Imagining an end to the civil-military divide

(Don: This article post is from 2011, and many of the links are dead or take you to strange places)

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.

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.


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?

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.

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Veteran Theater Review: Go To Your God Like A Soldier

“War stories aren’t really anything more than stories about people anyway.” Michael Herr, Dispatches

Taking a cue from my friend, Jason, this is my first theater review. It’s not a pure theater review, but my experience there plus a review.

Through a friend, I learned of a preview performance of ‘Go To Your God Like a Soldier’ in London before it heads up to Edinburgh Fringe in August. Before going, I knew absolutely nothing about its content, purpose, or background. With nothing else to do on a Sunday evening, my wife and I set off.

The preview was shown at the Old Vic Tunnels, close to Waterloo station. Entry is gained through a dingy fire door along an innocuous wall. I only spotted it because of the huddle of well-dressed theater-seeming people drinking beer out of plastic cups gathered outside. Inside, the tunnels are dark and scarcely lit. A damp, white mist hangs in the place and the air stinks of unfinished basement.  If I hadn’t paid to get in, I would have thought it was gross.

Making our way past the box office, we reached the bar, situated right outside the theater. We arrived only a few minutes before showtime, so we didn’t have time to get a beer. I got the impression from the faces around me that this was the first time many of them were at this venue, and they didn’t know whether to be charmed or disgusted. People looked like drained zombies, watching each other nervously and critically. It was very quiet.

Standing around, not drinking, my mind wandered. I’m always a little nervous when the military is put on display for the masses, or in this case, the theatre crowd. Most people do not have any connections to the military, so this might be as close as they’ll ever get. An anti-military performance or a caricatured performance might confirm forever a person’s impressions.

Shortly thereafter, the doors opened and the ushers began letting people through. We pushed to the front of the gathering crowd and slid through the doors. The theater was long and narrow. The ‘stage’ was not elevated and neither were the seats. We moved to about the mid-section and sat behind a couple of teenagers with small heads. The seats looked like old vinyl movie theater seats. Some of them had sheets of paper on them that said WET SEAT. Water dripped from the ceilings and ran in quick streams down the brown, rocky walls. The stage was eerily-bathed in low light, and a deep, steady humming sound rolled slowly and loudly from the speakers.

Sitting, I began reading the program. I got nervous when I spotted a reference to the “purported” death of Osama bin Laden in the ‘Note from the Director.’ Purported? That loaded word invoked conspiracy, and my stomach turned at the thought of having to sit through a 55 minute lecture on the lies and atrocities of the Great Imperial War Machine. Aside from that, everything else looked good in the program, and I was happy to see that they used a military advisor (Sapper Rob Grover) to ensure accuracy and realism (the most important thing to a veteran audience, mind you). Still, you never know what you’re going to get. A military advisor disgruntled with his service may see things through a very different lens than others. His short bio said he is still serving, so I wasn’t too worried.

Shortly after taking our seats, the theater went dark (except for the stage) and the performance began. The theater was full.

The deep humming noise crescendoed into a bass-heavy techno track as four actors stormed the stage in British military combat gear and began ‘clearing’ the room. Methodical, realistic, and well-choreographed, it looked like dance. Is this going to be performance art, I wondered? I hoped not – I wasn’t mentally prepared for that. I never realized just how choreographed and dance-like room-clearing can look, all sharp gestures and angles. Once the room was cleared, the music faded and the dialogue began (phew).

Three men and a woman.

The story attempts to tackle a number of important issues through showcasing the “experience of war for the men and women who serve.” The role of women in the military and combat (and the supposed protective instinct of men), mental health and stigma, counter-insurgency, military families, and civilian-military relations all get a fair treatment through the course of the story.

The first thing that struck me was the female cast member. Obviously, I was watching some kind of British combat unit. Do the Brits allow women in the infantry, I thought? I don’t think so. I wrote it off as artistic license, and assumed that since this was being performed by a small troupe, a woman would have to play a man’s role. That, or pure ignorance of the military by the theater group, despite having a military advisor. As the play developed, I learned that ignorance or artistic license wasn’t the cause, and gender plays a powerful and central role in the story. I had automatically assumed the troupe got it wrong. When it comes to accuracy, veterans rarely give the benefit of doubt.

The story is about four British soldiers who barricade themselves in a room in Afghanistan. Something bad has happened shortly before, and we only learn the details as the story develops. The situation in the room grows more tense as the enemy (Taliban? We don’t actually know) gets closer pressuring the team to do something. One of the soldiers presses the leader to quit waffling and ‘make a decision.’ This character, a young soldier, but seemingly combat experienced, is convinced that violent aggression and decisive action are the only solutions to the problem. He is a War is War(rior). His superior also seems tested and combat experienced, as he weighs the available options. The main conflict in the story is not the Brits vs. gunmen, but the aggressive British soldier vs. his more cautious superior.

We learn about the individual characters through ‘flashback’ scenes, accomplished through sudden changes in lighting accompanied by sound and robotic movements by the cast as they get into position. The first couple of flashback scenes are strange. The audience (or at least I) wasn’t ready for it. Plus, the actors are still wearing their uniforms, despite flashing back to scenes where they are in their homes, the supermarket, or a doctor’s office. After a few of these, though, they become more believable.

The troupe did an excellent job in nailing these tough issues without caricaturing the military.

In the best scene, I sat cringing as a military character argued with his ex-wife over her refusal to let him see their child. Although she had valid concerns, she was being rude and unreasonable, and he was getting angrier. As the situation escalated, and pleading turned to yells, it seemed like the military character was going to snap and do something stupid. But he didn’t. His character came off as intelligent, if emotionally distressed, but good. It would have been very easy, and more dramatic, to have him do something else (like hit her). I think the audience (and I) expected him to do something stupid, or at least, expected to see him do something stupid. He is a combat veteran dealing with incredible pressures, and it seemed like he was ready to burst. Good on the company for portraying such a complicated character as he is, and not as we expect to see him.

Speaking with my cousin over the weekend, who works in film, we discussed the failure of war movies at the box office. We agreed that contemporary war movies don’t do well because it is hard for (non-military) people to connect with them. Most people don’t understand the military, so how are they going to understand a war movie (the military in the most extreme situation)?

‘Go To Your God Like A Soldier,’ does a good job at connecting with the audience because half of the performance is not at war at all, but back home, at places and with people familiar to everybody. The group does a good job at taking something that is abstract to most people (men and women in the military at war) and deconstructing it to a form that is recognizable and digestible, without relying on stereotypes. It is an exciting performance that leaves the audience thinking. Highly recommended.

‘Go To Your God Like a Soldier’ plays at Edinburgh Fringe from August 4th to August 28th. You can follow :DELIRIUM Theatre company on Twitter @DelirumTheatre.

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