Voice

Bridging the civilian-military gap

I asked readers to offer their own comments on the civilian-military gap, and their ideas for reducing it. Here are a few of the responses I received:

Jim Hanson, a former Special Forces Weapons NCO who writes for the military blog Blackfive, worries that the civilian-military gap enables the politicization of national security: although this "problem is larger and predates the current administration...it is hard to hear the stories from uniformed folks currently serving about how the political officials weigh in regularly on how national security decisions could affect Obama's polling."

I've seen some of this myself, and it's not pretty. It's certainly not unique to this administration, though: War has always been politicized. Intuitively, it makes sense to think that civilians with less understanding of the military might be particularly prone to politicize decisions about national security, but I don't know if there's any empirical evidence to support this. If you know of any, please share.

Meanwhile, several people wrote to suggest expanded civilian-military exchanges and educational opportunities. Capt. Kyle Borne, who's currently serving in Afghanistan, wonders "if having a 'U.S. Military' class in our nation's high schools might alleviate the growing
gulf between civilian and military." He worries, though, that some might perceive such a course as "the military...trying to brainwash their children."

I wonder if any schools (other than military schools) offer courses or units on the military, and if any teaching modules on the military are available for use by high school teachers. Seems to me that a well-done, balanced course on the history, present, and future of the U.S. military could be a fascinating window through which to look at any number of issues, from the changing nature of security threats to the role of the military as an agent of social change in America (think desegregation).

Matthew Colford, a student at Stanford, suggested that civilian universities might "consider creating week-long exchange programs with the military academies (provided the latter are willing). These programs would expose students at both institutions to 'the other side.' Were a civilian student to live as a cadet for a week his or her perspective would almost certainly change, for better or worse, just as it would for a cadet who attends a civilian institution for a week."

It would be tough to implement something like this on a large scale, given the small number of service academies compared to the very large number of civilian universities, but the idea of a pilot exchange program with selected universities might be feasible -- as would the creation of "mini" ROTC programs for civilian undergraduates interested in learning more about the military without necessarily having to make a multi-year service commitment.

Eric Anton writes, "I'm a company grade officer and have had the misfortune to spend a year in a deployed HQ." He suggests bridging the civilian-military gap by creating short "Military 101" courses for civilians who will be working with military personnel, and increasing the use of dedicated Liaison officers and Points of Contact for inter-agency planning and coordination.

Rebecca Ben-Amou, a student at Dickinson College, urges an increase in mid-career exchanges between military and civilian organizations. "It should be a requirement for Foreign Service Officers and members of other executive branch agencies to engage in [such a] 'personnel swap' before qualifying for higher-level positions."

My own top three ideas: 1) Develop a two- or three-day "Military 101" course tailored for senior civilian officials with national security or foreign policy jobs, and make it mandatory. People will whine about taking it. (Everyone thinks civilization will come to a crashing halt if they're out of the office for three days. It won't.) But a basic understanding of military structure, planning, etc. would dramatically improve the quality and efficiency of decision-making.

2) Increase opportunities for career military personnel to spend a year here and there in civilian institutions, and reward them for doing so. This idea has been championed by David Petraeus and many others, and the military has begun to respond -- but more should be done.

3) Increase opportunities for interested civilians at every level to spend a period of time working within the military. The week-long Joint Civilian Orientation Course sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense is the right idea, but it's too short and too small. Why not invest in civil-military relations by creating month-long (or even year-long) programs that would enable civilians to work within military organizations? Make the program competitive and prestigious-sounding, and focus on attracting "influencers" and thought leaders from a range of communities. Start small -- maybe a hundred people in year one -- and assess and expand as the program goes forward, with a view to expanding it over time.

Those three ideas all strike me as feasible and relatively easy: that is, with a little will, significant improvements could be made within a couple of years. Longer term, I'd love to see this country get serious about national service...but that's another story.

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