The military-civilian 'disconnect'
Spouses of service members are badly stressed from years of long deployments — so stressed that some have taken their own lives. Children who’ve had a parent away at war for almost their entire conscious lives are leaving home to go off to college. And the troops themselves continue to struggle with substance abuse, post-traumatic stress, and devastating physical and mental wounds.
Some of Washington’s top national security leaders are worried that Americans don’t know — or worse, don’t care.
Top Defense Department officials and other leaders began talking quietly last year about a “gap” or “split” between the military and the general population. But in recent weeks, they’ve been expressing those concerns more often and more boldly.
Former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who lost his seat in Congress in November, warned early this month that “those who protect us are psychologically divorced from those who are being protected.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told House lawmakers on Wednesday that there’s a “growing disconnect between the American people and the military.” The public knows generically that their troops are at war, but “the day to day connections are less than they used to be, the depth and breadth of who we are and what we’re doing, isn’t there.”
It’s not a recruiting problem: All four services continue to hit or exceed their goals each year. It’s a perception problem: The wars, the military and its sacrifices are just not on most Americans’ minds, many top commanders and officials believe.
How could the U.S. military fight for almost a decade and yet drift away from — not closer toward — the public consciousness? And just how divorced from the realities of today’s military is the general public?
A smaller military, one that depends less on junior newcomers than on highly trained, professional volunteers, means fewer Americans have a diminishing number of relatives or friends who serve, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said. And even though, by one measure, American troops have now been fighting in Afghanistan longer than they did in Vietnam, today’s anti-war movement is much smaller and less visible, perhaps in part because young people don’t have to worry about being drafted.
Plus, there are technological factors: The military has become so good at protecting and keeping alive its troops that many more of them can make multiple deployments than ever before, Mullen said in a Feb. 7 speech. Thanks to today’s advanced, protected vehicles, he said, some 98 percent of troops who survive roadside bomb attacks in Afghanistan return to battle . State-of-the-art first aid and medical care also have saved the lives of many troops whose wounds might have killed them in earlier conflicts. Thus, even though, with 711 American losses, last year was the deadliest for American troops since the beginning of the Afghanistan war, it might have been twice or three times worse in the eras of Vietnam or Korea — and as such, would have made a bigger impression on average Americans.
Americans also take cues from political leaders, who have mostly chosen not to discuss Iraq and Afghanistan over the past several months, except for occasional sessions such as last week’s congressional hearings on the defense budget. The 2010 midterm elections passed with almost no debate on Iraq or Afghanistan. According to an analysis by Time magazine, President Barack Obama used the fewest words on national security in last month’s State of the Union address since President George W. Bush’s first such speech in 2001.
It’s tough to quantify just how “disconnected” Americans are, because the issue can depend on something as simple as a matter of distance — in a city like San Diego, for example, with several installations and heavy economic dependence on the military, people may be more aware about the toll of the wars than in, say, Los Angeles, which has a much smaller military presence.
To be sure, poll after poll shows that even as popular support wavers for the wars, Americans consistently say they “support the troops,” and in a Rasmussen poll released earlier this month, 65 percent of voters surveyed said they believe the U.S. military is the most powerful in the world.
The first living Medal of Honor recipient of the 21st century, Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta, was honored at the Super Bowl, and it seems as though every big-league sporting event now includes a mandatory ovation for a featured group of returning troops.
But Mullen and others have said this is, at best, a superficial acknowledgment. “We … can’t kid ourselves,” he said in a speech last year. “As much as our young men and women appreciate the gestures of kindness we see today in tribute to our military and our veterans, a free ticket to a football game or a pat on the back will not solve their problems.”
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of the drift. Hollywood movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tend to tank at the box office. When the Navy created its ad campaign, “America’s Navy: A Global Force For Good,” one of its top goals was informing young people that America still had a Navy. And fewer young people than ever, in today’s more sedentary generation, have what it takes to even consider joining the force: A December report by DOD found that nearly a quarter of applicants couldn’t pass the exam, and earlier studies have said some 75 percent of recruit-age Americans are ineligible to join the military because they aren’t fit enough or have had problems with crime and drugs.
By comparison, not only did many more Americans serve in earlier eras, their idols did, too. When Gates gave his first major speech on the “split” in September, he cited the examples of Elvis Presley and Willie Mays, both of whom took a break from their careers to serve in the Army. Baseball fans lament that Red Sox great Ted Williams may have missed what could have been his most productive slugging years because of his service in World War II and Korea.
Gates, Mullen and others usually conclude their warnings about the civil-military divide by listing ways they hope Americans will help the 1 million or so troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, Mullen wants government and private-sector employers to give preference, or at least an equal shot, to veterans looking for jobs. He has also warned that Americans must be prepared for decades’ worth of support to keep today’s veterans from becoming homeless in the numbers that the military saw after Vietnam.
And now that the Pentagon is in the midst of repealing its ban on open service by gays and lesbians, President Barack Obama has called on elite colleges to restore their Reserve Officer Training Corps programs and to again admit military recruiters, so that Ivy League students may take a bigger share of military service.
Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, also have become involved in a public awareness campaign for troops’ families, which has included Michelle Obama’s visits to Fort Jackson, S.C., and to the Oprah Winfrey show. Mullen praised that kind of high-level attention, which he said might be the key to binding Americans back to their troops.
“It’s one thing for the chairman and his wife to do it,” he said, referring to himself. “It’s a whole ‘nother level for the president and first lady to do this … this issue of connecting America with the realities of what we’ve been through.”