The Civilian-Military Gap Closes in a War-Weary Nation

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“Many Americans believe that the military instrument of power is currently playing a disproportionately large role in U.S. foreign and security policy.”

–Barry R. McCaffrey, “American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era,” edited by Suzanne C. Nielsen, Don M. Snider

October 7, 2001 marked the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and the first of the wars in response to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.  The U.S. is now in its 17th year of war, which has expanded well beyond the originally targeted hotbed of terrorism and Osama bin Laden’s base of operations. Most recently, the loss of American lives during operations in Niger has brought heightened attention to the extent of the U.S. military’s role in conflicts under the auspices of Congress’s authorization for use of military force (AUMF), also in its 17th year.

A new poll conducted by the Charles Koch Institute and RealClearPolitics surveyed 1,000 members of the American public, including 500 active military and veterans. While the poll confirms previous scholarly analysis on the civilian-military divide, it also reflects the two groups’ shared skepticism of U.S. foreign policy and of the civilian leadership’s role in military interventions abroad.

The survey complements previous work on the topic of civilian-military relations, from the seminal work of Samuel P. Huntington in 1957 to Peter Feaver’s analysis and, most recently, Kori Schake and Jim Mattis’ study regarding attitudes toward policy decisions that send our troops into harm’s way.

This poll’s focus also goes beyond current engagements abroad by addressing the impacts of these operations on the military, their families, and the expense of maintaining the world’s largest fighting force.  Having served during the preponderance of Operation Enduring Freedom -- from supporting counterterrorism operations in the Philippines to Operation Iraqi Freedom and the surge in Iraq -- I offer a veteran’s perspective and analysis.

National Security and Strategy

Perhaps the most striking result of the CKI-RCP poll is the parity of civilian and military responses to 17 years of war and the deaths last month of four U.S. soldiers in Niger.

A less than impressive number of just over 40 percent of both civilians and military/veterans say that these wars have been successful.  Based on my conversations with other veterans and civilians, this positive viewpoint likely stems from deference to the military and the sacrifices made rather than the actual success of these interventions in making the U.S. safer.

There is almost an even split among those who feel that future interventions will make the country safer as compared to those who feel the country will be made less safe. In fact, seven out of 10 military/veterans and civilian respondents believe that over the last 20 years, the number of terrorists abroad intending harm against Americans has increased.

The potential threat posed by North Korea garners a similar response. Both groups say that the threat posed by the Kim Jong-un regime would worsen if the U.S. chooses to strike North Korea preemptively.

The agreement gives weight to the argument that there is a divide between service members/veterans/civilians and the leadership in Washington.

This disconnect is borne out in survey responses regarding the lack of an exit strategy and an outdated AUMF.  Nearly 80 percent of both surveyed groups want a clear exit strategy and congressional approval for these engagements.  The perception of veterans and civilians I have spoken to is that Congress and civilian leaders have failed to take ownership of the decision to send troops into harm’s way.

The deaths in Niger further reinforce this sentiment.  A majority of active military and veterans and a supermajority of civilians were unaware of our involvement in Niger, bringing renewed attention to the need for a revised AUMF. 

Overall, active military members and veterans, along with the general population, are growing more skeptical of U.S. foreign policy decisions, citing the lack of transparency and a coherent, well-defined strategy. I feel, along with fellow veterans, that civilian leaders and politicians need to own these wars through a strategy that is developed through careful analysis by the Pentagon, intelligence community, and the Department of State.  

The Costs of War

Once again, the two groups are in agreement over the impacts of war on our troops and the costs associated with maintaining U.S. armed forces.

Military/veterans and civilians are generally unaware of the costs of maintaining our force and financing wars abroad.  Furthermore, both groups are skeptical that the Department of Defense is spending allocated funds effectively.  Over 75 percent of both groups say wasteful spending is a problem, with a third of those believing it is a significant problem.

Sadly, about two-thirds of the civilians surveyed were unaware of another cost: the impact of repeated deployments on service members and their families. After nearly 17 years of war, the general population is still disconnected from this personal price paid by a relative few in American society.

There is no disconnect, however, in the perceptions of care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.  Most of those in both groups feel only somewhat confident in the care provided by the VA.  This may be driven by the scandals at medical facilities in Phoenix, but veterans’ individual experiences also contribute.  For its part, the VFW has said that most veterans are satisfied with the care they receive, but the organization acknowledges that access to care is not adequate, particularly those living in areas distant from VA facilities.

A Final Note

The CKI-RCP survey has highlighted a crisis of confidence in our nation’s political leadership.  The overwhelming majority of both groups surveyed feel a new congressional authorization is needed for military intervention abroad.  War weariness on the part of military/veterans and civilians alike and the feeling that civilian leadership is reluctant to take ownership of the decisions that send our troops into harm's way are findings of great significance.  The costs, both in lives lost and the hardships borne by military families, manifest in the skepticism that the pollsters found.  Service members and civilians alike expect more from our elected leaders. I too feel that not only should our military leadership be accountable, but Congress and the commander-in-chief, when sending our young men and women into harm’s way.  This might have led to alternate decisions, and better execution, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   

David Paul Craig is the editor for RealClearDefense.

Also read:

Poll: Americans Skeptical of U.S. Military Interventions by James Hitchcock, RealClearPolitics

Full poll results are available here.

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