The Civilian-Military Divide

A few days ago, reports came out that four American soldiers had been killed in an ambush in Niger. President Donald Trump has disavowed responsibility and put the burden on the military. Niger holds one of the largest concentrations of U.S. forces in Africa, and the American military has been strengthening its presence on the continent with the goal of training local forces to help them fight extremists. According to The New York Times, the reasoning behind this is that the United States is trying to avoid larger deployments. This is all part of the Pentagon’s plan of attack on the Islamic State as it seeks new regions to strengthen itself after being driven away from Syria and Iraq.

Much of the current controversy, however, stems from the inability of American military officials to explain why it took two more days and an intense search by troops from three countries — Niger, the U.S. and France — to find the body of the fourth soldier, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, whose widow criticized Trump for struggling to remember Sgt. Johnson’s name in a condolence call. The sergeant was discovered by Nigerien troops near the ambush site. Congress is demanding answers to questions relating to the nature of the mission in this remote region of Niger that ultimately left four Americans and five Nigeriens dead. The overall lack of clarity, however, on the mission that led to this now — Congressional mystery is illustrative of our country’s growing civilian-military divide.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 75 percent of adults over the age of 50 have a close relative in the military, but just 33 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 do. The same applies to the percentage of veterans serving in Congress, which has been declining since the 1980s. In addition to these statistics, a bipartisan task force on Pentagon reform found that the “military … [is] increasingly remote from the society they protect, and each must be brought back into harmony with each other.”

The solution, however, is not to reinstate the draft. Instead, we should be thinking of ways to better connect the citizenry with the men and women that serve abroad and domestically. Not in some jingoistic “our military is the best thing in the world” sort of way, but rather in a way that enlightens both sides on the actual experiences and lives of their counterparts. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey wrote in an article published in The Washington Post in July 2013, “Together, we need to discuss who we are and what our wars mean to us … Those of us in the military share responsibility for this relationship. We should tell our stories and recognize that those who aren’t in uniform might not know what to say or ask. We also have a duty to listen. Our fellow citizens may have different perspectives that we need to hear and understand.”

This divide is troubling because a public uninformed about the activities of the military, the experiences of veterans and the overall state of American military intervention abroad can lead to a costly unmooring of U.S. armed power and an overshadowing of issues that concern those who serve.

The U.S. has been in a state of perpetual war virtually since World War II. The state of Veteran Affairs — in particular, medical services for soldiers with PTSD — is something to which lots of politicians pay lip service but rarely ever address with forceful action. With politicians and civilians becoming increasingly disconnected from the realities of military life, there is risk of military action with little accountability.

The Pentagon has stated, according to The New York Times’s editorial published last Friday, the Niger operation is non-combat, consisting mainly of train-and-assist missions. However, President Trump has decided to loosen rules on counterterrorism operations, giving more decision-making power to lower-level officers. By changing the state of engagement, more people on both sides could be at risk, and if the civilian-military divide continues on this trend with no intervention, these sorts of important issues could fall out of the public’s view.

Here at Amherst, we could do more to bring to light some of these concerns. By working together with veterans’ organizations and connecting with those who serve, each of us can work to bridge the divide between soldiers and citizens.