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Do civilians get you?

Is there a divide between those who serve and everyone else?

Is there a growing divide between those that serve and everyone else? What impacts could that have on our future? U.S. Army photo

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The growing division between civilians and the military is akin to a long-term marriage that is headed for divorce court. For all intents and purposes, it looks like the perfect marriage - the nice house, the right friends, and a comfortable income.

But behind the scenes of this upper middle-class union, there is a great deal of tension, perhaps even some arguments that devolve into yelling and swear words and tears.

This divide between civilians and the military has widened as the number of veterans conscripted through World War II, Korea and Vietnam has decreased.

But things, like marriages, change over time. Those who serve in the military today equal less than one percent of the nation's 330 million population. To those who study and worry about such things, this is bothersome.

"Today, a widening military-civilian divide increasingly impacts our ability to effectively recruit and sustain the force. This disconnect is characterized by misperceptions, a lack of knowledge and an inability to identify with those who serve," said Anthony Kurta, the Pentagon's former top personnel officer, to the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service in May 2019.

"It threatens our ability to recruit the number of quality youth with the needed skill sets to maintain our advantage over any near-peer competitor."

This marriage is clearly unbalanced - one spouse cannot be expected to do almost all of the work while the other does next to nothing.

Kurta added that the divide has been made worse by a shrinking military footprint in this country, a declining veteran population and "uniformed and often misguided" messaging from organizations or the media on the risks of serving in the military.

"Combined, these factors have led to a youth market which is less interested in the military and does not appreciate the social worth or intrinsically-motivating elements of military service," Kurta added.

A recent Department of Defense survey showed an increase between disconnected youth combined with declining positive associations about military service.

Common knowledge about the military is lacking - only 27 percent of the surveyed youth could name all five services. The report also found that a majority of youth think that many who serve and then separate will have some form of psychological or emotional issues.

"Today, when asked how likely it is they will be serving in the military in the next few years, 87% responded 'definitely not' or 'probably not,'" Kurta said.

"While the American public has faith in the efficacy of our military, they feel little to no personal connection with it."

It almost sounds like the DoD is suggesting that the failing marriage between civilians and the military could help with some "me" time, that maybe the couple needs to get back to basics.

According to a 2019 report compiled by the RAND Corporation, fewer than one-third of young Americans meet the basic qualifications to serve in the military. Those who do not qualify often lack a good education, have criminal records, or are overweight.

"As a result, the nation's most expensive and trusted institution is remote from the population that provides the people and money essential to its existence," the report concluded.

"Such an approach is inconsistent with a vibrant democracy" - or the marriage between the civilian and military segments of our society.

A 2021 research study conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 60 percent of millennials (adults between 18 and 29 years old) support the use of ground troops in combating the Islamic State. Yet when asked if they would be willing to serve in the military, only 15 percent stated any willingness to do so.

The irony about this divide in this marriage is that overall Americans view the military as important and effective and well-trained. Pollsters point out that the public views military leaders as courageous and professional and that the service branches contribute to society.

But as Kurta points out, "In fact, a significant proportion of our nation believe joining the military is a good choice for someone else."

This is like saying in a failing marriage that marriage is great for one of the spouses but not for the other. This attitude certainly precedes divorce.

Perhaps the 18th century historian Edward Gibbons was on to something that offers a sobering prediction on what happens to a society that becomes disconnected from its military. In writing about the fall of democracy in ancient Athen's - where there was a marriage between the Greeks and their military - Gibbons wrote the following:

"In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all - security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again."

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