“The Alleged ‘Civil-Military Values Gap’: Ideals vs. Standards”


CPT Pete Kilner

Instructor, U.S. Military Academy

Phone: 845-938-4764

Fax: 845-446-2562

E-mail: cp4040@usma.edu


Paper presented to

The Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics

 Washington, DC, January 25-26, 2001

Updated as of 2/27/01




The “values gap” just does not make sense.  On the one hand, we are told that there is a “widening gap between today’s military and civilian America,” 1 that “the military has grown out of step ideologically with the public,”2 and that this values gap threatens the health of the civil-military relationship.  On the other hand, we are informed that the American “public has more confidence in the military than in any other institution.”3 Well, which is true?  Assuming that people tend to have confidence in those who share their values, it would be odd for both claims to be true.  What’s going on here?


In this paper, I argue that much of the concern about the alleged “values gap” and its implications stems from an imprecise use of language.  First, a “culture gap” is not a “values gap.”  In the situation at hand, the culture gap is a good thing, whereas a values gap might not be.  Second, and more significantly, the term “values” is used equivocally in the literature and research surrounding this issue.  “Values” is used to mean both “moral ideals” and “moral standards of conduct,” and this equivocation confuses the issue.  Once we recognize the two distinct and different meanings of the term values, we will recognize that there is no gap in moral ideals, and consequently there is no “impending divorce” between the military and the society it serves.  There is, however, a gap in the moral standards of conduct in some areas.  This gap is based on the functional imperatives of the military profession, and it is one that an educated public would support.


I. A Culture Gap is Not a Values Gap

Differences in culture do not entail differences in values.  We know this in America.  We have many, many different cultures within our borders, yet we are also—as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia astutely observed—a country whose very name serves as a value-laden adjective: to be “un-American” is a value judgment.4  Despite our differences in race, income, religious conviction, class, musical tastes, and so many other characteristics of culture, we Americans share core values such as individual and political liberty, the rule of law, and equality before the law (just to name a few) that make us “American.”


Likewise, the fact that the military community has its own distinct culture does not necessarily entail that its values differ from those of civilian society.  A culture gap is significant only if it leads to a values gap, because it is differences in values that could destabilize civil-military relations.  So, let us examine the alleged civil-military values gap.


II.  The “Civil-Military Values Gap”

Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks brought the issue to the forefront in 1997 with his article “The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society,” published in the Atlantic Monthly, and his book Making the Corps. He argued that the “classic military values of sacrifice, unity, self-discipline, and considering the interests of the group before those of the individual” were at odds with the “more fragmented, more individualistic, and less disciplined” civilian society.5  Using some survey results that showed that military officers disproportionately identified themselves as conservative Republicans, he used considerable anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is a widening, ominous gap in values.  He conjectured that if the gap should continue to widen, it could eventually cause a breach in American civil-military relations that would undermine our national security.


Should we accept this assessment?  Are we really on this alarming path?  It’s not obvious that we are.  After all, we would expect that differences in values between the military and civilians would breed distrust and fear.   But it hasn’t.  The military remains a very popular and trusted organization, even among those who don’t seem to share its values.


How can this be?  How can we have a values gap without suffering the logical consequences of a values gap?   I have an idea, based initially on my own experiences at a civilian graduate school, and corroborated recently by the latest surveys on the values gap.   While attending a large state university, I found that although civilians understand very little about how the military is organized and how it operates, they do overwhelmingly ascribe positive character traits to military personnel.  Simply because I was an Army officer, my professors and fellow graduate students clearly expected me to be—honest, disciplined, respectful, hard-working, drug-free (which was significant in a philosophy department).  The typical comment I heard was: “I really respect you military people; I could never do it.” Think about that: “I really respect you military people; I could never do it.” In other words, we share the same values, even though we act differently.


This captures the essence of why, although there is a values gap between the American military profession and civilian society, this gap is not a problem.   We use the term “values” to mean two very different things.  We use it equivocally.  We use it to mean both standards of behavior and ideals of behavior.  Those who lament a values gap use the term to mean “standards.”  It’s true.  The enforced professional standards of behavior for the military personnel and for civilians are different.  The military does not tolerate lying, cheating, adultery, and drunk driving, whereas to a large extent civilian society does.  But there is another sense of values at work here.  Our values are also our ideals.  There is no gap in the ideals of the American society and the military.  Both groups agree that, ideally, lying, cheating, adultery, drunk driving, etc. are wrong.  In this way, although there may be a gap in moral standards of behavior, there is no gap in moral ideals.


Now, it is important to note that the military culture does not enforce high standards of moral behavior for all of the universally shared moral ideals.  Ideally, stewardship of the environment is good, but no one’s military career is wrecked by a negligent fuel spill.  Ideally, stewardship of public funds is good, yet that doesn’t stop units from wasting thousands of dollars at the close of each fiscal year.  No, the military culture’s standards of behavior approach the ideals of human behavior only in those areas that are necessary for it to perform its role in society.


The professional function of the military is to defend society by being able to fight and win wars.  To do so, it must have leaders who are committed to principles “outside of themselves.”  Military leaders must be willing to risk their own welfare for the good of others.  They must be so trustworthy, and inspire such confidence in their judgment, that their subordinates are willing to follow their orders even though it means that they have to kill others and risk their own death.  Certain character traits—commitment, honesty, selflessness—traits that inspire such trust and confidence, must be present in military personnel if the military is to effectively serve society.  The values gap—the gap in moral standards of conduct—is created by the functional demand for these traits in military leaders.


This is why a society that tends to condone dishonesty and unfaithfulness among civilians demands honesty and commitment in its military leaders. 


Still, it does seem that society holds the military to a higher standard.  Military personnel, unlike other professionals, are required to adhere to their profession-driven, higher moral standards even in their personal lives.  Society doesn’t demand such things of doctors and lawyers.  Lawyers are not disbarred for adultery.  As recent events have shown, as long as someone is doing a good job, society is willing to overlook character flaws.  Why the higher standard for the military?


The higher standard, I think, is due to the military’s monopoly power over society.  The American people have only one military; they have no choice.   Moreover, the 1.4 million members of the military act as one organism.  To understand how threatening this could be, imagine this: Imagine that there were only one accounting firm; it alone calculated our taxes; once it did so, we had no avenue of appeal; all of its personnel operated as one organism.  If that were the case, wouldn’t we demand that the accounting firm ensure that its CPAs be of high moral character?  So, too, with the medical profession.  Imagine one big medical practice; all of the doctors and nurses worked together; we had no choice in our doctor, and no opportunity for a second opinion.  If the American people were indeed this vulnerable to the whims of the medical profession, we would no doubt demand that medical personnel be as trustworthy as possible.


Well, American society is this vulnerable to the military profession.  There is only one military available; society has no choice.  When it comes time for the military to do its job, society could suffer greatly if the military is not effective.  Society has no opportunity for a second opinion.  In a way unique among professions, the military represents all the members of society; when it acts, domestically or abroad, its actions reflect on all Americans.  Given these factors, we should not be surprised that civilian society attempts to reduce its vulnerability to the military’s monopoly by demanding that certain moral ideals become the military’s standards of moral behavior.


Before addressing some recent empirical evidence, allow me to briefly summarize my argument:


I assume that there exists a consensus of moral ideals. 


I claim that:

Literature on the values gap fails to distinguish between values as ideals and values as standards of conduct.

            There is not a gap in values as moral ideals between the military and civilian society.

There is a gap in values as standards of conduct between the military and civilian society.

Shared ideals will preserve the proper civil-military relationship.

Further, I claim that the gap in norms is justified by the demands of the profession.


Finally, I posit that these demands are uniquely stringent—personally and professionally—due to the military’s unique monopoly of power. The higher moral standards reduce civilian vulnerability, thereby preserving the proper civil-military relationship.


III.  Empirical Corroboration of this Thesis

In 1999, extensive surveys were conducted by the Triangle Institute of Security Studies (TISS) to examine the issues raised by Ricks. The results of the studies were published last summer.6 


The studies found that civilian elites and military officers shared views on many issues:

            They both supported women in the military;

            They both strongly supported personal liberties;

They both strongly supported political freedoms;

            They were both equally pessimistic about the moral health of civilian society;

            They both agreed on the role of the military (relative to non-military institutions) in national security.


Where did the views of the civilian and military leaders differ?

The civilians showed greater support for women serving in combat roles;

The civilians held that homosexuals should be permitted to serve openly in the military, while the military leaders disagreed.

The civilians disagreed with military officers’ position that a “warrior culture” is good for the military.


When we look at survey results, we will find that the answers corroborate the thesis that there is no gap in moral ideals.  The studies found no gap when the question involved moral ideals, such as personal and political liberties.  A gap appears only in those questions that involve practical military judgment.


For example, the survey asks the participants if they support gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. “By a very large margin (76%), elite military officers oppose gays and lesbians openly serving in the military. But a majority of civilian elites (55%) and the mass public (57%) support gays and lesbians openly serving,” noted the report.7  Should this be taken to indicate that there exists a gap in values, military officers oppose rights for gays?  We cannot know because, unfortunately, the surveys ask questions that fail to distinguish between values as ideals and values as standards.


To examine this issue properly, the survey should have asked several questions:

Should gays and lesbians have the right to equal employment opportunities? [Ideals]

Should the military deny admittance to such persons (e.g., those who are overweight, visually impaired, mentally retarded, diabetic, amputees, hemophiliacs, convicted felons, etc.) whose service in the military would not be cost-effective, whose service would actually become a net burden on the military? [Ideals]

Does the cohesion among members of a military unit affect that unit’s military effectiveness? [Judgment]

Would the presence of openly gay and lesbian service members adversely impact the cohesion of military units in which they serve? [Judgment]

Which is more important: that the military fight effectively, or that it allow all citizens who wish to serve the opportunity to do so? [Ideal]

Do you support gays and lesbians serving openly in the military?  [Ideals + Judgment]


Think of it this way:

Just as tactics is doctrine applied to a situation, moral standards are moral ideals applied to a profession.  Leaders in different situations will apply the same doctrine using different tactics; likewise, Americans in different professions will apply the same, shared moral ideals to arrive at different moral standards of behavior, which are based on the requirements of their respective profession. Mere differences in standards of behavior do not necessarily indicate differences in moral ideals.  Differences in standards of behavior may result from different practical judgments.


Only when survey questions are framed to distinguish between values as ideals and values as standards (which involve practical judgments) will we be able to know if a dangerous values gap does exist.  As is, the data corroborates the thesis that there is no gap in ideals, which in turn helps to explain why the military is such a respected institution.


IV. Conclusions

a.                          Future surveys should frame questions in ways that will distinguish between moral ideals, military judgments, and expected moral standards of conduct.

b.                          In order to decrease the “values gap,” military personnel should educate the civilian population on the military-specific judgments that are responsible for the gap in moral standards of conduct.8


1 Thomas Ricks, “The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society,” Atlantic Monthly (July 1997): 68.

2 Peter D. Feaver and Richard H. Kohn, “The Gap: Soldiers, Civilians, and their Mutual Misunderstanding,” National Interest” (Fall 2000): 30.

3 This poll result has been consistent for the past decade.  See http://www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr990714.asp for one example.

4 Justice Scalia offered this insight at an address that I attended at the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY, April 2000.

5 Ricks, “The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society,” 74.

6 Feaver and Kohn, “Digest of Findings and Studies, First Revision—June 2000, TISS Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society,” available at http://www.poli.duke.edu/civmil/

7 ibid., 5.

8 Please email me your comments, questions, or any other feedback.