Duke University Alumni Magazine

By Kirk Kicklighter

A political science professor surveys the armed forces and the American public and discovers a gaping chasm between civilian and military perceptions of society. Can the distance can be closed?

ne Wednesday afternoon last fall, a group of students in Peter Feaver's political science seminar on "American Civil-Military Relations" crowds around a large oak table in Perkins Library to role-play the lacerating debates fought by "the best and the brightest" during the Vietnam War. It is no easy task. In the students' minds, the war is ancient history. The eldest in the group was born in 1978, three full years after the fall of Saigon and five years after American troops left Vietnam.

"You weren't trying to win the war, you were trying not to lose!" argues the military side.

"Don't forget that you lied to us. You lied about casualties, about progress. You lost our trust," counters the White House.

"Why should any of us go to a country we know nothing about and die in a meaningless war?" plead the students on the Left.

Feaver uses the debate to illustrate the birth of a growing conflict in America: The military and the civilian culture it serves are becoming estranged. "If there is a problem in civilian-military relations today, then Vietnam is a good place to start looking at it," says the associate professor of political science. "The students who protested the war became the tenured faculty and civilian government leaders of today--they are highly skeptical of the military. The junior officers who fought became the military leadership we have now--they've vowed never again to let the military go through what happened in the late Sixties and Seventies."

Feaver and his students are part of a major research project that has raised the antennae of the media and of government officials. Titled the Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society, the $500,000 study was funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation and organized by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS), a consortium of social scientists at Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University interested in national security and defense. Feaver and co-investigator Richard Kohn of UNC-Chapel Hill conducted survey research and historical analysis in order to better understand the nature and causes of the "civ-mil" gap, as well as its implications for future military effectiveness and civilian-military cooperation. The results were taken from nearly four thousand interviews conducted with military officers, enlisted personnel, and civilians (separated into "elite" and "non-elite" categories) during 1998-1999.

The bottom line: "There is definitely no crisis yet," says Feaver. "I don't know how many times I have to say this, but we're not worried about a military 'coup' or anything like that. However, there are real problems, both long and short term." The good news is that senior military leadership continues to show a deep and wide support for civilian control of the armed forces. And civilians, in general, profess great confidence in the military--they recognize the military as an important foreign-policy tool, and they're not demanding drastic cuts. Also, both sides are moving toward consensus on key issues that were divisive during the Cold War, such as the importance of gender integration in the ranks and inreased efforts at arms control.

Feaver, at his civil-military relations seminar: "today's elite military officers characterize civilian society very negatively. they believe civilians are in the midst of a moral crisis."
Photo: Jim Wallace

The bad news: The surface aura of goodwill between both sides may be a fragile veneer, masking an underlying alienation that could do great harm to both culture and government in decades to come. That finding comes from a paper written for the project by Paul Gronke, assistant professor of political science, and Feaver. For example, military personnel say they are annoyed by what they see as a breakdown in virtues like honesty and sacrifice within civilian institutions. "Today's elite military officers characterize civilian society very negatively," says Feaver. "They believe civilians are in the midst of a moral crisis." And 77 percent of officers believe the adoption of such military values as honor, accountability, and teamwork could help civilian society reform itself. Other statistics back this up. A 1995 survey of Marine officers at Quantico, Virginia, the Corps' large officer training base, found that 81 percent of newly commissioned lieutenants feel the military's values are closer to the values of the Founding Fathers than are the values of civilian society.

Many civilian elites, on the other hand, are horrified by the suggestion the military is a social role model. They point to recent incidents like the Army's sexual abuse scandal at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Navy's Tailhook scandal, and the military's policy on gays and lesbians as evidence that the military falls far short in its claims to moral superiority. And 68 percent of general civilians in the TISS study believe that, at least some of the time, the military also seeks ways to avoid carrying out civilian orders with which it disagrees.

The fact is, Feaver's research shows most civilians see the military as a foreign culture. After twenty-seven years of the all-volunteer force, the majority of such elite civilians as government leaders, university professors, and corporate CEOs have never served in the armed forces, and many don't personally know someone in the military. At Duke, for example, the majority of students and faculty today haven't had a relative or a friend in the active-duty military. For some students in Feaver's seminar class, a year-end party screening of Saving Private Ryan was the closest they'd ever come to understanding military experience in combat. In this case, at least, lack of familiarity has bred misunderstanding, if not outright contempt. In the TISS study, 21 percent of the civilian non-veteran elites nationwide said they would be disappointed if one of their children joined the armed forces. Only 7 percent of military officers felt that way.

"In political science courses, we talk a lot about war and international conflict," says Carrie Anne Hayes, a junior, "but we don't know anyone who's been in a war. Or who might go to war, for that matter."

The idea of a civilian-military gap is not new. American policymakers have struggled to reconcile the distinctive culture and mission of the armed forces with democratic ideals even before the country was born. In the eighteenth century, colonial leaders feared peacetime armies could serve as a means to coerce the population or install tyranny by force. "Soldiers are apt to consider themselves as a Body distinct from the rest of the Citizens," Samuel Adams wrote in 1776. "Their rules and their discipline is severe. They soon become attached to their officers and disposed to yield implicit obedience to their commandsÉsuch a Power should be watched with a jealous Eye." In his 1957 book The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington wrote that the military has always had "the outlook of an estranged minority."

So until the 1970s, the U.S. relied as much as possible upon draftees and short-term volunteers, people who served in uniform and then returned to civilian life. That policy kept the civilian-military gap to a minimum. Getting good help for Uncle Sam wasn't a problem; before 1965, many young men viewed military service as a rite of passage, and neither the powerful nor the famous were exempt. During World War II, movie stars left Hollywood and baseball's star players hung up their spikes to serve in uniform. Future presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Bush all served. Future Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee wrote that he couldn't wait to escape Harvard to go fight overseas.

Vietnam turned everything inside out. Military service no longer earned a rubber stamp of approval in American society. Where Elvis grinned through the buzz created by his first G.I. haircut in 1958, only a decade later Muhammad Ali relinquished his boxing crown and his freedom rather than enlist in the "white man's war." The educated began to evade the draft or look for refuge in universities and stateside National Guard units, rationalizing their choices as moral and service as stupid or wrong. Meanwhile, those without education or connections, or those who felt an obligation, went off to Vietnam.

By 1973, when the all-volunteer force was implemented, many in the civilian elite regarded U.S. involvement in Vietnam as a near-criminal fiasco, and not serving was considered a moral course of action for anyone with a healthy conscience. The 1970s were the low point of the modern military. Morale plummeted, while drug abuse, illiteracy, and racial tension reached new highs. Forty percent of Army recruits in the Seventies were high school dropouts. The Marine Corps reported nearly 1,100 racial incidents. The military became an olive-green warehouse for the underclass--the safety net for people without options.

The military was steering a course for disaster until Ronald Reagan's presidential election in 1980 turned the ship around. Reagan pumped mega-dollars and confidence into the Pentagon as part of his aggressive Cold War campaign against what he termed the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union. The services changed their advertising campaigns to sell themselves as a place to earn money for college while traveling a road to adventure. The ranks of ROTC programs at major universities swelled thanks to ample scholarship money (enrollment in ROTC units at Duke in 1983 was nearly triple what it is today).

Hollywood switched gears to reflect the culture shift, as movies like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now gave way to An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun. Recruiting standards got tougher as services required a high school diploma or a GED equivalent. The military is now better educated than the general population: Ninety-six percent of recruits earned high school diplomas in 1995 compared to 79 percent of civilians; 40 percent of all officers hold postgraduate degrees. The Gulf War capped the military's return to the mountaintop. Whatever its merit as a war, Desert Storm was a brilliant public-relations effort, giving Americans a new John Wayne archetype in "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf and a poster child for the meritocracy in Colin Powell.

Now, in the aftermath of the Cold War, most experts consider the American military the best-trained institution of its kind in the world. And to its credit, the military has successfully tackled problems--most notably race relations--that continue to bedevil society at large. From their first day of training, for example, Marine Corps recruits are told point-blank: "Your job is to undo eighteen years of MEismÉ. Forget about black, white, or red --you're all green to us." As Northwestern University sociologist and military-culture expert Charles Moskos points out, "The military is still the only place in America where blacks routinely boss whites around."

But according to TISS adviser Andrew Bacevich, a historian at Boston University, the military's long journey back has come with scars and resentments. "The military today has a deep-seated suspicion of civilian society. It's part of the Vietnam hangover--'You guys betrayed us once, and you could do it again.' "

That suspicion isn't going away anytime soon, and it's being translated into political terms. The advent of the all-volunteer force and the legacy of the Reagan years may explain one of the most striking findings of the TISS project, which comes from the work of project participant Ole Holsti, George V. Allen Professor Emeritus of Political Science: The military is overwhelmingly Republican. While ordinary Americans divide themselves about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, the study found that 64 percent of today's elite military officers call themselves Republicans. Only 8 percent said they were Democrats. Comparable data from 1976 found that only 33 percent of military officers claimed Republican status. True, the military has always been generally more conservative than civilian society, but never have military officers been so openly aligned with one political party, and the shift has come about even as more women and minorities enter the ranks.

Before Vietnam, most military officers declared themselves to be non-partisan or independent, and for much of the twentieth century, part of the military's ethos was to remain strictly apolitical. Sixty years ago, General George C. Marshall, who went on to become a prominent political leader as Secretary of State, refused even to vote in elections in order to preserve his neutral, apolitical status while serving as a fighting man. "A political military is worrisome if it just becomes another interest group," says Ole Holsti. Adds Feaver, "Democrats in Congress might be less willing to listen to warnings or recommendations from a military establishment they perceive as overwhelmingly Republican, and vice versa."

Despite the military's increasing political polarization, fewer and fewer politicians have actually served in the armed forces. For the first time in U.S. history, veterans are under-represented in Congress compared to the population as a whole: Only about one-fourth of today's members of Congress are veterans; in 1971, three-quarters had served. The potential impact of this decline may surprise those civilians who assume veterans-turned-politicians are a hawkish clan.

According to a paper written for the project by Christopher Gelpi, assistant professor of political science, since at least 1816, the greater the number of veterans serving in political office, the less likely the U.S. has been to initiate the use of force in the international arena. And Feaver predicts that the predilection for use of force will increase as fewer veterans hold policymaking positions. Republician representative Heather Wilson of New Mexico, who served in the Air Force for eight years and is the first female veteran ever to serve in Congress, says that veterans bring a useful sense of caution to debates over military deployments. "We understand the military is not a toy," says Wilson. "It's made up of real men and women. We understand the limitations on the use of force and we don't take [using the military] lightly."

Military elites and civilian elites also hold different views on the proper use of force, resulting in policymaking friction already observed in debates over the Gulf War, Somalia, and Kosovo. Though they solidly support civilian control, elite military officers now believe it is their role to insist and advocate rather than merely advise on such key use-of-force decisions as developing an exit strategy and setting the rules of engagement in a conflict situation. "Now the military feels obliged to 'rescue' civilians from making dumb mistakes," says Feaver.

Another TISS finding challenges the conventional military argument that civilians are more averse to suffering battlefield casualties. Researchers found that today's senior military officers tend to be the most reluctant about taking casualties, up to four times more averse than civilians (mass or elite). Feaver says this reluctance may have something to do with a growing zero-defect mentality in the ranks. "Casualties have become a sign of failure," he says, "something senior officers don't want happening on their watch."

Most experts, including Feaver and TISS investigator Richard Kohn, agree that a military is crucial to a democracy but cannot itself be democratic. They don't advocate a society made in the military's image, nor do they recommend a "civilianized" militia-style military. In the end, Feaver sees the civilian-military gap as a communication problem that may be overcome through what he calls "academic cross-pollination." For example, up-and-coming officers could be required to attend civilian institutions for postgraduate education. Civilian leaders could spend more time in workshops or year-long fellowships at places like West Point and Annapolis. Colleges could require undergraduates to complete a course in military history and culture, a reasonable request given war's persistence as a thorn in the flesh of human evolution. Academic history departments could give military historians a more prominent role within their field.

"It's a very small area of inquiry now," says Kohn, himself a military historian and chair of the Curriculum on Peace, War, and Defense at UNC-Chapel Hill. "To be perfectly candid, at the most prominent universities, faculty are often anti-military."

Feaver believes elite universities should restore ROTC on campus, in order to provide more access to the military for bright students and to better educate civilian students about military affairs. "Students at these schools can, at least potentially, go their entire lives without seeing or interacting with a military person," he says. Though Duke continues to maintain one of the most extensive ROTC programs among top universities, including all major branches of the armed forces, other schools such as Yale, Princeton, and Harvard threw ROTC off-campus in the aftermath of Vietnam. According to U.S. Department of Navy statistics, of approximately 13,000 students who graduated from Ivy League institutions last year, fewer than thirty entered the Navy or the Marine Corps.

"Duke is a small campus, and you notice the faces of the students who wear the uniforms," says Duke junior and seminar participant Eugene Hsu. "And then you notice them again when they're in civilian clothes. There are some class differences, sure. Some people here look down on ROTC students as has having sold their bodies to the government for financial aid. But others, including me, respect what they're doingÉ. If we interact, we're less likely to be alienated from them."

Finally, some experts claim the answer to closing the gap isn't more military service--it's service, period. In their minds, the real danger in America is the civilian ethos of serving self above all else. AmeriCorps has become a popular cause within the Clinton Administration, but only a tiny proportion of college graduates go into the Peace Corps or Teach for America. Thomas Ricks, whose book Making the Corps (1997) provided the impetus for Feaver and Kohn to launch the TISS project, believes a type of national service lottery could work. "Along the lines of some of the European countries and Israel, youths could be given the choice of serving eighteen months in the military or two years in a community-service organization."

For his part, Feaver is training his students rigorously to become experts on the gap. He demands graduate-level performance from his juniors and seniors in the seminar, sometimes to the point of inciting near-panic. "This is the hardest course I've taken at Duke," reads one of the student comments on a final course evaluation. Another wrote, "My God. Give me my Duke diploma now. I've earned it!"

The students were challenged to work with the TISS project research data and contribute original ideas. They developed a project website (www.poli.duke.edu/civmil/), underwent crash-course training in statistical regression analysis, and completed massive group projects. "They definitely seemed overwhelmed at times," says Krista Wiegand, a political science graduate student and teaching assistant for the course, "but Professor Feaver did a good job of making the course fun, too."

Feaver told his students he wanted them to produce papers that he could cite in the TISS study. "He said, 'I know you guys are going to hate it, but that's how the real world works,' " says Eugene Hsu. "He knew that trying to coordinate with each other on this huge one-hundred-page project would heighten our sense of how difficult it must be for civilian and military officials to work together."

Feaver, who favors bow ties and resembles a young Harry Truman in his round glasses, grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and attended Lehigh University. He almost joined the U.S. Navy out of school, and is now an officer in the Naval Reserves. "I asked the successful father of the woman I was dating what he thought I should do to be a success. He said I should become a Navy officer. I think he just wanted me away from his daughter."

Instead of going to sea, Feaver accepted a graduate scholarship to Harvard University, where he earned his Ph.D. in government in 1990, concentrating on nuclear weapons command and control. He came to Duke in 1991, and in 1993 spent a year in Washington working for the National Security Council. He remembers the Clinton White House as notorious for performing poorly in relationships with the military during his time at the NSC. "I was there when General [Colin] Powell retired as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs," recalls Feaver. "President Clinton wanted his staff to come up with some funny and thoughtful gifts for the retirement ceremony. So I spent two weeks of my life as the White House rep on gag gifts."

One of the gifts was a personalized license plate for Powell's Volvo. The plates had to be special ordered from Lorton Prison in Virginia, a process that normally took weeks. "I called Lorton and told them President Clinton needed these plates ASAP!" says Feaver. "They didn't care, so whatÉ.Then I said the plates were for General Powell, and they were like, 'Oh yeah? No problem--why didn't you tell us that to begin with!'"

Feaver says he scrambled around the D.C. area seeking the best gifts for the Powell retirement bash, while on the other side of the world armored tanks were rolling into Moscow in a volatile parliamentary coup. Given his expertise on nuclear command and control, Feaver says he assumed he would be called in to brief the president--his first official shot at "POTUS (President of the U.S.) Face Time." "I did get to brief the president--about the gag gifts. The good news was he loved them and the retirement ceremony went off great. It was my moment in the sun, a shining example for civil-military relations in the Clinton era." About his time at the NSC, Feaver recalls, "It was a great experience--and a great education in the difference between theory and practice."

To integrate theory and practice for his

students, Feaver insists on having students accompany him each time he travels to Washington for discussions and symposia on the TISS research. Whether briefing think-tank scholars or Pentagon officials, each trip was an opportunity to bring the classroom readings and lectures to life.

Junior Jennifer Bassler and senior Jamie Satnick joined Feaver on one such day trip to brief the Commandant of the Marine Corps. "It was pretty cool to tell my Duke friends, 'Yeah, I'm going up to the Pentagon tomorrow to brief the Marines,' " says Satnick. For her, growing up as she did in a Jewish family in the New Jersey suburbs, the military was a completely foreign entity. "No one in my family has ever been in the military, though my grandfather did try to enlist in World War II." Asked how she would describe the armed forces before taking Feaver's course, she says "very insensitive," "not educated," and "bigoted." "I guess my stereotype of the military was a Christian, Southern, white male, someone very rigid. I think now I understand better how military personnel have to be, though I still don't totally relate to them." Asked to describe the Marines in one word, she doesn't even blink: "Hard-core."

In contrast to Satnick, Bassler joined Duke's Air Force ROTC program her sophomore year, and intends to serve as an active-duty officer after graduation. She came to Duke from a non-military family living on the affluent North Shore of Chicago, with no intention of serving Uncle Sam. "I finally joined because I liked the idea of doing something above myself," she says. "I didn't like the superficiality and materialism of modern life, and I wanted to learn leadership."

Some of her friends and family, Bassler says, still don't understand why she would join. "They think I'm just going to take orders and not use my education. To me, it's not that way at all. You have to think if you're going to make it as an officer--robots will not succeed." Bassler says those in the military grapple with moral dilemmas many civilians can skirt easily, like "When should you put your life on the line for others?"

How was their trip to the Pentagon? They saw the polished hallways that stretched on forever, the security checkpoints, the portraits of former defense secretaries and Medal of Honor winners lining the walls, the doorplates for the "undersecretary" of this and the "deputy assistant" of that. Satnick and Bassler, in their chic dark suits, stuck out amid the harried majors and colonels--mostly male and shuttling files and coffee mugs from office to office. They witnessed a pep rally for the annual Army-Navy football game worthy of the Cameron Crazies. They assisted Feaver while he briefed General Terrence Dake, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, trying to avoid staring at the gleaming four stars on the general's collar or at his perfectly cropped hair the color of snow. They also met Sergeant Major Alford McMichael, the Marines' highest-ranked enlisted official, a bald African-American gentleman with the posture of a ballet dancer and the body-fat content of a brick. Anyone could read the look on their faces. For Satnick it was a bizarre carnival, a wild curiosity. For Bassler it was, possibly, the future.

"That place was intense," says Bassler. "As an ROTC cadet, I felt like a bug there, but being there makes you realize what a crucial part the Pentagon plays in the policy world. It seems like it would be real easy to not even think about the civilian world in a place like that."

"I thought the general was such a cute old man," says Satnick, still impressed by Dake's square jaw and great hair but not intimidated in the least. "I don't know if he should have that much faith in us, though. Look at Duke students in general. We are supposed to be the young elite--and how many of us are on top of foreign policy or national security issues? How many of us even read a newspaper other than The Chronicle? Once we leave here, most of us will have no understanding of the military, yet some of us will end up in government. If I were in the military, I don't know if I would fully trust civilians to make the best decisions."

Kicklighter '86 is a freelance writer and former U.S. Marine Corps captain.

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