The Gap

The Gap

Mini Teaser: The directors of an ambitious project on civil-military relations detail their findings and plumb the divide between soldiers and civilians.

by Author(s): Peter D. FeaverRichard H. Kohn

Soldiers, Civilians and their Mutual Misunderstanding

IN A 1997 speech at Yale University, Secretary of Defense William Cohen claimed to see "a chasm developing between the military and civilian worlds, where the civilian world doesn't fully grasp the mission of the military, and the military doesn't understand why the memories of our citizens and civilian policy makers are so short, or why the criticism is so quick and so unrelenting." Cohen was voicing an age-old concern about America's relations with its military, one echoed in recent years by policymakers who fear that, absent an urgent threat to the nation's security, a democratic society will not nurture and support an adequate military, and that the military's loyalty to civilian authority will diminish accordingly.

The question at the end of the 1990s was said to be a "cultural" one: Has a "gap" in values between the armed forces and civilian society widened to the point of threatening the effectiveness of the military and impeding civil-military cooperation? To answer this question, we directed a comprehensive study, The Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society, sponsored by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies--a consortium of faculty from Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University--with a grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation. Specifically, the project sought to answer three questions: What is the character of the civil-military gap today? What factors are shaping it? What are the implications for military effectiveness and civil-military cooperation?

To assess these questions, we, in cooperation with roughly two dozen experts, surveyed some 4,900 Americans drawn from three groups: military officers identified for promotion or advancement, influential civilians, and the general public. 1  The questions we posed addressed many topics: defense and foreign policy, social and moral issues, and relations between civilian policymakers and military officers. Our team then analyzed the answers and combined them with other political, sociological and historical studies to draw conclusions and offer specific recommendations.

We discovered that, while the concerns of the secretary of defense and others should not be exaggerated, numerous schisms and disturbing trends have emerged in recent years, which, if not addressed, may further undermine civil-military cooperation and in certain circumstances harm military effectiveness.

Not a New Concern

CONCERNS about a troublesome divide between the armed forces and the society they serve are hardly new and in fact go back to the beginning of the Republic. Writing in the 1950s, Samuel Huntington argued that the divide could best be bridged by civilian society tolerating, if not embracing, the conservative values that animate military culture. Huntington also suggested that politicians allow the armed forces a substantial degree of cultural autonomy. Countering this argument, the sociologist Morris Janowitz argued that in a democracy military culture necessarily adapts to changes in civilian society, adjusting to the needs and dictates of its civilian masters. 2 The end of the Cold War and the extraordinary changes in American foreign and defense policy that resulted have revived the debate.

The contemporary heirs of Janowitz see the all-volunteer military as drifting too far away from the norms of American society, thereby posing problems for civilian control. They make four principal assertions. First, the military has grown out of step ideologically with the public, showing itself to be inordinately right-wing politically, and much more religious (and fundamentalist) than America as a whole, having a strong and almost exclusive identification with the Republican Party. Second, the military has become increasingly alienated from, disgusted with and sometimes even explicitly hostile to civilian culture. Third, the armed forces have resisted change, particularly the integration of women and homosexuals into their ranks, and have generally proved reluctant to carry out constabulary missions. Fourth, civilian control and military effectiveness will both suffer as the military--seeking ways to operate without effective civilian oversight and alienated from the society around it--loses the respect a nd support of that society.

By contrast, the heirs of Huntington argue that a degenerate civilian culture has strayed so far from traditional values that it intends to eradicate healthy and functional civil-military differences, particularly in the areas of gender, sexual orientation and discipline. This camp, too, makes four key claims. First, its members assert that the military is divorced in values from a political and cultural elite that is itself alienated from the general public. Second, it believes this civilian elite to be ignorant of and even hostile to, the armed forces--eager to employ the military as a laboratory for social change, even at the cost of crippling its warfighting capacity. Third, it discounts the specter of eroding civilian control because it sees a military so thoroughly inculcated with an ethos of subordination that there is now too much civilian control, the effect of which has been to stifle the military's ability to function effectively. Fourth, because support for the military among the general public r emains sturdy, any gap in values is inconsequential. The problem, if anything, is with the civilian elite.

The debate has been lively (and inside the Beltway sometimes quite vicious), but it has rested on very thin evidence--competing anecdotes, claims and counterclaims about the nature of civilian and military attitudes. Absent has been a body of systematic data exploring opinions, values, perspectives and attitudes inside the military compared with those held by civilian elites and the general public. Our project provides some answers.

The Real Gap

THE MILITARY officers in our survey are indeed much more conservative than the civilian elite, but not more conservative than the general public. 3 On social values, the military diverges from both the elite and the public, fitting somewhere between the two--considerably more conservative than the former but not as conservative as the latter. On the issue of personal and political freedoms, for example, the military responses were unambiguously on the side of civil liberty. Very strong majorities of the officers we surveyed responded that they opposed removing from public libraries anti-religious books (89 percent), pro-communist books (94 percent) or pro-homosexuality books (82 percent)--higher support for free speech than one would find in a random sample of the public at large. Intriguingly, one of the largest gaps between our military sample and that of the general public concerns views on human nature. On the classic question of whether most people can be trusted, a strong majority in both our elite s amples--civilian (60 percent) and military (65 percent)--responded affirmatively, but an equally strong majority of our mass sample responded that "you can't be too careful." Still, military officers express great pessimism about the moral health of civilian society and strongly believe that society would be better off if it adopted military mores. While civilian elites share such pessimism, they strongly disagree that the military has a role to play in civic renewal.

Military officers are more "religious" than civilian elites, although not as dramatically as some have claimed. If "religious" is measured by the frequency of attending religious services or of engaging in religious activity, the difference is slight. For instance, roughly comparable percentages of officers and civilian elites report that they pray anywhere from several times a day to once a week (roughly a fifth in all instances). The opinion divide is somewhat greater if the gauge is taken to be the degree to which faith plays a role in everyday life. Servicemen are more likely than civilian elites to agree that "the Bible is the inspired word of God, true, and to be taken word for word" (18 versus 11 percent); more likely to agree that "the Bible is the inspired word of God, true, but not to be taken word for word" (48 versus 34 percent); and less likely to agree that "the Bible is a book of myths and legends" (3 versus 7 percent). In any case, the differences are not strikingly large. Except for a larger proportion of Roman Catholics and a smaller proportion of Jews, religious identification in the armed forces is congruent with that of the broader American population.

Despite common assumptions to the contrary, civilian elites, while having relatively little personal connection with the military, do not express a great deal of hostility to the warrior culture. Only 7 percent (compared with 1 percent of servicemen) believe that a so-called "social engineering role"--that is, redressing historical discrimination--is a "very important" role for the military, although somewhat more (23 percent, versus 14 percent of the military) say it is at least "important." However, on the question of whether the cultural gap hurts military effectiveness, roughly a third of civilian elites who have never served in the military think so, and, interestingly, slightly more than a third of the military agrees. Elite civilians do not have an inflated view (relative to the military) of the military's ability to perform effectively in constabulary missions, although they are somewhat more eager to use the military for humanitarian operations. The military officers we surveyed criticized the quali ty of political leadership and expressed a pervasive hostility toward the media; yet at the same time, both rising officers and the rank and file possess more trust and confidence in government institutions than do their civilian counterparts.

The officers we surveyed also express little dissatisfaction (about the same as the public and civilian elites) with the current extent of gender integration in the military, although they oppose expanding combat roles for women. But by a very large margin (76 percent) the military officers we surveyed oppose gays and lesbians serving openly, an idea that more than 50 percent of both the civilian elites and the mass public favor. 4

While officers still consider themselves to be neutral servants of the state, the officer corps has developed a more distinctive partisan affinity. Over the last generation, the percentage of officers that identifies itself as independent (or specifies no party affiliation) has gone from a plurality (46 percent) to a minority (27 percent), and the percentage that identifies itself as Republican has nearly doubled (from 33 percent to 64 percent). 5 While elite civilians and the mass public are split about evenly, for every Democrat in our sample of officers there are eight Republicans. Their political views are not, however, the "hard right" Republican positions some observers expected to see.

What Factors Shape the Gap?

MOST students of these issues, no matter what side they take in the debate assert the following: the media are hostile to the military and portray it negatively, encouraging civilian hostility toward it; popular culture (films and novels) caricatures and disparages the military; the media influence civilian attitudes toward the use of force (the "CNN effect"); the gap between military personnel and civilians is widening, due to factors such as the decline in veterans as a percentage of civilian society, the downsizing of the armed forces since the Cold War, and the self-selection of the all-volunteer force; and professional military education is the key arena in which the professional values and norms of the officer are shaped, and, hence, where civil-military concerns should be addressed.

Our team's findings challenge many of these assumptions. The media play a complex role in shaping civilian and military perspectives. But contrary to views widely held among elite military officers, the major daily newspapers do not generally portray the armed forces in a harsh light. Content analyses over a period of six months discovered ratios of positive to negative stories in excess of two to one. 6 While popular fiction and film do stereotype both the military and civilian society; the effect is not uniform. Some action thrillers (Executive Orders, Rules of Engagement) have depicted tough realists in uniform with higher moral standards, greater loyalty and more competence than civilians--and have disparaged politicians, political institutions, and a hedonistic and greedy civilian culture. High-brow fiction and film (Catch-22, Stanley Kubrick's war films) tend to do the reverse. 7

Our military and civilian samples did differ in background, suggesting that demographics may partly exacerbate differences between the two groups. The up-and-coming officers in our sample were disproportionately male, white, Catholic and highly educated. Nevertheless, differences of opinion persist even when demographic factors are controlled, suggesting that the military may selectively attract and promote a certain profile of officer that accounts for some of these differences. Thus, opinion gaps between officers and civilian elites are narrower at the lowest ranks than at the more senior levels. Numerous factors have contributed to the "Republicanization" of the officer corps. They include: the fallout from Vietnam; Democrats abandoning the military and Republicans embracing it; an increase during the 1980s in the proportion of young people identifying themselves as Republican and expressing an interest in joining the military; and the Reagan-era military build-up. 8 Lastly, the curricula at military academies and war colleges fail to provide officers with a coherent understanding of American society, its culture, and the tradition of American civil-military relations. In some cases military education accentuates civil-military differences. 9

The Stakes

UNQUESTIONABLY, this gap in viewpoints affects national defense, but not always in the way observers of civil-military relations seem to believe. So far the defense budget has not been hurt by the gap and the divide does not appear to be the principal factor driving the current crisis of recruiting and retaining people in uniform. 10 Yet while much is made of the public's respect for and confidence in the military, this confidence is brittle and shallow, and may not endure. 11 Personal connections to the military among civilians are declining. And because the gap in opinion tracks closely with the presence or absence of such contacts, support for national defense could diminish in the future.

For the first seventy-five years of the twentieth century, there was always a higher percentage of veterans in Congress than in the comparable age cohort in the general population. This "veteran's advantage" preceded the introduction of the draft but began to decline with the end of conscription. Indeed, beginning in the mid-1990s, the percentage of veterans in Congress has dropped below that in the population at large. Thus far this has not affected congressional voting patterns, but, if the general gap is indicative, the change in veterans' representation will diminish congressional understanding of the military and may affect agenda-setting and support. 12

The experience gap is partly counterbalanced by the military's significance as an institution in American society, which remains very high. The material presence of the military remains strong; it consumes a large, if shrinking, portion of the GDP; its reach is geographically distributed in rough proportion to regional population share (although sparse in the Midwest); and it is prominent on the public stage and especially in the media. 13 There are trends, however--such as the downsizing of the armed forces, which reduces social connections to the military--that will inevitably diminish its institutional presence.

Emerging professional norms within the officer corps promise more friction in civil-military relations. As Eliot Cohen points out in his accompanying article in this issue, the principle of civilian control is well entrenched in the United States, but the military officers we surveyed showed some reluctance to accept one of its basic premises: namely, that civilian leaders have a right to be wrong. Contrary to the traditional understanding of civilian control, a majority of elite military officers today believes that it is proper for the military to insist rather than merely to advise (or even advocate in private) on key matters, particularly those involving the use of force--for instance, "setting rules of engagement", developing an "exit strategy", and "deciding what kinds of military units (air vs. naval, heavy vs. light) will be used to accomplish all tasks." Most likely a result of the Vietnam debacle--which the military still blames on civilian micromanagement, failed strategies and "go along" military leaders--this assertiveness has already caused friction among policymakers and will continue to do so. It may lead in some instances to unprofessional behavior. Many military officers we briefed disagree with our interpretation of this finding. Ironically, many of them invoked a reading of Dereliction of Duty, H.R. McMaster's widely read and influential analysis of civil-military relations under President Johnson and Secretary McNamara, to justify a norm that military officers ought to insist that their advice be followed, and resign in protest if the senior civilian leadership seems to be pursuing a reckless policy. 14

The so-called "Republicanization of the force" finding has received considerable attention and in some cases has been misunderstood. While we discovered a remarkably high percentage of partisan association, we did not ask other questions on our survey about partisanship and therefore have no systematic evidence of a correlation between party identification and intensity of partisan activity. But there is anecdotal evidence that the old taboos are weakening: senior officers, for example, have identified their party affiliation in talks with junior subordinates or written letters to the editor critiquing one party or another. To dismiss this partisan gap with the explanation that the military is simply "identifying with the GOP out of self-interest" is to miss the point entirely. Developing a partisan identity harms the U.S. military and national defense. Viewed as "just another interest group the armed forces would lose public and financial support. Uniformed advice would be less trusted by the civilian leade rship, and, eventually, military professionalism would deteriorate.

Another of our findings is that the presence of veterans in the national political elite has a profound effect on the use of force in American foreign policy. At least since 1816, the greater the presence of veterans in this elite, the less likely the United States has been to initiate the use of force in the international arena. 15 This effect is statistically stronger than many other factors known to influence the use of force. The trend of declining veterans in the national political elite suggests, all other things being equal, a continuing high rate of military involvement in conflicts in the coming years.

Finally, the notion that the American public is unusually casualty shy--widely believed by policymakers, civilian elites and military officers--is sheer myth. The American public will accept casualties if they are deemed necessary to accomplish a mission that has its support. Concerning the constabulary interventions that have become a staple of the post-Cold War era, the public is much more accepting of casualties than the military officers we surveyed. 16 The military's casualty aversion is not a mere expression of self-preservation, but is more likely grounded in a lack of confidence in the political leadership, or a belief by senior officers that casualties will spell failure no matter what the outcome of the operation.

Implications

THREE MAIN critiques have been offered by those who think that the civil-military gap is much ado about nothing. First, divides of this sort have been around since the beginning of the Republic. Second, the principal challenges facing national security today are recruiting, retention, modernization, organization, and the growing mismatch between military missions and the resources devoted to defense--none of which is chiefly caused by this gap. Third, such divergences do not really matter because, at the highest policy levels, civilian and military elites have "fused"--that is, suppressed their differences to cooperate and work together amicably. 17

But the gap and the tensions related to it are real, and they may have serious and lasting consequences for U.S. national security--consequences that could shackle future administrations. To begin with, the post-Cold War era is the first period in American history in which a large professional military has been maintained in peacetime. The lack of an urgent and immediate threat to the nation's existence, of the kind that during the Cold War forced military and civilian elites to reconcile their differences, may now foster a much higher level of civil-military conflict. 18 And if, as we foresee, support for the armed forces and understanding of their needs diminish, they will be less capable and effective.

Then, too, while the gap is not the principal cause of recruiting and retention problems, it is likely to exacerbate them in the future. The public's respect and admiration for the military no longer translates into a willingness to join the armed forces. The narrowing of personal connections to the military means that recruiters today must persuade doubtful prospects with less help from family and friends who have served themselves. Moreover, since expressions of support for the armed forces derive partly from personal connections to them, the reservoir of public confidence may shrink as the war generations die off.

THREE MAIN critiques have been offered by those who think that the civil-military gap is much ado about nothing. First, divides of this sort have been around since the beginning of the Republic. Second, the principal challenges facing national security today are recruiting, retention, modernization, organization, and the growing mismatch between military missions and the resources devoted to defense--none of which is chiefly caused by this gap. Third, such divergences do not really matter because, at the highest policy levels, civilian and military elites have "fused"--that is, suppressed their differences to cooperate and work together amicably. 17

But the gap and the tensions related to it are real, and they may have serious and lasting consequences for U.S. national security--consequences that could shackle future administrations. To begin with, the post-Cold War era is the first period in American history in which a large professional military has been maintained in peacetime. The lack of an urgent and immediate threat to the nation's existence, of the kind that during the Cold War forced military and civilian elites to reconcile their differences, may now foster a much higher level of civil-military conflict. 18 And if, as we foresee, support for the armed forces and understanding of their needs diminish, they will be less capable and effective.

Then, too, while the gap is not the principal cause of recruiting and retention problems, it is likely to exacerbate them in the future. The public's respect and admiration for the military no longer translates into a willingness to join the armed forces. The narrowing of personal connections to the military means that recruiters today must persuade doubtful prospects with less help from family and friends who have served themselves. Moreover, since expressions of support for the armed forces derive partly from personal connections to them, the reservoir of public confidence may shrink as the war generations die off.

Finally, the fusion between civilian and soldier at the most senior policymaking levels will not compensate for the distrust of civilians expressed in the lower ranks of the services. In fact, the divergence of opinion between the senior and junior ranks has created a troubling divide within the officer corps itself. In suggesting that the military has a responsibility not merely to advise but to insist on policy, field grade officers believe that their leaders, under certain circumstances, should resist civilian direction or resign in protest. In our follow-on exchanges with hundreds of military officers, a two-part rationale has been offered: civilian leaders are increasingly ignorant about military matters and so cannot be trusted to make wise decisions; and, in any case, the greatest disasters in U.S. history (Vietnam being the exemplar) could have been averted had senior officers spoken out against misguided, even duplicitous, politicians. 19 Mid-level officers who endorse this thesis express frustrat ion with their senior leaders for not resisting more vigorously political pressure and perceived civilian mismanagement. Many complain about readiness, gender integration and declining standards of discipline and training. Nearly half of the officers we surveyed said they would leave the service if "senior uniformed leadership [did] not stand up for what is right in military policy." 20

The implications for civil-military cooperation, civilian control and indeed American democracy are profound. The senior-most military officers we briefed understand that civil-military relations in a democracy do not and cannot operate this way. "The mid-level officers seem to think", one told us, "that we can insists on things in the Oval Office. That is not how it works at that level." The military advises and even advocates strongly in private, but, once a decision is made, its duty is to execute official policy. In the U.S. military there is no tradition of resignation in protest of dubious or unwise policies. In fact, the American military rejected individual and mass resignation--which can be indistinguishable from mutiny--at Newburgh, New York in 1783 when dissident officers tried to sway the army to march on Congress or go on strike, and were only dissuaded by a dramatic confrontation with their commander, George Washington. Union officers could not say in 1862, "We signed on to save the Union, not to free the slaves; we quit." George C. Marshall did not consider resigning in 1942 over the decision to invade North Africa, which he opposed. Resignation accompanied by protest undermines civilian control by giving a whip to the military ("do it our way or else")--and, paradoxically, leads to an increase in the politicization of the force. For if civilians fear a resignation in the event of a serious policy dispute, they will vet the military leadership for pliability and compliance and promote only "yes-men."

To address these troubling trends, the Department of Defense must undertake a series of initiatives to improve civilian understanding of military affairs. Secretary of Defense Cohen's recent "Public Outreach Initiative" web site is a good but modest step. The Marine Corps' new "One Year Out" program, which places promising officers in civilian work places, should be expanded to more officers and broadened to the other services. ROTC must be expanded without regard to "yield" until such time as the entire officer accession process can be revised. Congress should fund expanded outreach to the media and community leaders through such programs as the Joint Civilian Orientation Course and through cooperation with Hollywood. Tinkering with the civilian side will fail, however, unless accompanied by change on the military side, and the place to begin is officer education. Civil-military relations need thorough coverage at every level, from Academy and ROTC through Staff and War College and flag officer short courses.

For the longer term, systemic change will be needed, particularly a review from the ground up of the military and civilian personnel systems in order to assure the quantity and quality of people in national defense. The way we recruit, promote and manage the precious human resources of the armed forces has changed remarkably little over the last half century, and the system has in any event been a response to two world wars and the Cold War--an industrial age system now trying to field an information age force. Likewise, the quality of civilian policymakers has too long been neglected. And, because national defense spending depends so heavily on professional and personal relationships among the uniformed and civilian leaderships, future administrations should institutionalize procedures for team-building between political appointees and their military counterparts and subordinates.

Ultimately, however, responsibility for the relationship, as with everything else in military affairs, lies with civilians: partly Congress, but especially the commander-in-chief. In the upcoming presidential election, the American public should judge its politicians accordingly--and in the coming years hold them accountable for their stewardship of the nation's security.

1 For greater detail on the project, see our web site, www.poli.duke.edu/civmil.

2 Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957); Janowitz, The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960).

3 Ole R. Hoisti, "A Widening Gap Between the U.S. Military and Civilian Society? Some Further Evidence, 1998-99", TISS project paper; James Davis, "The Brass and the Mass", TISS project paper.

4 Laura Miller and John Allen Williams, "Combat Effectiveness vs. Civil Rights?", TISS project paper.

5 Ole R. Holsti, "A Widening Gap Between the U.S. Military and Civilian Society? Some Evidence, 1976-1996", International Security (Winter 1998/99), p. 11; Hoisti, "A Widening Gap", TlSS project paper.

6 Krista Wiegand and David Paletz, "The Elite Media and the Military-Civilian Culture Gap", TISS project paper.

7 Howard Harper, "Reaching and Reflecting Audiences in Fiction and Film", TISS project paper.

8 Michael Desch, "Explaining the Gap", TISS project paper; David Segal et al., "Attitudes of Entry-Level Enlisted Personnel", TISS project paper.

9 Don M. Snider et al., "The Influence of Professional Military Education", TISS project paper; Judith Stiehm, "Civil-Military Relations in War College Curricula", TISS project paper.

10 Benjamin Fordham, "The Civil-Military Gap and Peacetime Military Policy", TISS project paper.

11 Paul Gronke and Peter Feaver, "Uncertain Confidence", TISS project paper.

12 William Bianco with Jamie Markham, "Vanishing Veterans", TISS project paper.

13 James Burk, "The Military's Presence in American Society, 1950-2000", TISS project paper.

14 The book argues that the civilians lied to the service Chiefs and misrepresented their views to Congress and the public--and the Chiefs went along with it, thus contributing to a disastrous military strategy. Officers interpret the book as saying that the Chiefs ought to have resisted the strategy and to have resigned over it--a rendering congruent with the "received wisdom" in the officer corps for the last quarter century. According to the author, the book does not argue that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) should have insisted that the administration follow its advice, but, rather, that the JCS failed to give its best military advice to the national command authority. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chief of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (New York: HarperCollins, 1997).

15 Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi, "Civilian Hawks and Military Doves", TISS project paper

16 Feaver and Gelpi, "The Civil-Military Gap and Casualty Aversion", TISS project paper; Cori Dauber, "The Role of Visual Imagery in Casualty Shyness", TISS project paper.

17 David W. Tarr and Peter J. Roman, "The Military Leadership, Professionalism, and the Policy-Making Process", TISS project paper.

18 Russell F. Weigley, "The American Civil-Military Gap", TISS project paper.

19 In contrast, Eliot Cohen has argued that the success of democracies at war has involved effective questioning, oversight and on occasion intervention by civilian leaders into the technical aspects of military affairs. Cohen, "The Unequal Dialogue", TISS project paper.

20 This is much higher than the opposition expressed with regard to other hot-button issues about which officers have strong views: slightly more than a quarter said they would leave if "homosexuals were allowed to serve openly in the military", and only 6 percent said they would leave if "women were allowed to serve in ground combat units."

Peter D. Feaver is associate professor of political science at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

Richard H. Kohn is professor of history and chair of the Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The authors are editors of the forthcoming volume, Soldiers and Civilians: The Gap Between the Military and American Society and What it Means for National Security (MIT Press), in which some of the studies mentioned in this article will appear.

Essay Types: Essay