March 03, 2021

Sharper: Civil-Military Relations

Analysis from CNAS experts on the most critical challenges for U.S. foreign policy.

By Cole Stevens, Nathalie Grogan and Chris Estep

The so-called civil-military divide has increasingly defined the relationship between America's civil society and its armed forces. Over the past year, this phenomenon of misunderstanding between the public and servicemembers was thrust into the spotlight as the military played a prominent role in the daily lives of nearly all Americans in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, protest movements, a fraught political season, and a swath of natural disasters. Continue reading this edition of Sharper to explore the Center's initiatives, research, and agenda for improving the health of civil-military relations in the United States.

Features

The All-Volunteer Force: Civil-Military Relations Hit Home—and Abroad

Civil-military relations is not a remote discipline without real-world consequences; it is a strategic issue for national security. In an installment of the CNAS Next Defense Strategy series, expert Nathalie Grogan writes that the next NDS must tackle the personnel fissures that threaten both the strength of the force and the integrity of U.S. military decisions. Losing the trust of the American people will make carrying out strategic aims unnecessarily difficult and complicated, posing a significant risk to national security.

Congress’s Hidden Strengths

Congress has a unique opportunity—and responsibility—to take a lead role in helping to improve civil-military relations. Experts Richard Fontaine and Loren DeJonge Schulman argue in a CNAS report that it is time for Congress to rediscover its informal tools and put them to work. Examining such informal tools as hearings and briefings, congressional delegations and reports, media engagement and public speaking, the authors outline the scope for increased congressional influence over use-of-force decisions—and describe ways in which members can seize the opportunity.

Defense

The All-Volunteer Force: Civil-Military Relations Hit Home—and Abroad

Tensions in the civil-military relationship threaten national security from conflicts abroad to cities across the United States....

Congress & National Security

Congress’s Hidden Strengths

Introduction On matters of peace and war, virtually no one seems satisfied with Congress. Constitutionally coequal to the executive, the Congress often appears more an uneasy ...

Generations of War

There is a widening gulf in the United States today between the public and those who serve in the military and fight the nation’s wars, a CNAS report argues. Though the populace expresses a great deal of trust in the military, the number of citizens with a direct connection to the military is shrinking, suggesting that respect for the military is inversely proportional to participation in it. There are several critical factors contributing to this separation, one of which is the growth of the “warrior caste” – a trend in which a large proportion of those who do choose to serve come from military families. This dynamic is worthy of careful attention; with less than 1 percent of Americans serving in the armed forces today, there are both risks and benefits to a subset of the U.S. population bearing the burdens of war.

Perceptions of the Military Community

Sharpening America’s strategic edge and sustaining the U.S. military advantage is about more than technology and budgets. Crucially, it is about the people who operate the equipment and put boots on the ground and ensuring success. However, both service members and civilians believe that the public “does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families.” At a recent CNAS National Security Conference, the Military, Veterans, and Society program engaged the audience in an exercise to assess how well the public understands members of the U.S. military, what they do, and how they fare once they return to civilian life. The exercise readout goes through the questions, answers, and audience perceptions.

Military, Veterans, & Society

Generations of War

Preface By Dr. Janine A. Davidson Though the American experiment of an all-volunteer military force is largely considered to be a success, maintaining long-term awareness of c...

Military, Veterans, & Society

Perceptions of the Military Community

Sharpening America’s strategic edge and sustaining the U.S. military advantage is about more than technology and budgets. Crucially, it is also about people: the soldiers, sai...

Commentaries

Biden Inherits a Challenging Civil-Military Legacy

Joseph Biden will be the most experienced first-time president in nearly 30 years when he enters office, but he and his team will inherit a civil-military relationship as tenuous as any in recent memory, write Jim Golby and Peter Feaver in War on the Rocks. Not only will they have to deal with the fallout of President Donald Trump’s unusual legacy as commander-in-chief, they will need to try to avoid some of the unhealthy civil-military dynamics left over from the Obama administration. Restoring a healthier civil-military balance will be especially challenging. Civilians may have the right to be wrong, but the margin for error in this environment is slim.

The Opportunities and Challenges Facing Lloyd Austin as Defense Secretary

Jason Dempsey and Emma Moore write in Task & Purpose when then-President-elect Joseph Biden nominated retired general Lloyd Austin as his pick for Secretary of Defense, it was clear that it would be a controversial nomination. Scholars and observers of American civilian-military relations raised legitimate concerns that granting Austin the necessary waiver to serve as Secretary of Defense would further degrade the norm and expectation that “the secretary of defense is intended to be the daily personification of the ‘civilian’ in ‘civilian control.’” Biden even preemptively penned an op-ed in The Atlantic justifying his choice, indicating that finding the right person for the job turned out to be immensely difficult. It initially appeared installing Austin in the Pentagon’s E-ring would prove challenging.

Military, Veterans, & Society

Biden Inherits a Challenging Civil-Military Legacy

Joseph Biden and his team will inherit a civil-military relationship as tenuous as any in recent memory....

Defense

The opportunities and challenges facing Lloyd Austin as defense secretary

Austin’s forty years in the military represent both the risk of inertia and a real opportunity to address serious issues....

The Pandemic and the Protests: Necessity and Perception of the National Guard

The coronavirus pandemic and the holistic societal approach that is required to get through this season demonstrates the value of the National Guard and the dual state and federal mission, argues Nathalie Grogan in Policy Perspectives. To date, nearly 44,500 guardsmen have been activated in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in order to manage the COVID-19 crisis. While the sight of uniformed personnel in cities and towns unaccustomed to a military presence has caused fear and fueled rumors, the activation of guardsmen by governors is not unprecedented in times of crisis, nor even during public health emergencies. The Guard is often called upon to assist in hurricane relief, wildfires, and even prior outbreaks.

The Myth of ‘War Weary’ Americans

Jim Golby and Peter Feaver write in The Wall Street Journal the American public’s attitudes toward Afghanistan are nuanced, according to a National Opinion Research Center survey conducted on our behalf in September and October. After 19 years of fighting, the war in Afghanistan has been called America’s longest, but many Americans don’t seem to be paying attention. Forty-one percent of our respondents had no opinion on whether the U.S. has accomplished its goals in Afghanistan.

Military, Veterans, & Society

The Pandemic and the Protests: Necessity and Perception of the National Guard

COVID-19 has demonstrated the flexibility and dedication of guardsmen and the necessity of adequate funding....

Military, Veterans, & Society

The Myth of ‘War Weary’ Americans

The American public’s attitudes toward Afghanistan are nuanced....

How The Media’s Narrow Portrayal Of Service Members Does The Military A Disservice

As the American military becomes more isolated from society and society more disconnected from war, public understanding of its military will continue to impact the interest among young people to serve and the burden of war on military members and families, writes Emma Moore in Task & Purpose. The familiarity gap between the military and society exacerbates contradictory attitudes towards the military community: the military as an institution enjoys incredible public support, but the emergence of ‘generations of war’ given high service rates among children of service members are met with shrinking familial connections to the military. Similarly, public views label veterans as community assets and leaders, but also assume veterans experience PTSD and homelessness. The military is easy to love from afar, but the disconnect ultimately threatens national security.

Military and Public Service Policy Forum

Recently, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS) held a hearing on potential policies to encourage or require military, national, and public service from all Americans. In each session, panelists discussed the potential need for a voluntary or compulsory mobilization. CNAS experts Loren DeJonge Schulman, Elsa B. Kania, and Jason Dempsey were among those providing testimony to the commission.

Leveraging ROTC to Span the Civil-Military Gap

Andrew Swick and Emma Moore write in a CNAS working paper that for just over 100 years, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) has stood at the intersection of the military and American society, serving as a bridge between local communities and the armed forces. Because of this relationship, ROTC has experienced many evolutions in the hands of both constituents. Competing demands came to a head in the 1960s, as college campuses became the front lines for social and political division in American society. ROTC chapters were caught in the crossfire of some of the most contentious debates over the Vietnam War, the draft, and gay rights.

Military, Veterans, & Society

How The Media’s Narrow Portrayal Of Service Members Does The Military A Disservice

As the American military becomes more isolated from society and society more disconnected from war, public understanding of its military will continue to impact the interest a...

Military and Public Service Policy Forum

The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS) held a hearing on potential policies to encourage or require military, national, and public service ...

Military, Veterans, & Society

Leveraging ROTC to Span the Civil-Military Gap

Introduction and Executive Summary For just over 100 years, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) has stood at the intersection of the military and American society, ser...

Learn More

Supporting the Military Community

As the environments in which the U.S. military operates increase in complexity, the need to attract and retain top talent becomes increasingly apparent - a significant challenge during a period of extraordinarily low unemployment. In a a CNAS Military, Veterans and Society Program commentary series, a diverse group of guest contributors and experts put forward thought-provoking ideas on an array of topics that affect service members, their families, and transitioning personnel that with the goal of sparking frank discussions and ultimately leading to policy changes that enhance readiness and improve lives in military communities.

Race in the Military

In September 2020, the CNAS Military, Veterans, and Society Program launched a multi-part discussion series on race in the military, moderated by experts Bishop Garrison and Jason Dempsey. The first discussion session focused on the lived experiences of people of color in the U.S. military. The second virtual conversation focused on the journeys of two officers who entered military service as the first African American and first Asian American, respectively, to serve as first captains at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The third discussion highlighted the Air Force's efforts to address diversity and inclusion.

Military, Veterans, & Society

Supporting the Military Community

About this commentary series As the environments in which the U.S. military operates increase in complexity, the need to attract and retain top talent becomes increasingly app...

Military, Veterans, & Society

Virtual Roundtable: A Conversation on Race in the Military

Sep 23, 2020

About the Sharper Series

The CNAS Sharper series features curated analysis and commentary from CNAS experts on the most critical challenges in U.S. foreign policy. From the future of America's relationship with China to the state of U.S. sanctions policy and more, each collection draws on the reports, interviews, and other commentaries produced by experts across the Center to explore how America can strengthen its competitive edge.

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