I am not a member of the military, nor am I a member of academia. I do not have a formal relationship with the military. I was, however, a military spouse for nearly 14 years, and many family members and friends have served. None of this qualifies me to speak of the civilian-military relationship in this country. What does allow me to speak my mind on military-civilian issues is that I am a citizen, and it is my right.
I frequently hear about the need to bridge the gap in the relationship. I am not sure I would say the relationship is broken, but it is in need of some sort of therapy. If it were a couple, one would be almost slavishly devoted to the point of obsession, while the other can be narcissistic. A broad over-generalization, but there are more than enough examples to show there is some truth.
As a whole, civilians tend to speak of military members as a singular entity: The Troops™. Members of the military are not the Borg, they have not assimilated. They are Soldiers and Airmen, Marines and Sailors. And they all are individuals (despite the persistent stereotype of having been brainwashed). Their reasons for joining are as varied as the individuals who join, be it as a career or as a stepping stone between school and the rest of their lives, or the lauded service to one’s country.
Members of the military are thought to be Conservative or Republican-leaning from working class backgrounds. In reality, they come from all economic backgrounds, and made up of everyone from “bleeding heart liberals” to “right-wing nut jobs.” Most of the time it’s somewhere in the middle. The Right does not have a monopoly on the military. Unfortunately, it’s become more of a stranglehold. It doesn’t allow for all voices to be heard. More liberal members are sometimes shunned as not being a real patriot (whatever that means).
Support for The Troops™ has somehow turned in to a commodity. Military Appreciation Nights are regular occurrences at sporting events, often in conjunction with Department of Defense-funded promotions. The Troops™ and their likeness is used in advertisements, enticement for business, and as political pawns. “My candidate supports The Troops™ more than your candidate!” as if support has turned into a patriotic litmus test. We must support The Troops™ unconditionally or be deemed un-American. We have been conditioned to be unquestioning of anything regarding them. “Why do we have to give them a discount at Home Depot?” turns into “Why do you hate The Troops™? They are fighting for your freedom!” In another twist, people will tell you that the military deserves the discount because they are paid a pittance, and have to rely on food stamps. It is true that there are members who rely on SNAP and other programs, it is not true of the military as a whole. Some of the reasons for the reliance of assistance are the same for people not in the military. The argument can be made that they, too, need a discount at Home Depot, or even a Teachers Appreciation Night at the baseball game.
The flip side of the same coin has a group of military worshipers who may agree with some of the points I bring up, yet they still put the military members on a pedestal, treating them with a sort of adoration usually reserved for movie stars. They are like a modern version of camp followers. They fawn over all things military, these adoring fans. They support all the military causes, promote the products, and share in the commiserating. Talking the lingo and celebrating the diversity of the military doesn’t necessarily bridge the gap. In their purported support for the military, they are contributing to the divide. Elevating even their friends in the military reinforces the thought that one group of people are better than another for merely doing their job.
Then there are the members of the military who act like they should be worshiped and adored. They are “defending your freedom” and the rest of us are lesser people/Americans for not having served. We cannot be as patriotic as them. They refused to be questioned or criticized, personally or professionally. Any attempt to do so is shut down with “but our sacrifice!” “respect!” “you have no right, you’re not one of us!” and of course “defending your freedoms.” They say their personal sacrifices and deaths mean more than those of other Americans. This cheapens the deaths of other Americans, regardless of the circumstance of death. The man who lost his wife early due to illness does not hurt less than the woman who lost her husband in Iraq. His life did not mean more than hers. The divide remains as long as they refuse to help civilians understand their sacrifices, to help civilians understand how their actions are defending our freedoms, or refuse to acknowledge the sacrifice of others.
Both civilians and military members alike need to stop treating the military, and the people who make it up, as a higher class. Closing the divide starts small. Military and civilians academics and lay people have devoted countless hours to the subject. The answer may lie with the every day person. A member of the military – as the military is an all-volunteer force – is just another member of society with a job. Their job, like many others, carries a risk of injury or death. They have the same personal struggles as anyone. The constant idolization of the military keeps people from looking to close, such as questioning conflicts or leadership, or exposing problems that military members face within their community. How is it beneficial that we are so in awe of a general that we refuse to wonder if his policies are doing more harm than good? How are we a better nation if we elevate one group of people to the point of blinding ourselves to the good that “everyday” people are doing in their own communities?
The national culture of Us vs Them will take a long time to change – and let’s be honest, some minds will never change – but we can narrow the divide.
Of course, how to convince anyone to change…