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On civility and the civil-military relationship

November 15, 2011
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The USNI blog had a brief post Monday about the Civil-Military Divide. It was in response to an email a Suffolk Law School professor had written, which ended up printed on a Boston radio station’s website. The following is an excerpt from Professor Michael Avery’s letter:

I think it is shameful that it is perceived as legitimate to solicit in an academic institution for support for men and women who have gone overseas to kill other human beings. I understand that there is a residual sympathy for service members, perhaps engendered by support for troops in World War II, or perhaps from when there was a draft and people with few resources to resist were involuntarily sent to battle. That sympathy is not particularly rational in today’s world, however.

The United States may well be the most war prone country in the history of civilization.  We have been at war two years out of three since the Cold War ended.  We have 700 overseas military bases.  What other country has any?  In the last ten years we have squandered hundreds of billions of dollars in unnecessary foreign invasions.  Those are dollars that could have been used for people who are losing their homes due to the economic collapse, for education, to repair our infrastructure, or for any of a thousand better purposes than making war.  And of course those hundreds of billions of dollars have gone for death and destruction.”

UltimaRatioReg, in his response on the USNI blog, said:

“That kind of “civil-military divide” cannot be breached.   Suffolk University Law School should consider carefully just whom they allow in the front of their classrooms.”

I want to set aside (for now) my deep-seated typographical concerns with the number of spaces appearing after periods in both of these pieces to address the other vexing issue at play here: the civil-military relationship.

I don’t share Professor Avery’s feelings and I think his implication that service members are engaging in illegal behavior by carrying out their jobs as members of the armed forces is out of line. I also think that even if you don’t support present US national security policy,  it’s possible to support these individuals without embracing rampant militarism or a security state. Professor Avery may not feel that it is appropriate to support members of the armed forces, but other faculty and students are well within their rights to feel sympathy and to want to send care packages to deployed troops, and as long as the school is not requiring participation – and that’s not the impression I get here – I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with the email soliciting others to do the same.

This letter strikes me as a misdirected overreaction spurred by what are clearly very strong feelings, namely anger which ought to be aimed at the policies of our civilian government, not the members of the military who carry them out. If you read his letter, the complaints outlined therein, it is clear that that is where he should be casting his blame. There are appropriate outlets through which Professor Avery and other Americans can work to shape American national security policy, and I hope that he expresses his views with his vote, by reaching out to his elected representatives, and by sharing them in appropriate fora. The professor also correctly identifies in his email other segments of the population who could use care packages or the support that they represent, “Americans who are losing their homes, malnourished, unable to get necessary medical care, and suffering from other consequences of poverty.” I hope he uses the opportunity presented by this occasion to organize his own donation drive at Suffolk to help this population.

Much as I may disagree with Professor Avery’s stance, I also think that curt dismissals are not a helpful way to engage those who feel the way he does. While the problems in Professor Avery’s email might seem obvious to people who think about these issues a lot, they will not to everyone. Most people do not think about these issues a lot. Many do not think about them at all.

We also have an all-volunteer force. Service members are all active agents of their own fate. They have chosen to serve in the armed forces for all manner of different reasons, but all have made the choice themselves, as adults, and are responsible for their own choices. Quite simply, people are under no obligation to feel sympathy for the troops. Those of us on the civilian side of the civil-military equation owe the members of the military certain things – pay, benefits, and (I would argue) protections such as those provided through adherence to the Geneva Conventions, and policies that will not put them in harm’s way needlessly or spend their lives lightly – but the cold truth is that sympathy and care packages are not among them. (Pulling this sticky issue apart and identifying just what the obligations of each side to the other are, and how well those obligations are being met, is a much longer post – or dissertation – for another time).

The civil-military relationship requires careful balance, and the obligations of each party to the relationship are not always clear. It can be challenged by ignorance or lack of thought on both sides, and has been especially tricky to nail down since the end of the draft. Calling American soldiers killers, implying that they bear the responsibility for our political decisions, conflating support of those who volunteer to serve with propagation of perpetual war – these things do not contribute usefully to making the civil-military relationship a healthy and appropriate one. However, nor does dismissing the very real portion of the population that feels this way and declaring the civil-military divide unbreachable. Civic engagement and the airing of diverse views – however odious we may find some of those views – are good things, and a robust – and civil – conversation and debate will be to the benefit of the future of civil-military relations. What’s needed is more understanding of the varying perspectives, not inflammatory rhetoric or casual resignation. Maybe Professor Avery won’t be convinced to change his tune, but the debate could benefit from an explication of what’s wrong with his position.

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