The photo shows a service member’s spouse weeping over her husband’s flag-draped casket, under a headline quoting an out of context snippet of Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi testimony: “What Difference Does It Make.” The ad, promoted by an Instagram account named “american.veterans,” displays a caption reading, “Killary Clinton will never understand what it feels like to lose the person you love for the sake of your country.” If you spent much time on social media last fall—especially as a service member or veteran—you may have seen a series of strange, emotional, and personally targeted political ads like this one.
The ads, part of the widespread Russian influence operation to defeat Hillary Clinton, were released this week by the House Intelligence Committee following the testimony of representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google. The Russian ad campaign, which in the case of Facebook alone may have reached 146 million Americans, was designed to worsen growing divisions among Americans. The ad-buys were also absurdly economical, costing as little as 0.14 cents per user reached (that’s right, a fraction of a penny). Often targeting both sides of a single issue, the Russian-backed accounts used acerbic rhetoric to inflame tensions and widen divisions over race, religion, and politics.
Through the content of the military-targeted ads specifically, Russian operators looked to exploit the all-too-present civil-military divide in America to sow discord and rally opposition against Clinton. In the case of the “Killary will never understand” ad, the Russians only paid approximately $53 while directly targeting veterans with their propaganda. Though defense commentators have long noted the substantial gap between military communities and civilian society, these acts mark the first time that separation has been leveraged by a foreign adversary. As never before, America’s sour civil-military relations constitute a national security risk.
The release from Congress follows a study by Oxford University, released in October, demonstrating that Russian-directed accounts regularly targeted veterans and service members to spread disinformation. While the study showed that service members and veterans are often “among most sophisticated news consumers,” they were nonetheless the targets of “significant and persistent interactions” on Twitter from a broad network of Russian accounts. Despite their relative sophistication in news consumption, however, veterans and service members on Facebook, the study found, regularly engaged with “subgroups dedicated to political conspiracy”—not surprising given the convergence of Russian influence, conspiracy stories, and far-right media during the 2016 campaign.
Another ad from last fall, this time on Facebook, shows a weary American paratrooper kneeling in a desolate landscape with a caption claiming that Hillary Clinton was “despised by the overwhelming majority of American veterans.” This ad, hosted by a group calling itself the “Heart of Texas,” demanded that if Hillary became president, the “American army should be withdrawn from Hillary’s control.”
Though many factors account for the targeting of service members and veterans, the exploitation of the divide between these communities and civilian society carries the most alarming repercussions. The lack of understanding between the two sides exacerbates feelings of resentment among veterans and allows exploitation both at home and by foreign adversaries. Domestically, the president himself has regularly taken advantage of the gulf of misunderstanding to appropriate military service to a wide variety of political causes, from the use of a gathering of the Air Force Academy football team to promote health care reform to his ongoing manipulation of military patriotism to oppose NFL players’ anthem protests. As my Center for a New American Security colleague Phillip Carter additionally claims, the Trump administration “has been all too willing to leverage” the gravitas of Chief of Staff John Kelly, among other current and former retired military officers, “to score political points.”
Moreover, just as the president has exploited misunderstanding and shallow patriotism to fight political battles, Russian intelligence officials utilized the same dynamics to manipulate our divisions. Our adversaries have now demonstrated how easy it is to use our differences over race, religion, and even military service to pit Americans against one another.
This widening of the divide has also made it clear how isolated military and veteran communities have become from civilian society in recent decades. As noted by Alex Horton in the Washington Post, there has been a “relatively insular discussion among military families, veterans and scholars” for years about how “civil society and military circles are culturally, socially and geographically distinct” from each other. My CNAS colleagues Phillip Carter and Amy Schafer have each written extensively on the topic, demonstrating how as military service was undertaken by a smaller segment of society, that segment became geographically and culturally separated.
And just as military communities are now physically and culturally isolated from society, veterans are similarly misunderstood by their civilian counterparts. As stated by scholar Kori Schake, civilians are so removed from today’s veterans that they “tend to stereotype [veterans] either as comic book heroes or as victims.” As a society, we extend the “thank you for your service” platitude without understanding why veterans and members of the military serve—and what that service actually means.
If we hope to bridge the civil-military gap in America and limit our exposure to further interference from adversaries, both sides of the divide need to move toward each other. First, civilian society cannot hope to bring itself closer to military and veteran communities through the same passive stunts it has used in the past. The sort of “paid patriotism” on display at professional sporting events since 9/11 does little more than objectify the military, rather than engaging with the realities of service. As Schake again writes, “activities which pull veterans into involvement are much more useful.” Building connections through outreach groups and community organizations, she says, creates the sort of lasting inclusion veterans need.
Second, to confront the appropriation of military service, veterans should continue to speak out in the media about their service and experiences. While veteran and military communities are in many ways distinct from society, veterans themselves are diverse in their backgrounds, experiences, and opinions. Veterans should follow the example of those like West Point graduate Ashley Nicolas, who addressed the complicated nature of patriotism following President Trump’s condemnation of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. By showing that service members and veterans, just like everyone else, hold a wide range of ideas and opinions, outspoken veterans can begin to chip away at the wall of misunderstanding.
Only by building trust and connection across American society can we begin to develop the social resilience necessary to counter future exploitation by adversaries like Russia. Unfortunately, recent events portend little promise that the current divisions in American society—including those between military communities and civilian society—will get better before they get worse. Episodes like the controversy over John Kelly’s statement following the situation in Niger only deepen the gulf between the two groups, echoing—according to Carter—“a prevalent attitude in some military and veteran circles” that civilians are “oblivious to their mission.” Repairing the divide requires action from both ends, however, and starts when we can finally end the rhetoric and engage with the other side.