Civil-military relations have been a hot topic of conversation recently as President Trump named a number of retired generals (and one active duty general) to key civilian national security posts. One of those officials, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, needed a waiver from Congress to become secretary of defense due to a law requiring a seven-year waiting period before retired officers can take the position. While the role of generals in policymaking is important, it is also intimately connected to the relationship between the U.S. military and American society.
A fascinating essay on the relationship between Germany’s military and German society might provide some insight into America’s civil-military “gap.” The essay, by Mario Schulz of the Global Policy Institute in Berlin and published last week at War on the Rocks, explores the rise of neo-Nazi groups in the German Bundeswehr. Schulz, who previously served in the Bundeswehr before leaving last year as a private first class, argues that the large gap between German society and its military has created space for far right groups, and increased nostalgia for the martial glory of Nazi Germany’s Wermacht. Citing political scientist Herfried Munkler’s description of Germany as a “post-heroic society” Schultz writes, “Many Germans harbor a fundamental discomfort with military values, such as discipline, order, obedience, and ultimately heroism—the preparedness to give one’s life of one’s society.” He continues:
Such discomfort is characteristic of what the political scientist Herfried Münkler terms Germany’s “post-heroic society,” which is no longer willing to valiantly march to war. Germans view this stance — according to Münkler, and rightly so — as a societal achievement: Skepticism regarding the use of force and military power certainly means progress in a society that enthusiastically threw itself into two world wars before becoming one of the world’s consolidated democracies. But whereas other modern liberal societies painlessly delegate the task of repelling attacks against their safety to “heroic communities” like the military and police, Germany’s collective traumata of imperialism and militarism make its relationship with the armed forces particularly intricate.
There are very good reasons why German society embraced “post-heroic” values in the aftermath of World War II. The influence of the German military in German society and politics predated the Nazi regime. But the influence of martial values became particularly destructive once married to Nazi ideology. Schulz suggests that it is possible German society over-corrected in response. Germany still has an active military presence; however, if Germany’s post-World War II liberal society fails to recognize the sacrifices of those who serve, someone else will. Schulz writes:
[A] failure to recognize what distinguishes professional soldiers creates a dangerous void, especially for recruits in search of structures that do not disparage their decision to join the military. It is somberly ironic that an anti-fascist rejection of heroism and sacrifice leaves the field open to those who propagate right-wing ideology, glorify violence, and praise the “soldierly pride” of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Only when liberal society recognizes such values as a valid motivation for recruits to enlist — and only if it provides the backing these recruits need to reflect their identity as German soldiers — can it ask them to give their lives. For post-heroic society, it may provide some comfort to realize that psychologists have long confirmed what soldiers say: Once in combat, they fight primarily for those at their side. Indeed, in the Hindu Kush, political abstractions such as dying for one’s country are a secondary concern.
The United States has never experienced a societal trauma similar to the one from which modern day Germany emerged. Moreover, alarmists have a tendency to overstate the level of “crisis” in American civil-military relations at any given time. Yet that does not mean there are not issues of concern among Americans who value a liberal society. In particular, a growing gap between the U.S. military and the society it serves provides a political opening for those who wish to define the terms of the debate about what it means to support the military, and how it should be used.
The percentage of the U.S. population that serves in the military continues to shrink. The U.S. military represents less than one percent of the American population. Yet the military is one of the few remaining institutions in the United States that maintains a positive public image. A 2016 Pew study found that more Americans trust the military “a great deal” than groups such as scientists, teachers, religious, leaders, and the media. As the figure below shows, the amount of trust in the military dwarfs that of the elected officials who are supposed to oversee it.
At a daylong conference on civil-military relations in May, organized by Kathleen Hicks and Alice Friend Hunt of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of the most persistent themes was how the military was revered by society, but not understood by it. Americans want to show appreciation for the sacrifices that so few among them personally make. But because so few individuals have direct contact with members of the military, there exists a general lack of knowledge and understanding with regard to why the public ought to appreciate these sacrifices, and how best to do it. Hicks and Hunt rightly note in a recent op-ed discussing the conference they hosted:
The military’s place in our democracy must ultimately be maintained by citizens complementing their deep respect for the military with a healthy skepticism of its suitability to domestic and global politics and grand strategy. One way to develop this critical eye is to help Americans see soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines as people, rather than superheroes.
But because most Americans only see the military at a distance, it is unclear how to transform unquestioning reverence into a deep respect, coupled with healthy skepticism. Moreover, the gap between the U.S. military and American society is likely to continue growing. This gap has existed in some form since the shift to the all-volunteer force and the end of the Cold War, with changes in military technology and shifts in demographics exacerbating existing trends.
In an excellent paper, Amy Schafer of the Center for a New American Security explained how these demographic trends are not just leading to a force that is more regionally centered; Schafer also finds that those who choose to serve now frequently come from military families. While the children of military personnel bring a number of advantages with them to military service, there are a number of downsides as well. Of the relationship between the military and society, and the implications of the trends moving toward civilian control of the military, Schafer writes:
There is also a risk that generational service leads to an attitude of elitism among the military. Beyond a service members’ sense of “otherness” in relation to society, an attitude of superiority may emerge. Erosion in civil-military relations may occur from the military side, and a sense of superiority derived from this feeling of otherness may pose a genuine challenge to the principles of civilian control. Similarly, a more pronounced sense of grievance would pose significant concerns for the role of the military and broader norms of civilian control.
Lack of societal knowledge about the military—paired with an increasing reverence for it—and the increasing isolation of those service-members from the rest of society, is a dangerous combination in a liberal society. It provides space for a continually smaller segment of society to determine what it means to be “pro-military.” Since few Americans want to be seen as “anti-military,” those defining the terms of the debate wield a tremendous amount of political power. That shift in political power is problematic by itself. With a president who has continually shown his willingness to personalize the military, the danger is magnified.
There is no easy way to address this problem. It is unlikely the military will ever grow to such a point in which the gap between those who serve and the rest of society narrows drastically. And that is a good thing. The military does not want a conscript force, for just as the civil-military gap causes problems, an over-militarized society would be worse. So while there is not yet a need to panic over a civil-military crisis, current trends suggest the time to begin addressing these problems is now. Just as Schulz argued that the German people need to think about how a liberal society can still embrace the heroic values that animate military service, so too do the American people need to embrace a more realistic way of appreciating the U.S. military.