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Is the Growing Civilian-Military Divide Good for America?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard T. Moore
February 26, 2020

“The all-volunteer force of the United States military has produced a military society and culture that is becoming increasingly detached from the greater United States’ society that it is sworn to protect. This military–civilian gap is a threat to the United States in that it is potentially producing a military society that deems itself morally superior to civilian society. Conversely, the military–civilian gap is also producing a civilian population governed by civilian leaders that have an inadequate understanding of military force, its limitations, and its true costs in lives and treasure in providing for the security of the nation. Taken to its extreme, the military–civilian gap can result in a military that is contemptuous of the greater American society and an American public that is so disconnected from the military class that it fails to value or question the employment of American military forces,” Colonel Ralph G. Higgins III, wrote in the introduction to his Master’s thesis for the U. S. Army War College in March 2012.

The divide is not getting smaller today.

Colonel Higgins presents a serious concern for a democracy founded on civilian control of the military. After most wars in which America was involved, most veterans returned to civilian status with an appreciation of the sacrifice needed to maintain our democracy. With many veterans and potential draftees, military service and America’s role in the world were very much on the minds of a significant percentage of citizens. 

“Today, a widening military-civilian divide increasingly impacts our ability to effectively recruit and sustain the force. This disconnect is characterized by misperceptions, a lack of knowledge and an inability to identify with those who serve. It threatens our ability to recruit the number of quality youth with the needed skill sets to maintain our advantage over any near-peer competitor,” Anthony M. Kurta, the Pentagon’s top personnel official told the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service in May, 2019.   

Undersecretary Kurta went on to explain the Civilian-Military Divide was getting worse because of a smaller proportion of citizens serving in the military, fewer veterans in the population as a whole and a declining number of policymakers at all levels of government with any connection to the military. “Combined, these factors have led to a youth market which is less interested in the military and does not appreciate the social worth or intrinsically-motivating elements of military service,” he said.

“Fewer than one-third of all young Americans meet the qualifications for serving in the military. Those who don’t qualify lack enough formal education; they have criminal records; they’re too overweight… As a result, the nation’s most expensive and trusted institution is remote from the population that provides the people and money essential to its existence,” the RAND Corporation concluded in a 2019 report. “Such an approach is inconsistent with a vibrant democracy.” 

One could also argue that issues of poor educational attainment, declining societal values and health concerns in such a large cohort of young Americans will impact the vitality of the economy in future years as well. The distance between the patriotism of the ballpark and the patriotism of the battlefield is widening in ways that make it harder for Americans to hold on to one another and a shared concept of country. Nowhere is it greater than between the public and those who’ve lived their lives inside—and then in the shadow of—the war on terror.

According to research conducted before and after the Paris attacks by the Harvard Institute of Politics, a full 60% of millennials (adults between 18 and 29 years old) now support the use of ground troops in combating the Islamic State. Yet when asked if they would be willing to serve in the armed forces, only 15% conveyed any willingness at all to do so.

“The facts are the millennial generation is less involved, less interested and less engaged than members of Generation X or Baby Boomers. When compared to those generations, millennials are also less likely to talk about politics, rate it as a top interest or step into a voting booth,” according to Pew Research Center. This apparent lack of civic responsibility, which includes service to a greater cause than oneself, should concern Americans who worry about the future of democracy.

An often-repeated quote attributed (perhaps, mis-attributed) to the great 18th century historian, Edward Gibbons, about the fall of the earliest democracy offers a chilling prediction on the fate of a society so disconnected from the basic formula for survival. He’s alleged to have opined of the Athenians, “In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all—security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”


Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as being chosen as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member.  His email address is: [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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