The country’s top military officer praised the public’s outward support of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan on Monday, while lamenting the increasing gap between the U.S. military and the American public.

“America doesn’t know its military and the United States military doesn’t know America,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The chairman’s speech came at a conference, held at National Defense University, that focused on how the military understands its role in American society and how it should interact with both the White House and Congress after 10 years of war.

Mullen chose to focus his remarks on the relationship between the broader American public and the 1 percent of the population that is currently fighting America’s wars.

Mullen, one of the last officers on active duty to have served in the Vietnam War, noted that the contempt from that era has been replaced largely by praise and inattention.

“The American people are extraordinarily supportive of our men and women. There’s a sea of goodwill. They want to connect with us in an awful lot of ways,” Mullen said.

Still, Mullen worried that, despite those good intentions, the gulf between the military and the society it serves is growing.

“Too often we’re just talking to ourselves,” he told the audience of active-duty officers.

Mullen’s remarks carried echoes of a speech by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last year at Duke University. Gates maintained that, for many Americans, the U.S. military has become something of an abstraction. Mullen also worried about the military’s ability to sustain its traditionally apolitical role in an increasingly partisan political climate.

“We must be apolitical and I think we’ve watched that erode over time, over the last 20, 30, 40 years,” he said.

jaffeg@washpost.com

Greg Jaffe covers the White House for The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009.

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