civil-military divide

What’s with the super-hate towards Gen. Petraeus? (that CUNY video)

I saw this video a couple of days ago and it’s starting to pick up steam. As I’ve written about in the past, I’m of the belief that the much vaunted “civilian-military divide” is a thing only as much as military people think it’s a thing. Civilians don’t sit around thinking about how disconnected from the military they are. We do that.

But, videos like this contribute to military people sitting there, incredulously, mouth agape, swearing that they don’t understand the society from which they came.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that more than any other military personality, Gen. Petraeus has received a disproportionate amount of hate.

It began with the “General Betray Us” ad in 2007 when he was testifying before Congress about the need to “surge” in Iraq.

When I was still a CUNY student at the City College of New York, I attended a talk given by Gen. Petraeus at the 92nd Street Y – not exactly an imperialist think-tank. I arrived early, and there were a handful of protestors outside, waving signs that called Gen. Petraeus a war criminal. The protestors heckled anyone who stepped inside, asking why we’d want to hear a man like that say anything.

General/Ambassador Eikenberry was up on stage, introducing Gen. Petraeus, who was walking up to the podium. As he read through the laundry list of the General’s accomplishments, he was using a mnemonic of “He was the Commander of forces in Iraq, then he was the Commander of….he was…” Right as he said another “He was” a protestor who had “infiltrated” (bought a ticket) jumped up and screamed “A WAR CRIMINAL! HE’S A WAR CRIMINAL! YOU’RE A WAR CRIMINAL!”

The room gasped and some people tried to shush or shame the protestor. Gen. Eikenberry waited for the person to be removed, which took an awkwardly long time. Gen. Petraeus held his hand to his eyes, shielding them from the light to try to see who it was.

The protestor was removed and the Gen. made an off the cuff remark about the protestor that made everyone laugh. I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t offensive. It was making fun of himself if I remember correctly.

A couple of years later, I was in London for graduate school. In a small classroom, I sat with a handful of very bright students waiting for our professor of Middle East anthropology. We had just read an article critical about the Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some quotes from General Petraeus were in it. I listened in on a conversation happening next to me between two students, one from the UK and one from Italy:

Italian Student: “You know, I have to admit, I kind of had to respect General Petraeus when I read that he has a PhD from Princeton.”
UK Student: “Oh please, the Nazis were highly educated too.”

My jaw literally dropped a bit and I had to bite my cheek not to flip my desk. Both statements offended me. I didn’t say anything. It is terribly awkward to be the grizzled Army veteran in a Middle East studies class. And once that cat is out of the bag, it doesn’t go back in.

The Italian student’s statement offended me because buried inside of it is the idea that having any kind of respect for General Petraeus because of his military service or character is unfathomable. But because he got a PhD from Princeton, now it’s okay. That kind of a statement just fuels the idea that there is this academic elite who can only respect and understand people who have their noses buried in a book.

The UK student’s statement offended me for obvious reasons.

And now, of course, we have the video above, which I’m particularly embarrassed about as a CUNY graduate. I’m all for protest and free speech. And CUNY is a special university that has a rich history of being at the very least – skeptical – of the military. But I think that this trend of hate towards P4 is indicative of just how skewed the public is about the military.

Inside of the military, General Petraeus was a legend living in his own time. For most of us, he really only appeared on our radar after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom when he lead the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and settled in Mosul. From there, he was relentless and lead MNSTCI, which was charged with training Iraqi forces, then commanded the Combined Arms Center where he worked at writing (with others) the Counterinsurgency Manual. Then commanding forces in Iraq for the surge, CENTCOM Commander, then the odd promotion/demotion to commanding forces in Afghanistan after Gen. McChrystal was fired. Retirement, then Director of the CIA before his personal scandal had him retiring from that.

A storied career. weaved inside of all that is a ton of media which got him on the front page of a bunch of magazines and on television dozens and dozens of times. He became “the” General that everyone knew.

Soldiers, however, know the rest of the story from people who served with him. How he was an avid runner and athlete, and didn’t believe in weight training – just good old fashioned Army physical training. How when he commanded a Brigade in the 82nd Airborne Division, he had a physical fitness challenge for the paratroopers that no one could beat him in. How he was accidentally shot on a training range. And of course, his relentless, un-ending energy.

There was nothing bad to say about the guy. He was loved. One of the good guys.

But anti-war activists seized on General Petraeus as the target of their discontent. He became the poster boy for anti-war. For military people watching, it didn’t make any sense. Why Petraeus?

My theory is because it’s the only General they know. The media windstorm surrounding him (and which he helped stir) means that he is the General, and with it comes the good and the bad.

For the military and veteran communities, though, all we see is a bunch of self-righteous kids egging one of one our heroes. Without a good understanding of how this all happened, it is very easy to slip into a general hate for the protestors specifically and the society generally that promotes it. That’s not good.

Like I said, “closing the gap” on the civilian-military divide is only a real thing inasmuch as military people are willing to do so. But, admittedly, this crap doesn’t help.

David Petraeus

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civil-military divide

Social media as a way to bridge the civil-military divide

Soldiers crossing a bridge. It’s a metaphor. But that really happened.

Just about every week there is some event that happens that connects social media and the Army, for good or for ill. I’m a true believer in social media. I love using it myself, I studied its use in social movements in college, and I believe that for all its flaws, social media is good for the Army and good for soldiers. Social media allows both the Army and its soldiers to “tell the Army’s story” to the American public, and further, I argue that it helps fill in some of the empty space that makes up the civilian-military divide.

A brief history

… I started to write my own “brief history” of the Army and social media, but then remembered that MAJ Crispin Burke (aka Starbuck, aka, Wings Over Iraq) wrote a good one at the New York Times At War Blog. So if you’re interested in that history, check it out.

How the Army has changed

The Army has struggled over the years to figure out if wants to embrace social media or wall itself in. Thankfully, after many fits and starts, the Army has chosen to embrace social media, and cautiously empowers soldiers to use it to tell the Army story. For its part, the Army has established a pretty impressive digital foothold (Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.) Units across the force have their own digital holdings. I managed my training company’s Facebook page at IBOLC, for example. While I’m sure lots of units out there are just “doing it” the Army actually has created guidelines on “how to do it” through the Social Media Handbook (3rd Edition). The handbook provides units and individuals the guidance they need on how to establish a social media presence for their unit or how to conduct themselves online as individuals. There are some specific rules governing a digital presence for units, but for individuals, following the UCMJ, not violating OPSEC, and using common sense is the best hedge for staying out of trouble.

Connecting worlds, bridging the civil-military divide

The thing that excites me most about social media is the way it allows outsiders of a specific community to inject themselves into that community and engage with it in a way that would normally be difficult or impossible. Interested in ballet but not a ballet dancer? A few minutes of searching and you can amass a small arsenal of blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages to saturate yourself in the art. Whenever I find myself interested in a new topic, I usually start finding that community online as a way to quickly learn about it, and hopefully, connect to people who know what they’re talking about.

While the big Army is able to tell its story through its social media presence, individual soldiers like myself can engage with the larger public through blogs like this or on any other social media site. While military bases are normally walled off and secluded from major population areas, the internet is everywhere, and anyone can engage with soldiers who are out there and online. Interested civilians can follow me on Twitter or follow this blog and get an idea of what their soldiers are doing in a more personal way than just reading about it in the newspaper.

Of course, there are inherent dangers in this, just as there is when the military is coupled with social media generally. Some people will do dumb things. That is why anyone – especially soldiers – who choose to engage online need to do so with eyes wide open.


Top comment: “Every time i hear this video it reminds me that we’re all humans and sometimes we need to set aside our differences and live life. I salute these soldiers for taking time to make this video as they get little RR in the war zone. So the next time you see a soldier be kind and say “thanks” because it could be their last appreciation they hear from someone that’s protecting our freedom and liberty.” 

A few years ago when I was still in college, I remember this video was released and it was getting shared across the internet. From the comments and reactions I saw from a lot of my peers in college, I got the impression that this was the first time they saw and thought of soldiers as human beings. That is, to most Americans – young people especially – the concept of the soldier is something abstract, something never seen or experienced. It’s something that happens in movies, video games, and newspaper articles. While many of my military friends chided the soldiers in the video for making us “look foolish” or for obviously having too much free time, I saw value in the video in the way it humanized the soldiers to a society who largely is unaware of what soldiers do or are doing. Plus, the whole idea of tough paratroopers dancing and enjoying a Lady GaGa song destroyed a ton of stereotypes.

The civil-military divide, that thing which gets lots of lip service of being something that needs to be addressed but little in terms of how to fix it. I’ve written about it before, and I’m of the mind that since we’re helplessly outnumbered by the American population, it falls on our shoulders to do our best to not wall ourselves in further and reach out the rest of country to help bridge the divide. Using social media is one way in which we can do that.

And, just for fun.

civil-military divide, middle east

This “total war on Islam” nonsense

I saw the article at Danger Room titled “U.S. Military Taught Officers: Use ‘Hiroshima’ tactics for ‘Total War’ on Islam” shortly after it was posted. I took a deep breath, fired it off on Twitter disgustedly, and then went to work. Since then, some friends have prompted me for my opinion on the matter and a number of other blogs I read have referenced the article (Mondoweiss, The Arabist).

Andrew Exum (Abu Muqawama) writes:

“Plenty of U.S. military officers and troops were inspired by their service in either Iraq or Afghanistan to learn Arabic or Dari and study the peoples of the region. I left the Army in 2004, as a matter of fact, to pursue a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut,” says Andrew Exum, a retired Army captain who now serves as a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “But plenty of other officers and troops began their own amateurish studies of Islam and now, like Lt. Col. Dooley, peddle claims to know the truth about the violence and hatred at the heart of Islam. Pope’s warning that a little learning can be a dangerous thing is certainly relevant here. These hucksters, like the Robert Spencers of the world, know just enough to make themselves sound credible to an uninformed audience and hide their prejudices under a thin layer of amateurish, ideologically motivated scholarship.”

Like Exum, I was inspired by my service in Iraq to go and study the Middle East and Arabic – mostly because I saw firsthand how much we didn’t know. As a result, I studied abroad in Morocco and Egypt and did my masters at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I wrote my thesis on the experiences of Iraqi soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War. On this blog I write about military things and Middle Eastern things. As much as I hate getting into these kinds of weeds, this blog sits at exactly the intersection of the military and Middle East Studies (a very uncomfortable intersection, mind you). What I’ve found is that this subject is extremely sensitive for everyone involved. People hold strong opinions on this, for whatever reason.

So here’s what I think.

Exum is right, over the past ten years there has been a cadre of opportunists who took advantage of the the military’s thirst for knowledge on a subject they know relatively little about (Islam) and used that opportunity to spread their own ideas of what Islam is and how to best fight the war on terror. For a long period of time, these guys went unnoticed (internally, anyway), probably because there weren’t many people to call their bluff. This course in question was pulled after an unnamed officer who took the course alerted someone higher to the objectionable curriculum. I’d be willing to bet that he had taken some courses on Islam or the Middle East before (or maybe he just understood that ‘total war’ on an entire people based on their religion was not a good thing).

Thankfully, General Dempsey already came out and condemned the coursework that Danger Room uncovered as “objectionable, against our values” and “academically unsound.” The Department of Defense is currently conducting a review of material to root out any traces of material that is combative towards Islam or rooted in some kind of Islamophobia. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done, as most of the headlines regarding this incident inferred that the US military was indoctrinating its officers with this viewpoint, when that’s not the case. Outsiders looking in read the headline, read the article, and then conclude that what they’ve always thought was true: the US is at war with Islam or the military is filled with Islamophobics. This is unfortunate, because neither is true, and events like this degrades the way the public views the military.

But this incident points to a larger issue that exists, which I wrote about previously in the infidel post. There is still a poor understanding of the peoples of the Middle East and Islam as a religion within the armed forces and this poor understanding can manifest itself in ugly ways.

Why does this happen? My hunch tells me that people want to explain difficult things away by going for the low hanging fruit – “they” hate us because of their religion, or their culture, or worst of all, “they” are violent by nature. Fighting is hard, and everyone has to reconcile why they do it in their own heads at some point. Fighting a war on global terrorism, a vague thing in-itself hardly provides a person a good starting point to why he or she is wherever they are in the world fighting whoever it is he/she is fighting. But if they are fighting someone because that other person automatically hates our way of life, or that person is inherently violent or evil, it makes the process a whole lot easier.

Simply stated, it’s easy to blame complex phenomena on one’s culture or religion. Unfortunately, that’s wrong. Following that path 1) won’t work, 2) is wrong, and 3) will piss everyone off.

While this revelation is a public relations setback, I think it is bringing to the surface an important issue which can now be rapidly addressed. I know I’m doing my part.

civil-military divide

Imagining an end to the civil-military divide

My parents have a small bathroom in their house on the first floor. It’s tiny and sparsely decorated. The only wall adornment is a dusty ‘motivational’ poster in a frame.

Stand in the bathroom and look left.

If you can’t read the text, it says “VISION: Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.” It’s attributed to Jonathan Swift.

I’ve stared at that poster a lot. People can interpret the meaning in a number of ways. “Seeing the invisible” might mean seeing the invisible dead people who move among us without our knowing it (except, of course, for those who can see them). To me it means picturing something that doesn’t exist. Yet.

Over the past couple of weeks, a number of people have written about the civil-military divide. Kings of War had a piece on a French officer’s lament over the public’s (mis)understanding of the meaning behind the death of some of their soldiers, which sparked a debate on ‘why soldiers fight’ in the comments. Andrew Bacevich wrote a piece for the Huffington Post chronicling the “display” of the military for public consumption, and how it lacked real meaning. Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at West point fired things up when she suggested that the awkward offer of ‘thank you for your service’ may originate in guilt. Back to Kings of War, “Captain Hyphen” confirmed the awkwardness, to which MAJ (Ret.) Mike Lyons responded by asserting things have never been better in terms of the civil-military relationship.

So what’s going on here? Is the civili-military divide – the gap – bigger than it has ever been or not?

MAJ (Ret.) Mike Lyons makes some good points in his argument describing how the divide is as close as it can be:

There have to be at least 5,000 members of the media who have been embedded with military units since 2003. They have the names and email addresses of let’s say 100,000 service members in their cell phones and blackberries and vice versa. Soldiers have real friends in the media today. They are doing a great job writing about soldiers and what they are doing overseas and at home now more than ever, and that’s as it should be. The media uses military analysts who are ready to discuss and explain all the intricacies of the mission or whatever the military is up to. The Pentagon now gets it regarding social media and its connection to the civilian world.  Active duty officer’s blog openly about topics in the military – leadership among the popular topics – this was unheard of in the Army I grew up with.

I agree that the information is out there. Anyone can spend the time and learn as much as they want about the military world. You can follow lots of service members on Twitter and read their blogs, and get all up in their world.

In the media rich environment we live in today, the same can be said for just about anything (see ‘Bronies‘).

Feeling similarly to Mike, a few years ago I raised this exact thing to one of my mentors. “Are we beating a dead horse here?” I asked. “Everyday I see stories about us in the media.” To which he wisely responded “Yes, there’s a lot out there, that’s true. “But” he continued, “You know, when you drive a Jeep, the only thing you notice on the road are other Jeeps.”

She doesn’t drive a Jeep

The information is out there, but it doesn’t count if people don’t care.

Once, while sitting in a history class during a summer session, the professor threw out the question “How many American troops have been killed in Iraq?” to which a girl – probably 20ish – responded “I don’t know, like, 30 or 40.” At this point in the war, some 4,000 American troops had been killed. My jaw literally dropped and I felt like I was going to throw up my heart. I was offended. How could an American college student not know, or even come close to knowing the number of American war dead?

To me, that is an example of the civil-military divide.

People like Mike Lyons, Captain Hyphen, and myself drive Jeeps and we see Jeeps all over the road. But the majority of the country, like the girl in the history class, don’t drive Jeeps. As a veteran himself, Mike Lyons is in the game. And as a veteran, he’s going to notice all the military stories, all the Jeeps. In fact, as a military analyst for the media, it’s his job to notice.

Unpacking

The term ‘civil-military divide’ gets thrown around a lot without explanation. Like ‘transition,’ we talk about it without really talking about it. What do we actually mean? While this may seem tedious, explaining helps.

  • ‘Civil’ means civilians. Regular men and women. Except, they never served in the military.
  • ‘Military’ means the men and women who serve or served in the military.
  • ‘Divide’ suggests a gap between the two entities.

Significantly, when the term is used, it usually suggests that the civil-military divide is unnatural. There’s a sense that somehow the gap has ‘grown’ from a point in which there was no gap or it was at least a lot smaller. Besides being undesirable, it’s also described as being unhealthy for the country (unless we’re talking about civil-military relations, which has more to do with civilian control of the military. These two things are interrelated, but not the same).

The problem with this formulation is that it suggests that there are only two types of people in this country, military and civilian. Once someone goes through military training they begin seeing the rest of the country – those who haven’t served – as ‘civilians.’ This is usually done with a hint of superiority (see Ricks, 1997). Civilians, on the other hand, don’t view the world this way, unless they’re forced. That is, civilians don’t think of themselves primarily as ‘civilians,’ highlighting their non-militaryness. If they do, well that’s a shame.

A friend of mine wisely informed me that the only time she realizes she is a ‘civilian’ is when someone from the ‘military’ reminds her.

Civilians ———– GAP ———– Military (the push comes from this side)

My point is that the civil-military divide is mostly viewed from the military point of view. We talk about it, we write about it and sometimes, we suggest ways to address it. And in doing so, we give it power and the meaning we want.

Something we can never know is how much thought ‘civilians’ give to the civil-military divide on their own time. Do they sit around and discuss how out of touch they are with the military? I doubt it. Every now and then an article might pop up somewhere urging Americans to pay more attention to the lives and sacrifices of service members. Usually though, these are family members of troops, or someone who had a chance encounter with a veteran, for example, and was suddenly inspired.

The trend suggests that American society is becoming less interested and more disconnected with the military. So, expecting an ‘about face’ (or the civilian equivalent) is not promising. Since we are the ones talking about it, we should charge ourselves with fixing it.

Imagining an end to the civil-military divide

Getting back to my parents’ bathroom, the problem with the entire civil-military divide debate is the lack of vision. A lot of time and energy is spent thinking about what constitutes authentic appreciation of the military and what is just political theater. There is little, though, offered in terms of solutions.

What would the country look like if the divide was completely eliminated?

Alas, I don’t have the answer to that question. But I do have some ideas.

Not being outright disrespected is a good start.

ROTC in more schools is good too. Active student veteran clubs at college is good (so long as the club interacts with the rest of the campus and doesn’t become a Fortress). It would also be helpful if military service was not always cast as the last refuge of the downtrodden.

Strangers thanking the military for their service is nice. Awkward, yes. But not a bad thing.

But, if the divide was completely eliminated, would that mean that stopping to thank a service member would be all the more strange, since interactions between society and the military would be the norm? Aargh!

If the goal is to close the gap, I argue the more interaction the American public has with the military, the better. Until the Zombie Apocalypse, the American public is unlikely to swarm any military bases in an attempt to get to know them better. In the interim, it would be helpful if all the energy spent grumbling about the civil-military divide was instead invested on imagining and ultimately enacting solutions.