A Different Sort of Civil-Military Divide

Paul Dalen’s recent post about the civil-military divide, "Self-Inflicted Wounds," identified a gap characterized by political worldview. Specifically, Dalen found that, “The more conservative an officer views himself or herself, the less confidence that officer has in those outside the Army.”[1] While the implications which Dalen identified of an officer acting on such a belief are disconcerting, one would be mistaken for considering ROTC’s return to the Northeast as a cure-all for the civil-military divide. This mistake is not in thinking that recruiting more officers from the Northeast would make the military more liberal, which it would.[2] Rather, the mistake is in thinking that the civil-military divide would instantly disappear if the Officer Corps’ political views were a perfect reflection of America’s political landscape.

A belief that the military should be apolitical was one dismissed by the late Sam Sarkesian. In its place, Sarkesian proposed an equilibrium model; a model of civil-military relations in which, “the relationship between the military and the civilian is established by the proper balancing of their political powers and purposes.”[3] Given the frequency with which the Joint Chiefs are called before Congress and the range of topics on which they testify, Sarkesian’s model seems appropriate for civil-military relations in our time.[4] Sarkesian identified a number of necessary conditions for the ideal form of his model, but there are two of the utmost importance. First, “that the military profession is composed of an educated elite,” and second, that the civil and the military, “share the same values.”[5] Unfortunately, neither of these conditions are currently fulfilled and as a result America suffers from a civil-military divide.

…while West Point and its peers may offer what 1LT Ginth referred to as an, “Ivy League quality education,” they do not allow for their cadets and midshipmen to form relationships with those students actually studying in the Ivy League and its peer institutions…

Kathy Roth-Douquet and Mike Shaffer’s 2006 AWOL made the case that America’s cultural elites had abandoned the military and that America was suffering due to their absence. This case was supported by Dalen’s post about the geographic homogeneity of the Army’s Officer Corps, and it resonates with just about every American. Among the Ivy League, which is held as the standard for elite education by most everyone in America including Service Academy graduates, only Cornell University hosts all three branches of ROTC; and until recently only Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton University have offered any sort of ROTC program on their campus.[6,7] The historic lack of ROTC programs on those campuses viewed as our nation’s best has prevented the military profession to be filled with our country’s educated elite; while West Point and its peers may offer what 1LT Ginth referred to as an, “Ivy League quality education,” they do not allow for their cadets and midshipmen to form relationships with those students actually studying in the Ivy League and its peer institutions.[8] While some officers commissioned each year are drawn from the Ivy League, a 2011 op-ed estimated only about 1% of all newly commissioned officers earned their undergraduate degree at an Ivy League institution.[9] Due to the meat-grinder that is the military promotion and retention system and pure chance, it is unlikely that this 1% of a year-group will wind up in the 230 US Army generals allowed by law.[10,11]

You may be asking, “why don’t the Armed Forces just recruit more elites and be done with it?” Unfortunately, even if every military officer earned their undergraduate degree from a school with a median SAT score above 2100 the civil-military divide would still exist. The existence of the divide stems not only from the lack of elites in the military, but also from a lack of understanding between the civil and the military. As a part of my undergraduate work, I examined the views of Cornell University students, staff, faculty, and alumni on the military and found two divides between the civilians at Cornell and those Cornellians with military experience: one of values and one of understanding. The values divide was found in the importance each group placed on serving the United States; the civilian group was generally ambivalent about serving their country while the military group placed a lot of importance on such service.[12]

…the root of the understanding gap lies not with civil society, but instead with military society…

This values gap was mirrored by a gap between each group’s understanding of the military and the motivations of military recruits. Each respondent was questioned about both her possible motivations for military service as well as her understanding for why other people would join the military. The possible motivations could be most easily understood in terms of Charles Moskos’s institutional and occupational (I/O) spectra.[13] In an I/O framework, institutional motivations are those identified by values, such as a desire to serve the country, while occupational motivations are those identified by the market, such as a desire for educational benefits. The civilian group reported that they would only join the military for occupational reasons, but attributed both institutional and occupational motivations to people actually serving in the military. The military group reported both institutional and occupational motivations for their personal military service, but only attributed institutional motivations to other people in the military.[14]

Johnson awards a medal to a US soldier during a visit to Vietnam in 1966.

This difference suggested that the root of the understanding gap lies not with civil society, but instead with military society. While civilians at Cornell had a different value set than their military peers, the civilians still expressed an accurate understanding of the motivations of those in the military. On the other hand, it seems that those Cornellians with military experience failed to fully understand the motivations of their fellow service members.[15] If this is the case, then those elites in the military view the military solely in terms of the differences between the civil and the military. Such a misunderstanding is dangerous because it reinforces the idea of a separate military without recognizing the common ground between the military and the civil. How can this misunderstanding, and the civil-military divide it engenders, be prevented?

First, more elites need to be exposed to the military and more of the military needs to be exposed to elites. Commissioning more graduates from prestigious colleges and universities would do a lot to increasing this exposure, but it would not be enough. Instead, Service Academy graduates, who make up the true military elite, need to be exposed to their civilian counterparts. The Service Academies currently have exchange programs between each other, but why can’t our nation’s most promising officer candidates study at the colleges and universities which are the best in the world in their academic field?[16]

…while the military is a values-based institution, many of its members hold occupational motivations for choosing the military profession…

Second, military members need to learn to recognize that while the military is a values-based institution, many of its members hold occupational motivations for choosing the military profession. This recognition would allow the military to more fully understand itself, which would in turn allow the military to speak to its occupationally minded civilian bosses in an occupational language those bosses understand. Additionally, a more complete self-understanding could have the added benefit of helping the military to solve its apparent human resources problem.

The civil-military divide in the 21st century can be described as one between the military and the elites that govern it, and as one between those elites in uniform and those in a regular coat and tie. While increasing the number of elites in uniform will help with the first divide, it does not do much for the second. The military should not abandon its values, and in fact, I believe it should continue to be defined by them. However, if the civil-military divide is to be closed, those in the military need to realize that underneath the uniform of their values lies an occupationally minded American, who is remarkably similar to every other citizen of our great Nation.

Robert Callahan is an ROTC candidate and undergraduate student studying enlistment motivations and civil-military relations at Cornell University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of Cornell University, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Paul Dalen, Self-Inflicted Wounds, Medium, 2014. http://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2014/4/1/self-inflicted-wounds-geographic-homogeneity-in-the-us-army-officer-corps (Accessed April 3rd, 2014)

[2] An examination of ROTC cadets, currently serving officers, and veterans who were students, staff, faculty, or alumni of Cornell University in 2014 yielded an average political orientation just left of center (2.86 on a likert scale). As a note, this value was still significantly more conservative than the non-military members of the sample.

[3] Sam Sarkesian, “Military Professionalism and Civil-Military Relations in the West,” International Political Science Review (July 1981): accessed April 7th, 2014. pg. 290.

[4] <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/31/chuck-hagel-pow-mia-accounting_n_5064932.html>, <http://www.satnews.com/story.php?number=249607193>, and <http://www.af.mil/News/ArticleDisplay/tabid/223/Article/475222/air-force-leaders-lay-out-budget-priorities-concerns.aspx> offered as examples.

[5] Sarkesian, 1981. pg. 290-291.

[6] Scott Ginth, “What I Wish I Knew,” War Council (accessed April 7th, 2014). <http://www.warcouncil.org/blog/2014/4/5/what-i-wish-i-knew-from-cadet-to-lieutenant-in-afghanistan>

[7] David Eisler, “Building Bridges,” NY Times Blog: At War. March 7th, 2014 (accessed April 7th, 2014). <http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/07/building-bridges-between-the-military-and-universities/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0>

[8] Ginth. Point #7

[9] While I loathe using the Ivy League outside of its context as an athletic conference, its cultural relevance as a shorthand for prestigious, Northeastern colleges and universities justifies ignoring that impulse.

[10 Adrian Bonenberger, “Why the Army Should Fire Some Generals and Promote Some Captains,” Washington Post. February 21st, 2014. (accessed April 7th, 2014). <http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-the-army-should-fire-some-generals-and-promote-some-captains/2014/02/21/7921a234-9802-11e3-afce-3e7c922ef31e_story.html>

[11] However, it is not impossible. The Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps is currently a Cornell Alumnus. <http://www.hqmc.marines.mil/acmc/Biography/tabid/10910/Article/75287/general-john-m-paxton-jr.aspx>

[12] The exact question text was, “How important are the following to you? Serving your country.” Responses were collected using a 5 point Likert-Scale from “Very Unimportant” to “Very Important.” The civilian group had a mean score of 3.3 and the military group had a mean score of 4.5. This difference was statically significant.

[13] An overview of the I/O spectra can be found here: http://afs.sagepub.com/content/12/3/377.abstract

[14] Each group’s understanding of the military and enlistment motivations were identified using Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA). EFA is used to explore underlying trends in the data and demonstrate how those trends function.

[15] Specifically, the military subset reported a significant difference between the value they placed on being mentally challenged and how much they believed other people in the military valued it. While there were not any more significant differences, the lack of a coherent trend in how military respondents viewed other service members’ various occupational motivations suggested a deeper misunderstanding.