After two decades of war, the U.S. military is still the most trusted institution in the nation. But with the military’s involvement in Afghanistan drawing to its end and American troops still at risk in Iraq, the divide between the civilian and military worlds is wider than ever.
My father served in Iraq during the Gulf War, and I served in the same country during the war against ISIS 25 years later, an example of how military service is becoming more associated with familial ties, and ever more separate from the general population. An ever-smaller portion of the U.S. population, not to mention U.S. politicians, has any experience with military personnel. As the prospect of the end of our forever wars draws nearer, it’s time for the nation and its armed forces to reassess their relationships with each other. A stronger civil-military relationship may prevent our involvement in future unwinnable wars, and it may also help prevent needless deaths caused by an insular military culture during peacetime. In light of recent political events, strengthened ties can also prevent the horrifying prospect of our troops being used by political actors against our own citizens.
The only way to accomplish this shift in relations is through the American public being properly informed.
Most Americans support the military, yet don’t know what it actually does. This isn’t just a failure on their part; the Defense Department itself bears a large responsibility for its estrangement from the American public. While serving as a journalist in the Army, I often found that our own efforts at outreach were hindered by cultural norms and procedures that rewarded minimizing contact with the outside world. Media organizations were kept at arm’s length, and all news releases (including mine) were strenuously reviewed to ensure that they were on message. Concrete steps must be taken to engage in dialogue with citizens not just outside of military bases, but at college campuses, in areas that usually do not draw recruits, in places where the military may not be liked. Traditionally, when it comes to public affairs, military doctrine emphasizes persuasion, but the goal of this engagement with the public should be to provide information that allows citizens to civically engage with our government about the use of and policies relevant to armed service members.
There are many cultural issues in the military that need outside perspectives to change the status quo. One such issue is the stigma of mental health treatment. Suicides among service members, in contrast to U.S. population trends, increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and killed more personnel than our wars combined since 2001. Other problems abound: Racism and discrimination are still prevalent. Women, although receiving the same pay as men and recently obtaining new opportunities to join combat arms jobs, still face a glass ceiling when it comes to promotions. Widespread cases of sexual assault and harassment have led members of Congress and the current secretary of defense to call for some of the most sweeping changes to the military’s justice system in history; it took multiple instances of families of service members contacting outside media organizations to cause a response, and even the military itself has noted that it did not take the steps to provide proper information to the public. There must be a cultural shift in the Pentagon toward accepting that outside ideas and feedback are not a bad thing.
Avenues for outreach to the public already exist. ROTC departments are one such tool present at institutions of higher learning across the nation. The DOD has strategically located them in Western and Southern states to ensure that recruitment numbers are met, but this policy segregates and separates the military from wide swaths of the population. The ROTC departments that currently exist should inform the American population of what the services do; instead, they focus mainly on the missions of recruiting and training future officers.
The DOD must also look at how is portrayed in mass media, especially in its own internal publications. While in Iraq, I was sometimes told that showing the conditions that personnel were living in or using their exact words would cause a public reaction that would not be beneficial to what we in the military were trying to accomplish. This line of thinking is responsible for the continuous rosy reports by military public affairs from Afghanistan and Iraq, even as the reality on the ground was much darker. It is hard to blame the American public or media organizations for not understanding the complexities of our foreign policies when the information put out by the DOD itself is not indicative of reality.
This focus on appearance over substance extends to the DOD’s relationship with private media companies and how they are used to engage with the American public. The connection between the Pentagon and Hollywood stretches back into the 1940s, and the DOD has had input on the scripts of movies such as Top Gun and advised over 900 TV shows since 2005 to reflect more positive imagery and messages. More recently, the video game industry has also been influenced by the DOD, including in such overt recruiting vehicles as the game America’s Army (which I played as a kid in the early 2000s). This campaign has included the utterly bizarre rewriting of history: In the most recent Call of Duty game, the Gulf War’s “Highway of Death”—where U.S. airpower conducted a wholesale slaughter of retreating Iraqis—was changed to a Russian operation. The common thread in these efforts through the decades has been highlighting an absolutely perfect and infallible force, with personnel being machinelike, honorable fighters for freedom who all bravely participate in combat; helpless victims; or mindless killing machines.
The truth is more complex. Most personnel in the military never go to war, much less see combat, yet still commit suicide due to the stressors of military life. Some leaders take care of their personnel at the risk of their own lives, while others utterly fail them. The effects of war can leave not only mental and physical scars, but also spiritual ones, as those who return grapple with guilt and questions on whether what they experienced had any meaning or moral value. It is a disservice to not allow these stories to be told, or to pressure organizations not to tell them. How can we expect our citizens to care about issues affecting service members’ well-being if nothing they encounter speaks about these issues? How can those who seek to join the military in the future be fully prepared for what may come?
Of course, the task of bridging the civil-military divide does also stretch outside the halls of the Pentagon. Media organizations have a civic duty to report to the public the nature of the military and its operations, such as with recent headlines on the Uniform Code of Military Justice and how it hinders prosecution of sexual assault in the military, and on the failures of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have the right to and should ask questions of the Pentagon that the military might not want to answer. This type of coverage should be the standard in the future, as it properly informs the American people about their military and allows them to make informed decisions about its conduct. Not all media coverage through our wars has been perfect or comprehensive, and media organizations can also share blame for agreeing to DOD involvement in their work in the first place. However, past mistakes do not have to determine the future. The American public can understand and grow closer to the armed forces if a sincere effort is made.
Now is the time—because who knows when we may have another chance?