate of 33.4 per 100,000 person years, making it a less dangerous occupation than farming, ranching, and operating mining machines, and about on a par with roofing.
Are these lies, damn lies, or just statistics? You tell me. Please add to my knowledge bank or correct my glaring errors by sending me an email.
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Some readers are taking me to task for impugning the military with the word socialism. I should be clear: though I may be one of the last three people in America who feels this way, I don't use "socialism" as a dirty word, at least if what we mean by "socialism" is having a society that takes decent care of its people. (No, no, no, I'm not gonna defend the USSR. I'm just saying that there's something to be said for the welfare state.)
I've also been taken to task ("Ungrateful moron!," writes a Mr. David
Hurley) for failing to see that a) the military deserves these great benefits,
damn it, because they may get shot at/must at times live away from their families
etc., or b) the benefits aren't all they're cracked up to be, because the
on-base housing sucks! the health care sucks! the pay for junior enlisted
troops sucks! Etc.
I don't disagree. I'm all in favor of the majority of the benefits for which military personnel are eligible. (The sole exception might be the ability to immediately draw pensions after 20 years). In some cases, I agree that the benefits could use improvement: the quality of some services is uneven.
Whether the current level of spending on military benefits is sustainable,
given economic realities, is a separate and critical question, but I will leave
that to a future column or blog.
My real beef? It's not that benefits for military personnel are "too generous," morally speaking. They're not. What strikes me as sad is that we seem to lack a similarly generous instinct for the large majority of citizens who aren't in the military. I think it's fine to reward those who serve in important ways with some "extras," but I don't think access to affordable health care, housing or higher education should be considered rewards or extras. Those are the bare minimum benefits a decent, functioning society should strive to provide for all its citizens.
As I said, I'm cool with the military welfare state. I just wish we'd spread it
around a bit more.
My Georgetown colleague David Luban picks up on a related point. He writes:
"[Your column] made me think about a major contradiction in our national psyche:
1. Americans mistrust big government.
2. Americans believe in free markets as opposed to command economies.
3. Americans trust the military more than any other pubic institution.
4. The military is the biggest thing in big government, and it's run through a chain of command?
How is it that people who don't believe in top-down command to run society think that a top-down command organization is the most trustworthy and reliable one in society?"
Good question. American attitudes towards the military are full of contradictions and ironies. We want the military to do more; we want it to stick to it's "core competencies," we worship it; we don't want our children in it; we want it to have the generous benefits we decry as socialistic and and anti-freedom when a Democrat urges them for the rest of the country; we want the military to solve our problems and go everywhere; we want it to stay out of our sight.
This first column introduces some of these themes. I look forward to exploring them more fully in the coming months. Meanwhile, keep the comments and emails coming.
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This blog will be the conversational partner to the By Other Means column, which will appear on Thursdays. Both the column and the blog will focus on exploring the changing strategic environment, the changing nature of war, and the changing role of the U.S. military, with occasional forays into other foregn policy issues.
My background: I'm currently a law professor at Georgetown and a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, where I'm working on a book about the military's evolving role. My past experience includes a recent stint as counselor to the under secretary of defense for policy (2009-2011) and four years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, as well as shorter stints with the State Department and a variety of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch. I'm married to a career army officer, which gives me something of a vested interest in my subject.
Future columns will address the evolving security environment, the increasing militarization of both foreign and domestic policy, civilian-military cultural gaps, and the consequences for law, policy and strategy. This blog will contain briefer thoughts, follow-ups to columns, responses to readers and the occasional guest post. Please email me here with comments, questions and suggestions: rosa.brooks[at]gmail.com.
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Rosa Brooks, who writes FP's "By Other Means" column, blogs about war, politics, and the evolving role of the military.