SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has a solution to bridging the growing civilian-military divide in America today: Start being nicer to everyone.

“If we can create a society where respect and friendliness is the passport that we all have when we meet each other … then the military, who literally will go in harm’s way for us, will not seem alien anymore,” Mattis said at the Reagan National Defense Forum here on Saturday. “They’ll seem like your own brothers and sisters.”

Mattis comments came at the end of his keynote address at the annual event, designed to bring the country’s defense policy planners and national security analysts together for a day of debate over the future of the military.

Asked whether he is concerned that only a small fraction of American society has shouldered the burden of the recent wars, Mattis said the disconnect between the military and civilians who never served has been a lingering issue since the start of the all-volunteer force in the 1970s.

“We asked then would it be good for the republic, would it divorce us from the body politic,” he said. “Would people make decisions quite smug in the fact that their family would not be in harm’s way. We’ve got to consider that. We can’t hide from that elephant in the room.”

But Mattis said he believes solving that gap lies less in educating the public about the armed forces and more in making all Americans better citizens.

“We better all go back to finding a way to embrace one another,” he said. “And the military, we’re not that special. We’re simply patriots who decide this is how we pay our dues.”

Referencing the partisan divide in national debate on Sunday, Mattis noted that “even if we have very different ideas on how we take the country forward, we probably don’t have big differences on where we want to go.” He said he thinks a return to civility will also mean more public reflection on the role and importance of military forces.

“The military has to remain embraced by the American people, whether you have a family member out there or not,” he said.

Visit Defense News' Reagan National Defense Forum site for full coverage of the event.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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