The Siege:

Facing the Military – Civilian Culture Chasm


Dr. Pauline M. Kaurin

Pacific Lutheran University


“Something that is so fundamental to the military is being soundly rejected by the American people”[1]


“Indeed some worry that it works too well, fostering among military personnel a contempt for the more self-indulgent society they serve.”[2]


“Our officer corps may be more divorced from the American elite in value and attitudes than at any time in American history, becoming less diverse in this respect as the American elite has become more heterogeneous.”[3]





These quotes highlight an increasingly obvious and much debated feature of America society: the culture/values gap between the military and American civilian society. 

The military increasingly feels it is under siege by the civilian culture, who does not share its values, but the answer is not for civilians to embrace the ‘traditional’ values of the military anymore than the answer is to expect the military to accommodate its culture to the dominant American perspective (which is changing all the time).  Rather, the most sensible way to bridge the chasm is for each culture to maintain its identity but also to experience and understand where the other is coming from.  We need a difference of cultures, but that difference is rapidly becoming a dangerous chasm based upon ignorance, contempt and a lack of genuine understanding.

In the first section of this paper, I outline the basic problem of the culture gap between the civilian and military cultures and examine some of the standard arguments about what is to be done.  In the second section I ask what conclusions are to be drawn from the current state of this debate, arguing that there clearly is a culture gap between the groups and that there is good reason for it.  However, I also conclude that what we have is not a simply culture gap, but rather a chasm that is based upon civilian ignorance and military disdain and contempt.  In the third section, I examine the possible dangers of such a chasm and whether it is really as dangerous as some of the debate has suggested.  I conclude that there are serious and real dangers to this situation since, if it remains unchanged, the seeds for worse conditions are being sown and the possibility for the two sides co-existing in society are being undermined.  Finally, I give a thumbnail sketch of some practical steps that might be taken to bridge the chasm without eliminating the culture gap entirely.




What precisely is this problem that is usually labeled as the ‘military-civilian culture gap’?  Journalist Arthur Hadley referred to the situation as the ‘Great Divorce’ and defined it as ‘the less-than-amicable separation of the military from the financial, business, political and intellectual elite of this country, particularly from the last two.’[4] In this section I want to look at some of the other ways to define this issue, arguments as to who is to blame for the split and a variety of arguments as to how to deal with it.  The point is not to provide an exhaustive discussion of all of the arguments, rather it is to provide a thumbnail sketch of the basic schools of thought and lines of argument which have characterized much of the debate.

First, I will examine Thomas Rick’s definition and assessment of the problem from The Making of the Corps as a starting point.  Second, I will turn to arguments which suggest that the military culture is the cause of the gap and therefore needs to reform and become more like civilian culture.  Third, I will discuss the ‘culture wars’ argument, which suggests that the cause of the gap is the degeneration of the American civilian culture in the face of the maintenance of a culture of integrity in the military.  Finally, I will examine arguments that suggest that the cause of the gap is rooted in misunderstandings between the military and civilian cultures, largely due to the absence of uniformed military professionals in this debate.  All of these arguments characterize the problem is roughly the same way as Hadley, but they all come to different conclusions as to the cause, whether or not the gap needs remedy and what steps should be taken.


To begin, let me take up Thomas Rick’s treatment of the problem in his book Making the Corps, which follows a group of Marine recruits through their time at Parris Island.  Ricks reflects on the gap, its causes and possible solutions, coming to the conclusion that it has been worsened by two major factors: the lack of conscription and the end of the Cold War.[5]  The end of conscription has led to lack of exposure, on the part of most civilians, to the military culture and has increased the ignorance of civilian elites with respect to the military culture and concerns.  In addition, the end of the Cold War has meant geo-political changes in how the fighting forces are oriented (there is no longer one, clear overwhelming threat) and has meant the maintenance of a standing army in peacetime – a novel experience for Americans.  Ricks believes that these two factors have caused the military (especially the elite) to revert to a garrison or siege mentality: “They (civilians) simply do not understand or care about our mission.”

These two factors have also dovetailed with other changes in the security environment and civilian society to reinforce and increase this siege mentality.  First, there have been changes within the military that have led to a higher degree of professionalism in the military, combined with increased financial and political pressures on a peacetime force, and the politicization of the officer corps have all hardened these attitudes.  Richard Kohn, former chief of Air Force history at University of North Caroline, Chapel Hill sees “…an ethos that is different…They talk about themselves as ‘we’ separate from society.  They see themselves as different, morally and culturally.”[6] Air Force Col. Charles Dunlap has noted that some officers are welcoming the expulsion of ROTC programs from universities (largely in response to the military’s policy on sexual orientation,) because it reduces the number of officers educated in liberal environments.  Various surveys demonstrate that a strong majority (81% of Basic school Lieutenants and 64% of those from Command and Staff College) believe that the values of the military are closer to the values of the founding fathers than that of present society.[7]  Add to these attitudes an increasing propensity toward political action and political identification and you have a phenomenon which concerns many observers who believe that the job of the military is to protect and serve society, not to define and mold it.[8]

Ricks also points to two other changes that have contributed to the problem.  One is the change in the civilian society.  American society has arguably become more fragmented, individualistic, less cohesive and disciplined, putting the values of contemporary civilian society (with an emphasis on material consumption, individual expression and freedom and success) directly at loggerheads with the traditional military values of teamwork, sacrifice, unit cohesion, discipline, tradition and authority.[9]  When this cultural change is combined with changes in the international security environment (fall of the Soviet Union as a credible threat and no clear security threat around which to organize policy and public opinion), it seems that civilians are less interested in defense and more inclined to turn time, attention and money to more ‘pressing’ domestic issues.

So where does this leave us?  Rick highlights the increasing demands for the military to take up a domestic role, which some commentators use to raise the specter of a military coup (a la Chile 1973.)  Ricks down plays this possibility, but does find the increasing gap and particularly the atmosphere of mutual distrust and disdain problematic for the necessary military-civilian relationship laid out in our constitution. 

To remedy the problem he suggests two major alternatives: reinstating the draft and involving the middle class more in military service.[10]  He acknowledges that reinstating the draft is unlikely, but he thinks that it is essential to increase exposure to the military so he urges the following: an expansion of the ROTC program (especially at elite institutions), shortening the service requirement at the academies, sending officers to civilian graduate schools, increasing recruiting and use of reservists and those who might be coming to the military as a second career.  He believes that these steps will increase military experience in the public realm and give academia some exposure to the people and values of the military.  Ricks also insists that the military needs to involve the middle class in military service; the separation of professional Americans and the upper middle class from the broader concerns of society, the common defense among them, only exacerbates the problem and increases the ignorance and distrust.

While Ricks advocates education and outreach so that the two sides can begin to build the common experiences that will allow for better understanding and a better working relationship (some observers, particularly among the academic elite) have insisted that the military culture is to blame and must be reformed to be more in line with the values of contemporary American society.  While these arguments are typically raised in the context of gender equality or inclusion (or lack thereof) of personnel on grounds of sexual orientation, the same arguments are often raised more generally as a call for military culture to change and become more representative of the society it serves. 

To explore these arguments, we need to look at the military culture and what issues are typically raised with respect to it.   Karen Dunivin provides some useful analysis of the military culture and echoes some of the more moderate calls for change;  she begins by articulating four qualities that distinguish a cultural paradigm and apply to the military culture: 1) the behavior must be learned; 2) it must be broadly shared by the members of the culture; 3) it must be adaptive to change and 4) it must be symbolic in nature.[11] 

In thinking about military culture we need to think about how these four qualities manifest themselves in a cultural paradigm; the cultural paradigm that she idenitifies for the military is the Combat, Masculine Warrior (CMW).  This paradigm is organized around three main features: the core activity, the core image and traditional culture model.  First, the military organizes itself in terms of a core activity of combat.  Everything that happens and is essential to military culture is designed to prepare soldiers for combat or in to increase the likelihood of success once in combat.  Second, the military culture is organized around a core image of the masculine warrior image.  One might say that there is a ‘cult of masculinity’ of sorts, which does help explain why gender equality and the status of homosexuals are so problematic; they represent a departure from this core image of what a good soldier should be – the masculine warrior archetype.  Finally, military culture is organized around a traditional culture model, which tends to be a conservative (not just politically), moralistic ideology.  This can be seen in the Uniform Code of Military Justice which sets out the ideology and its rationale, but this traditional culture model can also be seen in the strong cultural resistance to change, notably the integration of racial, gender and sexual minorities.

Duniven insists that all of the norms and activities of military life and experience serve to reinforce and model.  It is through the demonstration of the masculine warrior archetypes traits that one is seen as truly exemplifying what it means to be a soldier and groups or individuals that do not meet this paradigm are viewed with suspicion as outsiders.[12]  She does acknowledge that social changes have occurred within this culture (notably the integration of racial minorities), but insists that in every case these changes were initiated and enforced from the outside and were viewed with distrust and suspicion because they contradicted or threatened this paradigm.

As it turns out, the debate over the civilian-military culture gap is a debate over this dominant paradigm of military culture and according to Dunivin, as long as the paradigm remains the problems and debates will continue and the gap will widen.  Consequently she argues it is time for the military to re-think this dominant paradigm.[13]  First, the military must rethink its combat oriented identity since it is not longer simply an instrument of war; “Thus the military must adopt an identity that encompasses warfighting, peacekeeping and disaster relief roles.”  Second, it must alter its masculine model of the warrior, which she insists is counter-productive, so that it can coherently include women and sexual minorities as full members of the military community.  If the military fails to re-assess its dominant paradigm, Dunivin cautions that “…it could become an isolated counter-culture—an alienated warrior class divorced from the society it defends.”[14]

While Duniven’s argument is only one view, she echoes (in a more moderate tone) some of the arguments that have been made by others, notable by the media and the academy.  These arguments have typically focused on issues of gender and sexual minority discrimination as equal protection issues, but also on the conservative worldview that supports the military culture.  In academic and other circles there are critiques of the military’s authoritarian and male oriented structure in defense of a multicultural, egalitarian society; ethical critiques related to the nature of war itself, to a particular action (Vietnam) and to the military’s connections with groups accused of human rights violations (The School of the Americas.)  These critiques raise the concern that the military’s values are badly out of touch with the essential democratic tradition they purport to represent and defend - a fact which these critics believe requires immediate reform.

However, the so called ‘culture wars’ have another side. There are some, especially within the military, who insist that it is civilian society that is badly out of touch with our essential democratic values and virtues; in short, American society has strayed from the righteous path and is morally degenerating.  It is this that they fault with causing and exacerbating the military-civilian culture gap and they believe it will only be remedied by a return to the traditional values that the military culture represents.  Pat Towell points out that this view really came to a head with the Clinton scandal, during which one Army officer remarked, “Its frustrating that, since we put ‘integrity’ so high, the polls are suggesting this is no big thing…Something that is so fundamental to the military is being rejected by the American people.”[15]  Towell points out that many worry that military culture and socialization in to it works too well and fosters a contempt for the more ‘self indulgent society’ the military serves, echoing Kohn’s concern about the Great Divorce discussed earlier.  In addition to the alienation from and disdain for the civilian culture, the military is less diverse that it has been at virtually any time during its history which raises exactly the kinds of issues discussed above.

However some observers, like John Hillen, argue this gap and alienation is absolutely essential to the mission of the military and that calls for reform are based on a lack of understanding how the culture and mission interface.[16]  He insists that the problem is the changing nature of the American society and that reforming the military culture could actually cause harm by undermining the ability of the military to carry out its mission.  The military culture exists for a reason and it is indexed to the military’s function; you cannot change the culture and still maintain the ability of the military to do its job successfully.  If we compromise the standards of military culture too far, we will end up compromising their fighting ability and might lose a war as a result. Besides, Hillen locates the ‘real’ problem with the elite in American civilian society (academic, political, financial and media), insisting that most Americans appreciate the role and importance of the military and its culture.[17]

A slightly more accommodating version of this argument is offered by commentators like Don Snider, who insist that the gap is based upon civilian misunderstandings about the military.  These misunderstandings can be traced, according to Snider, to the lack of uniformed personnel participating in this debate.  What seems to be taking place is that outsiders have judged that military culture is unacceptably foreign to and isolated from American civilian culture, but Snider insists these judgements are problematic because 1) there is no real discussion of what constitutes military culture and why it exists the way it does (concurring with Hillen) and 2) there is no real voice for the military professional in this debate.[18]

Like Duniven, Snider offers analysis of military culture arguing that the four components that characterize a uniquely military culture (discipline, professional ethos, ceremonial displays and etiquette and cohesion/esprit de corps) are all indexed and connected to successfully fighting a war.  However, he also points out that, while there are similarities and common themes, to suggest that there is one homogenous military culture is at best, disingenuous and at worse, patently false.[19]  The suggestion that ‘military culture’ needs to be reformed belies exactly the kind of ignorance and misunderstanding that Snider sees as the root of the problem and as needing remedy before anything else can be done.  Therefore, he suggests that the military professionals should be exercising their voice in this discussion and should take a hand in recasting the direction of the debate. “A truly informed is called for—one concerned with effective policy making and focused on all the subcultures and their influences…on military capabilities and effectiveness. The purposes of the military and its ability to fulfill these purposes should drive the debate, not its racial or gender composition.”[20]

While many of the arguments I have outlined above were originally mounted in the elite circles of the military, political, media or academic institutions, in recent years they have moved beyond those circles and into the mainstream.  This has caused this issue to become an important topic, both in terms of public interest and policy formation. To summarize, all of these arguments in some way acknowledge that some kind of gap or cultural difference exists, but there are vastly divergent views on where the fault lies or what is to be done (if anything) to remedy the situation.  Some call for the reform of the ‘military culture’and  some for the reform of the ‘civilian culture;’ some insist that the gap does not need to be remedied and some that the military take a greater role in the debate; while others hope that education and exposure will bring détente and better cooperation.



            Now that we have examined the various arguments in the debate, we are in a position to ask what conclusions can be draw about this issue.  The first conclusion is that there clearly is a cultural gap between the two groups.  The military focuses on virtues like honor, truth-telling, sacrifice, loyalty, obedience, integrity, espirit de corps and team work, while the larger civilian culture focuses on individual rights, free expression, material consumption, equality, personal achievement and multiculturalism.  The logical question would be: why is there such a difference between these two groups?  After all, we are not living in Plato’s Republic where guardians are carefully culled and reared for their future job, largely isolated from the larger civilian society.  Our soldiers are part of civilian society until they join the military or enter the academies and presumably have experienced and lived this civilian culture.  What happens when people enter the military life that produces such a gap?

            The answer to this question is not terribly complicated.  We should not be surprised that we have two cultures and a gap because the military and the larger civilian world occupy different worlds with different concerns, agendas and priorities.  The military is given the special job of protecting and defending the nation from “all enemies, foreign and domestic” which can and does involve the use of lethal force.  Among other things soldiers are train to kill and if necessary to sacrifice their life for this goal.  They must work together to accomplish their missions and very often it is not just success, but their life that depends on qualities like teamwork, taking and executing orders and being loyal.  Military personnel are doing things and are in situations that no civilian encounters.  Therefore, it stands to reason that a culture particular to those issues and concerns develops and in fact, is necessary.

            Nor should it be surprising that contemporary American culture does not share these values.  Contemporary American life is not oriented toward prosecuting war or keeping the peace, rather it is focused on the defense of individual rights, economic and social prosperity and the pursuit of the ‘American dream.’  Therefore, it follows that a culture suited to these issues and concerns would develop and one has.  This culture tends to emphasize the individual as an equal and economic progress and prosperity – which includes things like individual expression, identity politics and competition and debate as the way concerns are resolved. 

Consequently there is a culture gap and it is necessary.  The military is focused an issues and concerns that the larger civilian culture is not and while the military does participate in this larger culture to some extent, does so from a different perspective.  The civilian culture meanwhile does not participate in this military culture except as an outsider looking in on a foreign experience.

If this is all true, is there really any cause for concern?  Do not we just have a simple culture gap, which is necessary and supported by good reasons?  Isn’t all the hand wringing and debate mush ado about nothing?  If there were simply a culture gap, I would agree that this is really much ado about nothing and that there is not much to be overly concerned about.    However, I believe that there is more than a culture gap; rather, what we have is a wide chasm which seems to becoming more pronounced and shows no signs of reversing.  A chasm is cause for a great deal more concern and hand wringing than a mere cultural difference.

On the civilian side of this question, there is a serious lack of understanding about what goes on in the military (which is understandable), but also about the military culture and ethos – the concerns, issues and priorities of the military.  Why is this?  I think that this is mainly due to a lack of experience and very limited exposure.  Since the end of the draft and the advent of an all-volunteer force, the only exposure that most civilians have with military culture and concerns is through the media.  Whatever views one has about the media, it is clear that the picture of the military ethos and culture received only through the media (like all other things) will be partial, incomplete and even false – either overly critical or overly romanticized.

Recent military operations have born this fact out and reveal that not all of the fault lies with the media.  In an attempt to avoid what was viewed as the role of the media in ‘losing’ Vietnam, media access was strictly controlled and monitored which resulted in an incomplete picture.[21] This lack of understanding is largely a case of benevolent neglect ( as opposed to open hostility) since many Americans (especially as the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ fades and the Gulf War imagery replaces it) have a positive view of the military but simply do not know much about it.  In a sense, the military has suffered from its own public relations success: How can civilians be expected to charitably and realistically understand something they do not have direct, unmediated experience with?  How can members of Congress or other civilian politicians and bureaucrats, with no military experience or real understanding of the military culture, reasonably be expected to understand and appreciate the military ethos and culture?  The answer is simple: they cannot.

On the military side, it is not simply a case of benevolent neglect, but rather one of active disdain and contempt, in addition to ignorance and superficial understanding.  In the military, we are seeing outright contempt and disdain for what is viewed as a corrupt, soft civilian culture that is not appreciative or deserving of the service given by the military.[22]  This view is especially evident in the officer corps and among the more elite groups where these attitudes are noticeably crystallized; this is also supported by the increasing politicization of the officer corps, a politicization that has largely been oriented to the conservative side.  There is an attitude of moral superiority coupled with the fact that the military is called upon to do things and know things which civilians are not and cannot.

An example illustrates this point.  The ROTC officer was invited to speak to an upper-division Philosophy of War class (which included ROTC students) on chemical and biological warfare – the officer’s special area.  Clearly there are issues that he would and could not discuss and the students are appraised of this fact and encouraged beforehand to prepare their questions and comments accordingly.  The ROTC officer the appraised by professor of the content of the course and some of the issues that they had been exploring in the discussion, expressing the hope that they would really engage both the ethical and practical concerns on this topic.  However, when the officer comes to the class, one might have thought it was 1970 and the students were hippies from Kent State.  The officer is morally superior (as he made a point of saying at regular intervals), condescending, and arrogant. He pursues his presentation as an articulation on the theme of ‘if you knew what I know you would agree with me,’ rather than taking the opportunity to engage and educate the students (who have been studying the issues and present a cordial, respectful welcome with very little indication of hostility or even the critical stance one expects from philosophy students) with fact and arguments or by addressing the ethical issues.

While it would be comforting to think this kind of example is an isolated incident, what this story (and countless others) demonstrates is a common attitude of suspicion, superiority and condescension with respect to members of the civilian culture they purport to defend and protect.  This also illustrates the larger and more serious problem: some of these attitudes are based upon a stereotypical, superficial or even false understanding of the ‘civilian culture.’  It should be pointed out that just as not all military personnel are George Patton or Oliver North, neither are all civilians Gloria Steinem or Ralph Nader.  By and large, the military culture does not understand or appreciate the perspectives or concerns of the civilain culture any better than the civilians understand the military. 

Instead there is a superfifical understanding of American culture as co-extensive with the ‘academic/media/liberal elite’ which is viewed as naturally hostile to the military.  Clearly the values of these groups are present in American culture, but it is not clear that American culture as a whole or most Americans endorse the world views of these groups.  Further, there is no more a homogenous American civilian culture anymore than there is a homogenous military culture; there are various sub-cultures that vie for dominance, among which are the ‘academic/media/liberal elite’ which is itself not homogenous.[23]  It seems that the military culture, based upon stereotypes and superficial understandings, has passed judgement on the civilian culture as wrong, degenerating and corrupt – either by implication or by outright statements to that effect that military culture and values are superior.  In short, any real conversation between the military and larger civilian cultures is at an impasse.  All of this points to the conclusion that what we have is not a simple culture gap, but rather a large and ever widening chasm.




If one grants that there is a chasm, not simply a cultural difference, what are the real dangers?  How serious a problem is this?  Is it a problem that really needs to be addressed or is it simply a tolerable and unavoidable fact about contemporary military-civilian relations?  I argue that this is an alarming and extremely dangerous situation, especially if nothing is done to remedy it and soon.  The first source of danger is that the situation as it stands no has no oppurtunity to change on its own.  As the military becomes increasingly politicized the danger becomes that to be a ‘real’ solider one might have to demonstrate certain moral, social and political views.  Increasingly there is an atmosphere of disdain, contempt and moral superiority among the officer corps – from which the other solders take their cues- with respect to the civilain culture and it is not a far jump from that to non-military consideration becoming part of the military culture.  Will loyalty mean loyalty to the core values and the Republican Party?

The second source of danger comes from the skepticism and distrust on both sides of this debate (less and descreasing on the civilian side but more so and increasing on the military side) which does not promote and can inhibit an atmosphere of mutual cooperation and understanding that is essential in a society where one places the military under civilian control.  This combination of disdain, ignorance and skepticism is extremely dangerous to this essential working relationship.

The recent movie The Siege (starring Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis) illustrates some of these concerns.  The plot of the movie centers on the aftermath of a major terrorist action in New York City and the interactions between the CIA, the military and the civilian authorities as they attempt to deal with the attack and find the terrorists.  Eventually a state of martial law is declared and Willis character (a general) is put in charge, resulting in the Arab-American males being rounded up, interrogated, tortured and even summarily executed in an attempt to find the perpetrators.  The central question of the movie is whether such violations of constitutional and human rights are justified to defend the nation against a threat: Can one shred the Constitution in the name of defending and preserving it?  What the movie chillingly illustrates is how the culture chasm at issue could play out in a time of national crisis, especially in a case where the military is called in to deal with a domestic crisis, even to the point of a military overthrow or control of the government and populace.[24]

One might counter that this is a movie after all and that the danger I am pointing to is overblown.  After all the military is genuinely committed to preserve and defend the Constitution and believes in the principle of civilian control and therefore, such a scenario simply isn’t likely to happen.  While I agree that we are dealing with fiction, the movie points to the exact situation that we presently see in military – civilian relations: the ignorance and skepticism on both sides coupled with a military leader who believes that his values and the military values are morally superior to that of Washington’s civilian character.  The general is prepared (and says so) to shred the Constitution in order to defend it, to act against civilian authority to control it, and is morally outraged that Washington’s character dares to question his authority.

If there are any doubts that this could happen in a democracy one need only look to various nations in Central and South America (with democratically elected civilian governments) where a highly educated, elite trained officer corps (supported by their troops,) who espoused many of the same moral values as our military does, overthrew what they saw as degenerate and corrupt civilian government in order to preserve the ‘true’ values of their nation.  The most obvious example is that of Chile in 1973, but it is not the only instance of this relatively common occurrence.

Even if one thinks that that the likelihood of a couple are far fetched and that it is unlikely that the military will be used domestically in such a way as to make The Siege scenario possible, there is still a more important problem.  The cause of such scenarios is not a structural or policy issue, but is the result of an atmosphere of ignorance, disdain and suspicion.  Such attitudes and lack of understanding cannot help but undermine the working relationship between the military and larger civilian culture.  If nothing is done to address the underlying cultural chasm, then the seeds lay dormant for exactly these sort of scenarios to happen and it will only be a matter of exceedingly good luck if they do not happen.  There is a real and serious danger here and time will only serve to make it worse.[25]




If there really is such a cultural chasm between the military and civilian cultures and it does pose at least some of the dangers that I have discussed about, what is to be done?  I have argued that this chasm is much too serious to be left alone and in fact, that it will only worsen left alone.  This fact would seem to call for some kind of practical and immediate solutions to be presented.  In this section I want to offer a thumbnail sketch of a few things that are practical, not unreasonable (both in terms of time and available resources) and will begin to repair some of the damage that this chasm has caused.  However, I do so with some reservations and a strong caveat.  Clearly this is a serious and complicated problem which has roots deep in our society and history, so let me repeat that a cultural gap (not chasm) is necessary and beneficial to the role of the military in a democratic society.  I believe that the chasm must be dealt with and that some rapprochement is in order, but I strongly reiterate that I am by no means advocating a complete bridging of the differences.  Any calls for one side to become like the other (regardless of which way this is to go) tends to raise one cultural ethos above the other and only exacerbates and compounds the problems.

Most of my suggestions center on trying to come to some sort of understanding, both intellectual and practical, of the other cultural ethos – a cultural exchange of sorts.  In my view, the most damaging part of the cultural chasm is the attitudes and assumptions that each side makes about the other without adequate appreciation and understanding; it is this problem that inhibits the important working relationship that must exist between the two groups.  Therefore, my suggestions are designed to encourage each side to appreciate another cultural ethos charitable, but to do so without having to surrender one’s own view in the process.  A mark of an educated and charitable person is the ability to carefully listen to and consider another point of view, even if one still holds to an original perspective after having heard the other side.[26]  Only this kind of understanding will genuinely begin to bridge the differences and allow for working relationships to be maintained.

On the civilian side of the equation, the central problem to be addressed is the ignorance and lack of understanding and to keep this from turning into disdain or contempt.  One obvious place to remedy this is in college education, especially given the fact that more and more of the populace is going to college and will do so in the future.  I would urge that every college student take some class on war and ethics, such as class might come from a variety of disciplines and include questions the like causes of war, history of major conflicts, ethical issues involved in war itself (including but not restricted to just war theory) as well as in waging war (law of warfare and the like) and the larger policy issues involved in the international community.  A class of this sort would enable us to educate the voting citizenry in the issues that face policymakers (which they are or will be), but also give them a greater appreciation of the issues and dilemmas that are faced by contemporary armed forces.  This might also go a long way to alleviating a common complaint on the military side: that the civilian populace simply does not understand the ethical issues that are involved in contemporary warfare.

Secondly, I agree with Thomas Ricks that more comprehensive integration is needed between the ROTC programs and their host institutions.  This would increase the exposure of civilian students to the military ethos, issues and concerns, but it would also increase the exposure of administrators and faculty as well.  It is often asserted that the academic elite is hostile to the military or anti-war, and while there are academics that hold such views, academics are largely just as ignorant as their students about the military ethos – even if their institution has a ROTC program.  However, this is a solvable problem and increasing the understanding of the faculty and promoting good relations with those who educate students, whether ROTC or civilian, will have an influence on how those students will view and understand the military perspective as citizens.  Successful integration of this sort can also teach students and faculty alike a model of military cooperation that can only improve the working relationship between the military and civilian authorities in the larger sphere of government and foreign policy.

On the military side of the question, the major problem that needs to be addressed is not the ignorance (which is certainly of concern) but the disdain and contempt often exhibited toward the ‘civilian culture.’  First, I believe that education can go along way to sorting out this issue.  Soldiers, but especially the officer corps (who are expected to lead by example) need to have something like a liberal arts model of education where they are exposed in detail to the issues in the civilian culture so they can gain a genuine understanding of intellectual history and why values and society have changed so remarkably.  More than any other members of society, our officers need to have a genuine and clear understanding of the debates and concerns loosely called multiculturalism, not an understanding based on stereotypes or superficial understanding of the issues.  If officers do not understand the social forces and how they have developed and will continue to develop the potential for conflict and alienation will only increase, not decrease.[27]

The model that I have in mind for such education, on both the military and civilian sides, is John Stuart Mill’s argument in favor of free expression on the grounds that it promotes the progress of mankind.  While there are many elements of the military culture and education in which one cannot have Mill’s ideal, I believe that it is appropriate within the context of officer’s education programs.  Mill persuasively makes the case that human knowledge is fallible and subject to error and that the only way one can realize one’s error is be brought into conversation with one who rejects your position such that you have to defend your view (and therefore understand why you believe what you do).  Given the rather closed nature of the military cultures (and especially the officer corps) this kind of interaction does not naturally occur, therefore, it needs to be artificially induced. 

Finally, I think that one will have to approach carefully the increasing politicization of the military (especially the officer corps) because it is a double edged sword: it is a source of great power and moral critique for the democratic system, but this great source of power (like all power) can be misused and undermine the values and institutions that it seeks to serve and defend.  This is a trend in American society that needs attention, but it needs to be approached in a balanced way.  I think that the real concern that many observers have it not simply that the military is becoming more politically active (although this could be a concern is the politicization begins to interfere with the ability of the military to do its job,)  but that the political activity is not diverse and in fact, leans nearly all to one direction.  While this is not surprising, it does raise questions about whether the military is becoming a culture that is increasingly hostile to ‘outsiders’ who wish to participate. 

In the end, I think the lack of diversity could undermine the mission effectiveness.  The military has a great deal of power, and it is essential that this power be exercised in a responsible manner.  Clearly the military culture hopes to inculcate values which will promote this end, but any group, no matter how virtuous, well trained or self-aware, can still make mistakes, overlook dysfunction and see what it wishes to see.  I believe that an essential bulwark against the negative effects of group think are a diversity of voices within the organization that ask questions, raise issues and awareness and perhaps even provide a healthy form of critique that allows the organization to grow and become more effective.




In this paper I have argued that the cultural gap between the military and civilian cultures that has occasioned much concern and debate of late is not a gap, but rather a serious and ever widening chasm which does need attention and quickly.  I have looked at a variety of views on the subject and come to the conclusion that the best hope lies in mutual cultural exchange and increasing understanding about where the other culture is coming from and why.  At present, there is a great deal of ignorance, but also mistrust and disdain, which is due largely to superficial understandings of both the civilian and military cultures and judgements based upon these stereotypes.  In order to remedy the problems that this incomplete understanding creates, it is essential that both sides engage in education and exchange.  I fear that any approach that does not address education and cultural exchange will only be tinkering with the symptoms, rather than addressing the underlying cause of the illness.



[1] Towell, Pat, “Is Military’s Warrior culture in Americas Best Interest?”  Congressional Quarterly Weekly 57 (January 1999): 25..

[2] Ibid., pp. 25-6.

[3] Ibid., p. 26.

[4] As quoted in Thomas Ricks, The Making of the Corps.  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), p 274.

[5] Ibid., pp. 274-5.

[6] Ibid., p. 278.

[7] Ibid., pp. 280-2.

[8] Ibid., p. 286.

[9] Ibid., p. 287.

[10] Ibid., pp. 296-7.

[11] Karen Duniven, “Military Culture: Change and Continuity”  Armed Forces and Society  20 (Summer 1994): 532.

[12] Ibid., p. 534.  Note also the unfortunate Private Santiago in the film A Few Good Men who was singled out for a so-called ‘code Red’ because he failed to meet this archetype.

[13] Ibid., p. 600.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Pat Towell, “ Is Military’s ‘Warrior’ Culture in America’s Best Interest?” Congressional Quarterly Weekly 57 (January 1999): 26.

[16] John Hillen, “Must Military Culture Reform?” Orbis 43 (Winter 1999): 50.

[17] Ibid., p. 51.

[18] Don Snider, “An Uniformed Debate on Military Culture,” Orbis 43 (Winter 1999): 12.

[19] Ibid., p. 18.

[20] Ibid., p. 21.

[21]  It is gospel in some military circles that if it weren’t for the media, Vietnam would have been a military success.  However, this overlooks several key facts.  First, the media (like the civilian population) was overwhelmingly pro-war in the beginning and reported very sympathetically early.  Certainly this changed as the war went on, but so did public sentiment at home.  Second, the media was not inventing atrocities or brutal warfare.  They reported things that were happening, perhaps more realistically and critically than in past conflict where the press was essentially a propaganda machine for the military.

[22] I hope this point was made clear in the sources cited in Section I.  Article after article on this issue, as well as numerous studies of military attitudes, cite these perspectives which are also supported by a mountain of anecdotal evidence.

[23] For more on military culture see Don Snider, “An Uninformed Debate on Military Culture.” In Orbis  43 (Winter 1999):  pp. 11-27.

[24] This seems to be an increasing trend: National Guards called in to deal with urban riots, to help fight fires etc.

[25] Contrary to some views, this gap is not simply the result of having a ‘liberal, anti-military’ President as Commander-in Chief.  Most of the members of both parties have the same knowledge and understanding deficit when it comes to the military and this situation shows no sign of changing.

[26] See my article on the place of charity in high education, Pauline M. Kaurin, “Summer Lessons from Nietzsche,” Prism (Spring 1999)

[27] To some it may seem that I am advocating ‘liberal brainwashing.’  If it is brainwashing for educated persons to expose themselves to views they find offensive and critically think about these views and their own, then liberal arts education is brainwashing and I am happy to ‘brainwash’ my students.