Widgets Magazine

Bridging the civilian-military gap

In honor of Veterans Day, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Stanford professor David Kennedy ’63 spoke on Monday about the danger posed by the widening gap between civilians and the military in the United States.

Professor emeritus of history David Kennedy '63 gave a Veterans Day presentation on the modern military and its relationship to society. (ZETONG LI/The Stanford Daily)

Professor emeritus of history David Kennedy ’63 gave a Veterans Day presentation on the modern military and its relationship to American society. (ZETONG LI/The Stanford Daily)

At the event, which was held at the Clark Center and sponsored by the Stanford Historical Society, Kennedy identified the 1970s creation of an all-volunteer military force as a turning point in civilian-military relations.

“This is not your daddy’s or your granddaddy’s army,” he said. “We are in a very, very different situation [today] with regard to who serves, with regard to the missions they are asked to take.”

According to Kennedy, a report commissioned by President Nixon in the 1970s presciently identified several of the challenges that would be faced by an all-volunteer military force, including alienation of the military from society, overrepresentation of low-income Americans in the military and a decline in American concern about foreign policy.

“All of [the report’s] criticisms, it seems, have substantially come to pass,” he said, noting that the amount of overseas deployments has more than quadrupled since the transition to an all-volunteer force.

In contrast to Kennedy’s remarks, interviews with three Hoover National Security Affairs Fellows — senior military officers doing a yearlong research fellowship at Stanford — painted a more positive picture of the all-volunteer military force and civilian-military relations.

“Pretty much all of us who were in the all-volunteer force are absolutely committed to it and completely against any mention of the word ‘draft,'” said current Hoover Fellow Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Atkins of the United States Air Force. “From a military discipline and motivation side, having an all-volunteer force is just fantastic.”

Lieutenant Colonel Brant Eggers of the United States Marine Corps, also a Fellow, echoed Atkins’ comments, adding that in an all-volunteer force, “we have people who want to be there; we have people who serve there because they’ve made a decision.”

At the same time, the Hoover Fellows shared several of Kennedy’s concerns about the growing civilian-military divide.

“I think the all-volunteer force is a great thing. Do I have concerns behind the makeup of the all-volunteer force? I do, a little bit,” Eggers said. “I think we have to do a better job educating the civilian world that…we’re no different than the civilian world; we just wear this camouflage uniform and we go to war if the country calls on us.”

Another Fellow, Lieutenant Colonel Roy Collins of the United States Air Force often shares his military experiences with the students in his classes here at Stanford. Fellows are permitted to audit courses, giving them an opportunity to interact directly with students and professors in an academic environment.

“The students in both of [the classes I am auditing] have no military affiliations, none whatsoever. They don’t know anyone in the military [and] they don’t know anything about the military,” said Collins. “It’s been a very good exchange…just talking to them about what we do [and] why we do it.”

While these academic exchanges are a valuable opportunity to bridge the civilian-military divide, their necessity highlights the size of the gap between the civilian and military communities.

Kennedy noted that in meetings with ROTC cadets, he was repeatedly asked, “Professor Kennedy, can you explain to us how it is that the army is at war and the country is not?”

Atkins recalled Kennedy’s remarks in his interview, stating that “on one level, of course, you agree with that because you come home from Kabul and you go to Best Buy and it’s like there’s no war happening.”

“The other side of the coin is that it’s probably OK on a very deep level that our country is not in a state of wartime footing, that the terrorists did not achieve their objectives and that people are getting on with their lives,” Atkins added.

Kennedy theorized that a growing civilian-military gap actually increases public respect and gratitude for the military.

“The military institution is the only institution in our society that commands more popular respect today than it did, for example, in the Vietnam era,” he said.

All three Fellows agreed that they’ve been treated with respect here at Stanford, describing overwhelmingly positive experiences on the Farm and praising the culture of open academic discussion.

Atkins described his time here as “a tremendous opportunity,” saying that the fellowship “allows you to explore disruptive thinking, so you’re not completely channeled in the very linear military method of approaching problem solving.”

Collins shared anecdotes of simply walking into the offices of other Hoover affiliates and having lengthy conversations about topics from economics to international relations.

“We’re not even through one quarter of our time here and I feel I’ve gained so much just by being on this campus and walking these hallways [at Hoover],” he said. “I think it’s making me an even better officer.”

Contact Lindsay Funk at lfunk ‘at’ stanford.edu