Like many other Americans, I was transfixed by the United States’ confrontation with Iran last month. During the crisis, Google searches about the U.S. military and the draft skyrocketed, as we wondered how an international conflict would affect our own lives and those of our friends and loved ones. But after the dust settled, public interest died away as quickly as it had arisen. This isn’t a new pattern. The American public tends to only pay close attention to military matters during moments of crisis. In fact, the United States suffers from a real and growing civil-military divide, where civilians ignore military matters, and the military acts increasingly without civilian engagement.
This divide taints both civilian and military life in ways that are not always obvious. The civil-military divide dates back to 1973, with the end of the draft after the Vietnam War. Since then, the U.S. military has recruited from very specific segments of the population. A recent New York Times study found that 79 percent of American military recruits have an immediate family member who served in the military, despite the fact that only about 7 percent of the entire population has served. In other words, a majority of people in the armed forces come from a relatively small number of families. The division between military and non-military families makes the military seem like an enclosed and insular profession to those unfamiliar with it. Unsurprisingly, when people don’t have any family or friends in the military, they place less importance on military issues. American voters consistently rank foreign policy and military a airs as signi cantly lower priority than other political issues.
Only in crises like the confrontation with Iran do people once again start to pay attention and make their will known. But if Americans had cared more about military matters from the start, they might have prevented the whole crisis in the first place.
Because of the civil-military divide, civilians don’t serve as an effective check to the military action. A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that Americans disapprove of the war in Afghanistan at least as much as they opposed the infamous Vietnam War. And yet, the country has seen nothing remotely resembling the widespread demonstrations seen during Vietnam. Without the American people taking a strong stance on such issues, military and government officials have no incentive to change their policy or turn away from precedent. As a result, operations like the war in Afghanistan gain an unstoppable momentum, so we lose more lives and dollars in the Middle East every year.
Civilian apathy does more than permit bad decisions. It also alienates veterans and makes a post-military career more difficult. Stereotypes about unstable and crazed veterans are commonplace in movies and TV. But when many Americans don’t interact with veterans in the real world, these stereotypes are hard to dispel. Studies have consistently shown that employers vastly overestimate the likelihood of veterans to have mental illnesses and consequently are less likely to hire quali ed veterans. Veterans themselves are far from ignorant about the stigma against them — 82 percent of recent veterans reported that they felt civilians didn’t understand them, according to a 2019 Blue Star Families survey.
In a way, Amherst College is the poster child for the country’s civil-military gap. In 2017, only five students at Amherst had served in the armed forces. Thanks to the college’s partnerships with programs like Service to School, a nonprofit that offers veterans college application counseling, that number has gone up to 17. Yet, other numbers are less promising. Not a single Amherst student is currently enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (partly because interested recruits have to participate in the program at the University of Massachusetts), and of the more than 5,000 students who graduated from Amherst in the past ten years, only 10 have been involved with the U.S. military.
It’s not hard to see the reason for the college’s civil-military divide. Many Amherst students have legitimate issues with the military’s practices, and the freedom and intellectual diversity of Amherst’s liberal arts education stands dramatically opposed to the focused and disciplined military life. But such distance from the experiences of millions of veterans and soldiers also diminishes the college’s ability to provide a diverse and useful educational experience.
I’m not proposing that Amherst students all join the military. But we would do well to develop more of a personal stake in the armed forces. Fortunately, individuals can gain a connection to the military beyond just the fear of getting drafted, even at a place like Amherst.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve reached out to some of the student-veterans on campus and talked to them about the civil-military divide at Amherst. For the most part, they agreed that it was a major problem. Most Amherst students are from an elite privileged background, one veteran told me, so they have no stake in caring about the military.
When I talked to Amherst veterans, I realized how present the civil-military divide has been in my own college experience. I’d expected to hear veterans talk about difficulties adapting to college and civilian life, but most of them de-emphasized the transition. One veteran told me that while being a soldier was one part of their life, they now think of themselves as an Amherst student. Everyone I talked to said that the structured, institutionalized college lifestyle has many similarities to military life, though they assured me that the food is better in the military.
Amherst students have every right to criticize the U.S. military. Last semester, I wrote an article for The Student castigating American policy in the Middle East. But you don’t have to agree with American foreign policy to care about the people who wear uniforms. When people know and care about the individuals involved in the military, they are far more likely to raise their voices about the organization’s problems, and their criticisms become more informed.
That said, politics aren’t the only reason to pay attention to soldiers’ experiences. Soldiers and veterans represent a huge and often misunderstood section of the population, one that can inspire us, caution us and teach us. The armed forces might seem invisible at Amherst, but people with military ties may be no further from you than the next Val table.