Commentary

Civ-mil relations are local

“Austin uses hearing to push back on civ-mil concerns”

“Biden Inherits a Challenging Civil-Military Legacy”

“The Looming Crisis in Civil-Military Relations”

The headlines of the day make it clear that more is being written about the proper relationship between the military and its civilian employers since the 1970s, the Gates Commission, and the shift to an all-volunteer force. Insurrections or otherwise, retired generals in key executive positions, conversations about national service, Afghanistan’s slogging along as the longest war in U.S. history — almost anything today can be clumped into the burgeoning category of civ-mil affairs and its terrible state. Despite the indisputable conviction that these issues should, in fact, create a civic discourse at the highest levels which is long since overdue, one concern that I have thus been unable to shake is this: as with every other issue in society, the conversation has been nationalized. It’s about them — the chairman, the secretary, the Oval Office, the congressional representation. It never about the military professional, the rank and file. It’s national news, not local. Except when it is. Then the human-interest stories are about the war-wounded or radicalized. Barring these rare outliers to the civ-mil conversation — the incessant reminders that military professionals are apparently becoming more delicate, and stranger — it’s all national news, palace intrigue.

Furthermore, as the civ-mil crisis seems to darken by the day, today’s cohort of standing military professionals continues to move across states or between countries every three to five years. They arrive at the new duty station after scouring Zillow for weeks in order to locate the communities with the best public schools, immediately set out to discover the nearest familiar chains, set up the big screen TV, and subsist for a few weeks or months before asking the bold question, “So, what’s there to do around here?” Once the work tasks, temporary duty assignments, and performance reviews begin to occupy the military mind, initiative for community belonging decreases even further. Maybe, with a little familial encouragement, the military man may finally locate a seat in the local church pew, near the back, from which to observe something familiar, but from a distance. If “all politics is local,” then — for the vast majority of those not occupying those positions of great national import — so too are civil-military relations. The country does indeed have a civ-mil relations issue, and the real course of treatment starts with local belonging. And to this conversation, very little has been added of late.

Why local?

Risa Brooks is right, “The problem is not, as many might suspect, that officers are too political; it is that they think they can ignore politics altogether.”

The first reason that local belonging is the crux of the civ-mil dilemma lies in the military profession itself — the art and science of making war to achieve peace — and the fact that, at the end of the day, military strategic effectiveness is intricately connected with domestic politics. “The exercise of force for the attainment of a political object” is Clausewitz’s venerated definition of war. From the next chapter of Prussian generals’ contributions to the issue, Friedrich von Bernhardi moreover offers that “war is always a means only for attaining a purpose entirely outside its domain.” Political aims are accepted as being the necessary driver for military conflict. Nothing else makes logical sense to the military professional, nor should the sentiment raise any suspicion within the general population.

Ms. Brooks further states, with considerable precedent and accuracy, that “domestic political constraints cannot be dismissed as external impositions on strategy and operations.” Violence must be accountable to reason and purpose. It must be constrained and directed, domestically, politically. Domestic, local, engagement is that proving ground through which the vast majority of military professionals will remain anchored to a real population living in a real world. Not many are generals and strategists contemplating the limits of the early 2000′s Authorizations for Use of Military Force to the continued mission in eastern Syria; all are still charged with public service and trust. To restore the connection with that public is to rekindle real, professional military strategy.

For the community

Local belonging matters greatly to the present civ-mil predicament because real, local communities desperately need the military professional’s words and works. Many today simply don’t understand the profession of arms and its ethos, and thus the military professional’s words among the civic discourse are urgently needed. Retirees appear in mobs storming capitals and a reasonable, but unconversant, public might ask if they represent all military retirees. Trite displays of patriotism count as tokens of appreciation. The combat veteran is seen as damaged goods, as “morally injured.” Additional, real stories of loyalty, trust, tragedy, love, and a heart which has grown through fiery trial instead of being shattered — those stories don’t make it to the fore.

Moreover, with the verbal absence comes a vast majority of the population that no longer connects overseas military commitments and entanglements with real, local community members. Karl Eikenberry, former commander, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan then United States ambassador to Afghanistan, remarked in 2014 on his “growing sense of unease” that “the U.S. military and those of us supporting their effort in Afghanistan were at war, but the nation wasn’t.” Looking even further back from the post-9/11 wars, Eikenberry further offered his judgment that to “a finely wrought, all-volunteer hammer [the U.S. military], the 1990s revealed just how many international crises would begin to look like nails.”

Local communities need the military perspective among the civic discourse because civil society, the neighbors and the soccer dads, aren’t nearly educated on foreign and domestic threats to national security on any sort of proportion to the national government’s expenditures and employments. To an uninformed populace, and in the absence of the personal voices of friends with relevant experiences abroad, the more extreme perspectives on foreign policy and America’s place in the world start to sound rational. A sensationalist, for-profit media then stokes anxiety and fear, and the social media “Outrage-Industrial Complex” segregates, then fans the flames. Real, local communities need the military professional’s perspective and hard-earned judgment.

Beyond words, however, communities desperately need the military member to recognize that their work colleagues shouldn’t possess exclusive rights to the sweat of their brow. The nation needs a military which works in their communities for the good of their neighbors. How, in the age of COVID, have 10 months passed since last March’s Final Report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service without a groundswell of thankful people been found to be lobbying and clamoring for more initiatives for public service? The commission’s vision was “every American inspired and eager to serve.” Certainly, the good works of military members visible to their communities would inspire others to serve. Young and healthy and employed and medically-covered and housed military members are so desperately needed for voluntary, local good works. “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor?” Jesus asked rhetorically when concluding the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Surely, the military public servant should see it as his duty to both speak and work for his community. It needs him.

For the military

Ultimately, the civ-mil crisis should be most readily understood by the military professional through a local lens for their own good. A life lived without a local context and unmoored from actual belonging is, in fact, a confused existence. Never being home affects the psyche in strange and altogether avoidable ways, and is, in context, actually the only thing which is worse than always being gone. I add “avoidable,” because that unmooring is less a factor of the every-three-to-five-year moving cycle mentioned earlier than it is the fruit of the tree of social apathy which often occurs after those moves. At the significant risk of sounding paternalistic — I do recognize that my own five moves in 11 years on active duty don’t hold a candle to many others’ resumes — the military member simply needs to learn how to make their present duty assignment their home.

The importance of making a new place feel like home and new people like old chums should be plainly stated to be worth the effort, and it does take effort. Without those real objectives, however, the military should expect the present scale of loneliness and mental health issues it faces to increase further. Last October’s Department of Defense Annual Suicide Report reported 498 suicide deaths across the active, Guard, and reserve military population in calendar year 2019. The report’s 45 references to “mental health” (factors, issues, treatments, problems, professionals, etc.) should drive a degree of military introspection which doesn’t stop at the mental health services option, which deals with effects —e specially the effects of signing up 180,000 young people straight from this society every year. Real introspection should instead seek causes within one’s own control. Two years ago, Arthur C. Brooks identified something worth stopping and considering: “America is suffering an epidemic of loneliness.” Sen. Sasse pulled on this thread further in his 2018 book “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal” when he observed that “In the midst of extraordinary prosperity, we’re also living through a crisis. Our communities are collapsing, and people are feeling more isolated, adrift, and purposeless than ever before.” Loneliness is a scourge in today’s persistently faux-connected world, and the military professional is far from immune. Alternatively, he may be much more prone due to his age and ample resources and constant uprooting. To belong somewhere, in a physical community and not just in the workplace, is a very good thing.

Beyond mental health considerations for belonging, however, the military has always considered personal character formation to be one of its foundational pillars. From basic training, to service academy honor codes, to the willing and collective acceptance of the most demanding physical and mental challenges, character building is something tangible within the military. Character is forged experientially. How, then, should the military view character development throughout the course of a career, when the competitive-in-everything meritocracy mindset of careerism creeps in through the back door? It ought to see service in the community as the inoculation. In “The Second Mountain,” David Brooks wrote that “Character is not something you build sitting in a room thinking about the difference between right and wrong and about your own willpower. Character emerges from our commitments.” The military should concur. The growth of the military professional’s scope of and capacity for public service is essential to character development.

What next?

The real answer to today’s civ-mil crisis lies not at the national level of palace intrigue and of finding newer and better ways to describe someone else’s wicked problem. The real path is for our communities and military professionals to move towards local belonging and integration.

The military professional in need of understanding political aims and domestic political constraints has one tried and true path towards beginning that education — by interacting more, not less, with the place and people that they live in and by. An understanding of reality means to understand the messy clashes of wills, resource limitations, and inequities of real places — and not only those on the other side of the world. Real places in need of the military professional’s involvement include the neighborhood homeowner’s association meeting, school board session, city planning committee open forum, Little League draft, charity drive, and church members meeting. When at home, the military professional must act like it, and be home. To ignore the life of real, physical communities is, to the military professional, to spurn the very people which they desire to serve.

The communities which surround military installations, for their part, should treat it as their civic duty to incorporate service men and women and their families into every aspect of community life. This task is particularly difficult, as constantly playing host to a rotating cast of 20-somethings and their baggage is in reality much more burdensome than the ribbon cutting ceremonies and Veterans Day events let on. To invite the military into community spaces and listen to, learn from, and lead its members is to practice a patience and forbearance which is as much a public service as are the other tasks already on the agenda. As communities work alongside military professionals more and more, expect the necessary conversation about national service to grow legs — to the betterment of every community in the country and their future custodians.

We do, indeed, have a civ-mil relations issue in this country; it’s been brewing for some time now. The next step, then, is to chart the path forward for the everyman — not just the chairman. It starts with local belonging.

Maj. Mitch “Forge” Fossum lives in Springfield, Virginia, and is an Air Force fellow in the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is an F-15E fighter pilot, Little League coach, and neighbor. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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