Bridging the Civilian-Military Divide

The military must play its part in staying connected to society.

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An special operations force soldier mounts a weapon on an armored vehicle in Iraq.

Today marks the sixth Veterans Day that I have celebrated since returning home from Iraq. I say celebrate because, as the Veterans Administration website makes clear, this day is meant to be a "celebration to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good."

Unlike Memorial Day this is a happy day. As is my tradition, I will be going to watch a movie today. (I'll be going to see "Ender's Game." And no, this is not for any martial purpose or sentimentality; my wife didn't want to see it and she is working.)

As part of this celebration several national food chains have even offered free food and drink to veterans. While this is nice, it would be good to remember that not all is rosy for veterans. Far too many of our veterans from the post-9/11 wars, and previous conflicts, suffer from the physical and mental wounds of war. In addition, there are differences in employment numbers between veteran and non-veteran citizens.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rates for veterans 18 years old and older in October 2013 was 6.9 percent (up from 6.3 percent in October 2012) compared to 6.8 percent in the non-veteran population during the same period (down from 7.4 percent in October 2012). For post 9/11 veterans, however, the rate was 10 percent in October 2013 (unchanged from 2012). (The number isn't broken by age groups, but in July 2013, by comparison, the unemployment rate for all those aged 17-24 was 16.3 percent.)

What is more bothersome though is that more than half of hiring managers in a recent Center for a New American Security monograph noted that negative stereotypes of veterans might be a reason why companies don't hire them.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Are veterans responsible for any of this? What do veterans owe to the society for which they served? Is this a one-way street or a two-way street?

Writing at the Atlantic.com Alex Horton, a veteran of the infantry in Iraq, has this to say:

I know I've felt that way [about having a chip on his shoulder about being a veteran] during my undergrad years at Georgetown University, where I've constantly championed my own experiences and perspective over others. After some time, I realized this was self-destructive. I'm here in my senior year to learn just as they are, and my frustrations lead me to understand that I'm both more and less prepared at tackling life than my classmates. Younger students, for example, can look at and discuss the world as if seeing it for the first time. There is value in an uncolored perspective. I have to constantly remind myself not to view everything through the lens of a cynical former door-kicker.

The intangibles veterans bring are important — discipline, teamwork, leadership. But those things are the icing when we thought they were the cake. We have a completely different mission to gain new expertise and education that complement our military-honed skills. Our task isn't simply to cram a military circle peg into a civilian square hole. There's potentially a high price for trying to do that. Younger veterans struggle with employment because it takes some time to recognize the need to be more than the sum of our military experiences and accomplishments. There's a natural period of underemployment, of course, as veterans gather new credentials, but I fear too many can and will read it as a sign that civilians don't appreciate them, and in doing so give in to frustrations that can further delay transition into a productive post-deployment life. [See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Horton's perspective tracks very much with something that I wrote here on this blog back in May: "Veterans too must earn that faith not only with their previous wartime service but also with enlightening their fellow citizens about military service when appropriate and by returning to their communities and being productive members of society." Service is after all about serving. While society must keep faith for those who were injured while serving, veterans need to resist feeling entitled to ever expanding benefits and perks for serving. To do otherwise risks driving the wedge between the military and society further apart.

Phillip Carter and Army Lieutenant General (ret.) David Barno of CNAS, both post-9/11 veterans, had a piece in yesterday's Washington Post talking about this wedge and noting that the military has contributed to this rift. They argue that:

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the wire ringing our bases divided two starkly different worlds. Inside the wire, life revolved around containerized housing units, cavernous dining facilities, well-appointed gyms and the distant but ever-present risk of a falling rocket or mortar round. Outside the wire, Afghans and Iraqis tried to live their lives amid relative chaos. They didn't fully understand what we were doing there. And when we ventured out, we struggled to navigate their world.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: 10 Years Later, Was the Iraq War Worth It?]

The wire defines a similar divide in the United States. Inside, troops and their families live and work on massive military bases, separated geographically, socially and economically from the society they serve. Outside, Americans live and work, largely unaware of the service and sacrifice of the 2.4 million active and reserve troops. Discussions of the civil-military divide often blame civilians. But the military's self-imposed isolation doesn't encourage civilian understanding, and it makes it difficult for veterans and their families to navigate the outside world.

Their argument is valid, but sequestration and decreased defense spending will likely make this issue more of a problem moving forward. Placing major military bases near major urban centers, for instance, is costly and would not allow the training and range opportunities that forces need to be well honed for combat operations. While the National Guard and federal reservists can help to show a military face across the country, their numbers will decline, too. On this Veterans Day we should all realize that there will always be some form of civil-military divide as long as there is a necessity for armed forces to protect civil society. This divide needs to be understood and managed and both sides of it must work toward making sure that it doesn't grow too large.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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