One portion of Gen Kelly’s remarks yesterday have gotten some notice, but I think it is important to highlight them and discuss their import.
Josh Marshall identified this portion of Gen Kelly’s remarks as specifically worrisome:
We don’t look down upon those of you who that haven’t served. In fact, in a way we’re a little bit sorry because you’ll have never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kinds of things our service men and women do — not for any other reason than they love this country. So just think of that.
Marshall goes on to provide his interpretation of this portion of Gen Kelly’s statement:
Kelly made a similar point when he refused to take questions from any reporter who was not either from a Gold Star family themselves or personally knew someone who was. You may not even deserve your civic freedoms, the right to talk, to ask question, unless you are near to military sacrifice.
On the other side of the political spectrum, David Frum made a similar observation.
Rematching Kelly, my perception – maybe wrong – is not a defense of Trump but disaffection from civilian culture. Which is ominous too https://t.co/wS5vksuT6n
— David Frum (@davidfrum) October 19, 2017
And despite all the correct concern and condemnation over further upsetting a grieving family, as well as the subsequent disparagement of a member of the House of Representatives, which when debunked, was doubled down on, there is a larger issue buried in all the noise, smoke, and fire: the civilian-military divide.
GEN Dempsey, when he was the Commanding General of Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) commissioned a study of the Army as profession after a decade of war. GEN Dempsey was concerned, as were a number of subject matter experts in military professional ethics, that after a decade of persistent conflict the profession was at risk of being degraded by the corrosive effects of war. This project became known as the US Army Profession of Arms Study*. A white paper was compiled and issued, followed up by a lot of staff work, and then the final report. The Profession of Arms is defined as:
The Army is an American Profession of Arms, a vocation comprised of experts certified in the ethical application of land combat power, serving under civilian authority, entrusted to defend the Constitution and the rights and interests of the American people.
In the “Our Ethic” section of the study is the following description (emphasis mine):
The nature of military professional ethics. As the Army moves forward into future conflict, it will continue to rely on an all volunteer force. The framework of the Army Ethic must provide a consistent theory of military ethics that grounds the martial virtues in more general moral concepts and lessens any gap between the Army and the society it serves and which provides its recruits.
Gen Kelly’s unfortunate remarks about service and how those who have served view those who haven’t run counter to how the Profession of Arms defines its own professional ethic. More importantly it provides a flashing warning sign of the potential for a civilian-military divide that separates those who have chosen to join the All Volunteer Force (for whatever reason) and those who haven’t. Including those who have undertaken other forms of public service. While we’ve seen this type of divide emphasized in the discussion over policing and the use of force by law enforcement, Gen Kelly’s statements yesterday were, perhaps, the most explicit example of the civilian-military divide I’ve seen or heard in the past decade.
One of the most important discussions we had in the my seminar’s seminar room at USAWC, which we also engaged in within the USAWC team assigned to work on the Profession of Arms study, was the discussion of how an All Volunteer Force during a time of extended war and conflict relates to the vastly larger society of civilians. There was great concern that if a gap was allowed to develop, grow, and harden that the All Volunteer Force, especially those who make a career of their military service, will grow so estranged from the rest of American society as to not just become a distinct sub-culture, but one that threatens the very state and society it is sworn to defend.
And this isn’t just some hyperbolic concern. We often joked that the US military is America’s largest set of centrally planned and run gated communities. While a lot of military personnel, especially as they achieve higher ranks throughout their career arc, will choose to live off post (on the economy), it is quite possible to live, work, shop, socialize, and play on post while never leaving it. While few who serve do this, there is a tendency to associate within the profession as one’s coworkers and colleagues become one’s friends through shared work and experiences. Including combat.
This is also not a recent or new concern. In 2011 Time dedicated its cover and the bulk of an issue to the civilian-military divide.
The U.S. military and American society are drifting apart. It’s tough inside the civilian world to discern the drift. But troops in all the military services sense it, smell it — and talk about it. So do their superiors. We have a professional military of volunteers that has been stoically at war for more than a decade. But as the wars have droned on, the troops waging them are increasingly an Army apart.
The civilian-military gap has taken on an edge recently, driven by the lack of sacrifice — either in blood or treasure — demanded of the rest of us compared to what the troops are giving.
Military leaders know the gap is widening, which leads to important questions: is this a bad thing? If it is, should we care? And if we should care, what can be done to reverse it? “I have this deep existential angst about a military organization within a democratic society that’s as isolated from the rest of that society as our military is becoming,” says Michael Desch, a political scientist and military expert at Notre Dame. “The gap can make civilian control of the military harder to achieve.”
That may be a reach, but senior officers sense the parting. “I have been struck in my travels at the lack of what I would call in-depth understanding of what we’ve been through,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Time before he retired last month after 43 years in uniform. It’s almost like the American Foreign Legion. “We come from fewer and fewer places — we’ve BRAC’ed our way out of significant portions of the country,” Mullen said, referring to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission process that has shuttered hundreds of military posts across wide swaths of the nation. “Long term, if the military drifts away from its people in this country, that is a catastrophic outcome we as a country can’t tolerate.”
Click across and read the whole thing, it is really worth the few minutes.
This has been an ugly week in the US. It started with a needless, self inflicted wound by a President who does not speak well off the cuff and does not seem able to accept responsibility or tolerate being questioned. It got uglier when the President, feeling goaded into responding, responded in a way that deepened the injury. Including to not only the bereaved family he called, but also several others. And it moved well into I cannot believe this is happening in the US in 2017 territory with Gen Kelly’s attempt at damage control.
Despite all the ugliness some good can come of the week. Gen Kelly’s remarks yesterday are a canary in the civilian-military coal mine. War is corrosive to a military and a self governing republic. It eats away morale and effectiveness. And it drives a wedge between those who have chosen to serve, or if there’s a draft those chosen to serve by the state, and the non-serving in uniform citizenry who they are protecting and defending through their service to the Constitution. If any good can come from this week, perhaps it is a renewed discussion of civilian-military relations. As well as the nature of voluntary military service in a self governing republic. And a long overdue debate about if the US is indeed facing existential threats from al Qaeda or ISIS or the DPRK or Iran, then perhaps we need to actually declare war and actually mobilize the citizenry to fight the declared war.
* I was a contributor to the Profession of Arms study as part of the USAWC team assigned to look at the strategic issues of the profession. My specific responsibilities were to assist the USAWC Team Lead with conceptualizing the cultural aspects of what a profession is, what it means to be a member of a profession and how the norms and values of a profession are transmitted, taught, and learned.