Thursday, June 18, 2020

Civ-Mil Crisis? If so, it’s on the Civ

Maybe I need to review a few things here. I’m a guy in his mid-50s who spent a little over two decades of that time on active duty. I’ve been a civilian again for over a decade. In that role, I am in an almost pure civilian occupation as one can be. 

I don’t live within commuting distance of DC. I’ve never lived in base housing. I don’t come from a military family. The closest I get is that both of my grandfathers were enlisted Sailors in WWI. My family did fight in every major American conflict back to the Indian wars in colonial Virginia and North Carolina back to the late 1600s … but that is about it. None of my siblings served. None of my children serve. My spouse does not serve. Heck, I was commissioned as a contract NROTC guy even. 

To this day I argue that much of our active duty ground forces need to be demobilized and moved back to the National Guard where they rightfully belong … so I’m no militarist. You regular readers on the front porch know this, but new readers show up every day … and the title alone will be a lighting rod.

All that being said up front, let me make my argument.

Our military comes from the great and glorious civilian diversity of our nation and a sprinkling of immigrants and foreign nationals. They serve, some for just a few short years, and then the vast majority return to the civilian world.

Though some easily excitable individuals may say otherwise, we don’t have a “military caste.” Yes, there a few multi-generational families who serve, but only a very small sub-set of that group are multi-generational career types. As is a great Southern tradition, most serve a few years on active duty and then go home – having performed their honor’s requirement. These people are actually civilians – just with a little military flavor in their CV. 

Perhaps for those civilians long in DC who are mostly exposed to the General/Flag Officer community who have been in for 30-40 years with most of the last few decades in DC have a skewed opinion because of that exposure. If so, I hope they realize that those people are not “normal” military people. That can skew anyone’s opinion. However, if that is the benchmark – that minute % of military people – that the most complaining civilians have, again, that is on them not the body of military people – but the civilians who can’t see the rarefied terrarium they exist in.

Even career military people live mostly on the civilian economy. Not all were like me and intentionally made that a priority, but most do. They raise their families in the civilian world. Their spouses and loved ones are mostly civilians.

Usually the same people who get breathless about a mythical “military caste” will also bring up the fact that the military is “too Southern, too Midwestern, too Western” or some other thinly veiled snobbish comment. My take is, “So what?” 

We are, or are supposed to be, a nation of free people who have free will. A people who when their nation is not under existential threat, do not enforce a tyrannical servitude to the state through forced labor. As such, we have a volunteer military. Different regions and cultures in our vast nation have more of a martial tradition than others – as is true in all large nations through history – as such there will not be pure balance.

Heck, as I have stated here since 2004, I wish more of “my class” (in economic/educational sense) served, but they don’t. If those in the North East or Left Coast don’t see enough of their neighbors wearing the uniform, then fix your problem – don’t assume the problem is elsewhere.

There is the critique. Those who claim a civ-mil divide reflexively imply that the problem is on the military side. Why is that? I can speak from my experience and of those I served with that I talked with about this subject for years – we get the civilian side because we live with it every day. We try to bridge that divide every time we go to a party, drive down the road, go to a parent-teacher conference; we get it.

What about the civilian side? They are the majority, those in uniform are the minority. If the minority is doing all it can to live with and in the majority culture, and in spite of their best efforts the majority still see the minority as “the other,” then the responsibility for bridging the remaining gap lies with the majority. They have the power, they have the mass, they have the ability to make the bridge complete.

Why isn’t the civilian side taking the primary responsibility here? There are a variety of reasons.

1. It is always easier to blame, “The Other.” As I’ve tried to remind uniformed people before, especially inside the rarefied air of the DC Beltway, you are dealing with long-dwell residents in the political, natsec, and think tank world who are among the most isolated, echo-chamber, and self-referential people you will ever meet. A significant portion of them, outside of college – perhaps – have never lived anywhere outside the Acela Corridor. When they have “traveled” outside the coastal states, it was visits to exotic locals such as Chicago, IL or Austin, TX … or perhaps a conference in London or Munich. On the other hand, you have lived in a half dozen states for years on end. Perhaps you even lived for years in foreign nations. You went to schools that none of their friends went to. You hold opinions on certain topics they’ve never seen a real person hold before – they’ve only read about them in books or dunked on them on twitter … and yet there you are. You see, it is you who is a strange, out of touch oddity with your worldly travels and first hand experience working for foreign governments and people for decades … not them who have spent 90% of their adult life within a 1-hr commute of Georgetown.

2. Contempt. They’ve seen the movies, they know what people with short hair, uniforms, and all that politeness with “ma’am” and “sir” are like. You don’t have them fooled.

3. Insecurity. Why should the military person get a preference in hiring for anything? They didn’t go to better schools. They didn’t do all the right internships. They haven’t done the hard work for little pay on Congressional staffs or low-rent think tanks. They talk funny, have too many kids, and have all these icky weekend habits that, and let’s be real here, are just primitive. They just show up here and jump the line in from of all of us who have been toiling for years waiting for a nice GS gig or appointment. Did they do four months with a NGO in Burkina Faso? I didn’t think so.

Of course, there are other critiques, but that’s the top-3 I’ve seen.

Can the military do more? Sure, but what, I’m not sure for the reasons outlined above. In some ways, there will always be a civ-mil divide. I’ve been out for over a decade and I still see it. Pre-COVID-19, when I found myself at large gatherings, more often than not I would find myself drifting to groups that were largely of people who had a connection to prior service. It’s kind of strange, but it’s a something that has become a running joke between Mrs. Salamander and myself. There is something about being in the military, police, fire and other such organizations that gives you a common reference point. It is hard to describe, but it is there. It isn’t a negative thing. We could stop plastering our cars with bumperstickers and wearing t-shirts that try to make us better than our non-serving neighbors – though I think most of those people are poseurs. Not all of them. You know the ones I’m talking about. That could be helpful.

For my civilian friends, maybe we can start by stopping the mantra, “Thank you for your service” every time I just want to buy a bunch of AAA batteries and an extension cord. Maybe we can get 5-minutes in to a conversation without you making some comment about PTSD issues you read about online.

Maybe start there. That would be good for me.

Finally, do we want to eliminate that gap? Perhaps no. As we have been reminded in the last month, that line between the military and the civilian world can get a bit frightening when it gets blurred. Maybe the gap, as long as it is a net positive, is something we should – if not cherish – then at least recognize as being part of the environment.

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