The Civil-Military Gap Need Not Become a Chasm

By Skelton, Ike | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2012 | Go to article overview

The Civil-Military Gap Need Not Become a Chasm


Skelton, Ike, Joint Force Quarterly


When the United States won its independence from Great Britain, the American people had an underlying mistrust of large standing militaries, an attitude that continued down through U.S. history. This attitude was codified in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to raise and maintain an army but places a strict term limit of 2 years on funding such an army. From 1776 through the Korean War, the U.S. Government called on citizens to take up arms to fight. Upon the conclusion of each war, the Nation would shrink the military back to peacetime levels, and military members would return home to their civilian lives, much the way George Washington did after leading the Continental Army against British forces. The 20th-century requirements of the Cold War changed that pattern of build-up/draw-down, but with large standing forces and conscription during peacetime.

In 1973, with the end of the Vietnam conflict and great public distaste for the Vietnam-era draft, legislation transformed the military into an all-volunteer force. This had an impact on civil-military relations. This new force would be composed entirely of individuals who made a choice to serve their country in peace and war, seeing military service as a career rather than a temporary job. Conscription had provided at least a rough bridge between the military and society. Most draftees ultimately returned to their civilian careers, but their military service gave the broader population a basic understanding of the military since individuals who would not have otherwise joined got a taste of the military life and mission.

The idea of citizen-soldiers is not unique to the United States. In 1957, West Germany introduced compulsory military service, which remained in effect until June 2011. A German Defense Ministry spokesman recently stated, "From the beginning, conscription was seen as a constitutional means of averting the militarism of the past by creating 'citizens in uniform' to bind the armed forces to the rest of society. Everyone had to serve."1 Without conscription, the tie between the military and society could weaken since fewer civilians would serve any time in the military. Most Americans no longer need to worry about family members or friends being drafted and thus are less likely to feel that the military in any way impacts their lives.

The military is a subset of society. Although they are still citizens, Servicemembers have some different values, such as a sense of duty, contribution to something larger, service to the country, and leadership. They are also held to higher standards in terms of physical courage in times of war. Society admires civilians who act bravely under duress, but such behavior is demanded of Servicemembers. A difference in values, knowledge, and experience between the military and society is inherent in the system and is not detrimental in and of itself. However, if the military and society move farther apart, that could have grave consequences for the military as the two sides struggle to communicate and understand one another. Columnist Richard Cohen described it well in arguing that the all-volunteer force "enables [the United States] to fight wars about which the general public is largely indifferent." (2) Thus, it is in the best interest of every American to work toward and maintain good civil-military relations to ensure that the military will have the support of the American people when it conducts operations on their behalf. However, good relations alone cannot achieve this end, and the reality is that the turbulent events of the past decade have taken a further toll on civil-military relations. It is the burden of political leadership, both the Commander in Chief and Congress, to explain to the public what the military is doing and why it matters.

Three key points should be understood about the state of civil-military relations in the United States today. …

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