Most Americans greatly admire the military -- but they actually know almost nothing about it.
"Most people know nobody in the military," said retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis, who spent 44 years in uniform.
"There are many people who do not know if the U.S. Army has 60,000 men or 6 million. They do not have a clue about that," he said.
Mattis, the revered four-star general who headed U.S. Central Command before retiring in 2013, is the co-author of a new book, "Warriors & Citizens," that reveals ground-breaking research about the cultural gap between the military and the civilian population it serves.
Mattis, now a fellow at the Hoover Institution in California, launched a sweeping research project that surveyed thousands of Americans on their views about the military.
The results revealed a surprising level of ignorance and unfamiliarity. One in three people confessed that they had little or no familiarity with the military and simply declined to answer many questions about it. Half of all Americans cannot recall socializing with a military service member or military spouse within the past year.
When asked how many people are in the military, Americans on average guess about 6.4 million. The actual number is about 1.3 million.
Experts say that reflects the shrinking size of the military, military recruiters' heavy reliance on specific regions like the South, and the closure of many military bases during the past 20 years, which has isolated today’s troops in fewer locations.
Yet most civilians admire the military and its service members, regardless of their lack of knowledge. About 70 percent of Americans said most members of civilian society have "a great deal of respect for the military." And 85 percent said they are personally "proud of the men and women who serve in the military."
"It looks like that connection [between military and civilians] is very broad but very shallow. That was a surprise to us," said Kori Schake, who co-authored the book with Mattis. She’s a former Pentagon official who studies military issues at the Hoover Institution.
Mattis said he believes today’s civil-military relations are healthy. But he’s wary of the future, as the military continues to shrink and the gap potentially intensifies.
"I think the gap can be tolerated so long as we maintain a fundamental friendliness in America toward one another and a respect for each other," Mattis said in a recent Military Times interview.
"America is quite right to be proud of their military, but at the same time there has got to be a sense of common purpose between these two elements. If, in fact, this gap grows and we lose the sense of common purpose, then I think we have a problem," he said.
Mattis said he was concerned that "policy makers who have never served in the military" will "continue to use the military to lead social change in this country," pointing to the decision earlier this year to open all combat jobs to women.
"We are liable to find ourselves paying the cost on a battlefield that we do not want to pay. There is no God-given right to victory on the battlefield. You win that through the skill and the devotion, the valor and the ferocity of your troops. You have to be very, very careful, I think, if this gap grows, and it surely will. We have to be very careful that we do not undercut the military battlefield effectiveness with shortsighted social programs," Mattis said.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.