Public Understanding of the Profession of Arms

Article excerpt

"[W]hatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction. A distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally. Even after 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do."

- Defense Secretary Robert Gates1

"Communication is the real work of leadership."

- Nitin Nohria, Dean, Harvard Business School2

IN SEPTEMBER 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered an address to the students and faculty of Duke University on the nature of our modern all-volunteer military.3 During his hour-long speech he repeatedly returned to the theme of the growing disconnect between today's professional soldiers and the civilian society they serve. Not only, he said, are our military organizations becoming more professional, but they are drawing from an ever-decreasing segment of the American public. A 2009 study undertaken for the Directorate of Accession Policy and cited by Secretary Gates during his address at Duke found that, in 1988, approximately 40 percent of 18-year olds had at least one veteran parent. By 2000, that figure had fallen to 18 percent, and by 2018, only about 8 percent of 18-year olds will have a veteran parent and the exposure to and familiarity with military life that comes from being part of a military family.4

Secretary Gates is not alone in his concerns among senior government officials. In his 2010 farewell speech, outgoing chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Ike Skelton, warned of what he perceived to be a "civil-military gap, a lack of understanding between civilians and the military that has grown in the era of an all-volunteer force."5 This "civil-military gap" is very real and poses a number of substantial challenges to leaders in both the executive and legislative branches of our government.

The existence and importance of a "civil-military" gap has been exhaustively debated in the academic literature and popular media.6 I suggest that it exists, but that it is natural and unavoidable. Our focus should not be on "closing the gap," but on mitigating its negative effects. To accomplish this, I suggest a broad program of "interface." Personal relationship building is the key to cultural understanding, and cultural understanding leads to good relations. Cultural understanding is the goal, not cultural homogeneity.

Today's Army has a number of programs and regulations it could adapt to promote interface without greatly disrupting their existing functions. As of now, no unifying or coordinating structure links these programs, and in most cases, individual regulations contain a variety of material weakness when viewed from the perspective of cultural outreach promotion. This article proposes a framework for analyzing existing programs for interface promotion potential. Then, using the Army Congressional Fellowship Program as an example, it illustrates how the process could work and proposes some changes that can have an immediate, significant, and lasting impact on the relationships between our modern professional Army, our political leaders, and the public they both serve.7

The core task is one of targeted outreach. As an organization, the Army must establish new points of cultural interface to supplant those lost during the professionalization of American military forces in recent decades. To do this, the entire military organization must work to communicate to political leaders and the civilian population they serve what it truly means to be a member of the profession of arms.

The Cultural Divide

Military organizations are unlike any other social institutions in contemporary American society. Virtually all modern military sociologists have come to view modern militaries as highly professionalized social institutions.8 In their 2000 commentary on American military culture, Edwin Dorn, Walter Ulmer, and Thomas Jacobs noted that "[g]iven the military's unique role of managing violence on behalf of society, a strong and incorruptible culture is not only important but essential. …