Members of the military must learn to connect with American civilians

Leslie Herman for The Washington Post

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Rear Adm. John F. Kirby is the U.S. Navy’s chief of information. This article is adapted from commencement remarks given at the Naval War College last month.

In more than 10 years of war, we in the military have gone to great expense and trouble to listen to the concerns of foreign peoples and cultures. We have learned Dari and Arabic and Pashto. We have sat cross-legged in shura and tribal councils. And yet I worry that we do not pay our fellow Americans the same courtesy.

It’s time that we do a better job understanding and relating to the people we serve.

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We do not talk with them. Too often, we talk at them. We are the guest speakers, the first-pitch-throwers, the grand marshals. We show them the power of our capabilities through air shows, port visits and other demonstrations. This outreach is important, but it isn’t always a two-way street. And it doesn’t improve our understanding of the society we defend.

We tend to focus on the fact that, because so few Americans serve in uniform — something like 1 percent — they don’t understand us. There’s some truth to that. But is it solely their fault?

We are, after all, volunteers in a proportionally small military. Americans can choose to serve or not. Not everyone in the world has that option. Even among those who want to serve, there are only so many qualified to join our ranks. And those ranks are not likely to expand in this time of fiscal austerity.

Being honest with ourselves, we would admit that we have been well-resourced and fully supported by the home front. From lifesaving force-protection gear to counter-IED technology to the finest in unmanned systems and much more, the American people have — through their elected representatives — given us the tools we’ve needed to fight two wars.  

They’ve also helped us find jobs when we come home. They’ve given us world-class education benefits. And they’ve helped ensure that returning troops get the physical and mental health care they richly deserve. Americans have built homes for wounded warriors and wrapped their arms around the families of our fallen. They have thanked us in airports, bus stations and parades.

They may not know us. But they certainly support us.

Of course, more can always be done to care for our troops and their families. A recent government report says we lose a veteran to suicide nearly every hour of every day. While veterans represent less than 9 percent of the population, they are about 15 percent of the homeless. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to report a traumatic brain injury and to have received mental health treatment than veterans of other wars — treatment that must continue without the stigma it carries.

According to some estimates, more than 1.5 million active-duty, reserve and National Guard troops will transition to civilian life in the next five years. We must continue to ensure that Americans are ready and willing to help them make that transition.

We haven’t been neglected or forgotten. American civilians are simply confronted by problems other than war, problems we might have difficulty understanding from the relative permanence of our profession. They are not losing life and limb on the battlefield, but they are losing their jobs, their homes, their livelihoods. They can be forgiven for being distracted and even a little tired of war.

I’ve been a spokesman throughout these wars, not a soldier. It’s been my job to explain military strategy and operations to people far and wide. I believe that many Americans don’t try harder to know us because they are so confident in our abilities. Better we should belong to a society that trusts us and winces at war than one that lusts for it.

We should remember that we work for them. We come from them. And so shall we return.

When someone thanks me for my service, I always thank them for their support.

I also try to remember that, to the degree there is a civilian-military gap in this country, all of us in uniform are responsible for closing it.

We can start by being better listeners — by finding out what Americans think, what they need and the problems they face. It’s fine to give speeches and take questions. But we shouldn’t be afraid to ask our own questions. If we can do that on an Afghan rug, surely we can do it on Main Street.

Second, we would do well to better understand U.S. politics and politicians. I’m not suggesting we suddenly declare for one party or another. The apolitical nature of the military is vital to the health of our republic. We can never surrender that independence.

But I have worked hard to learn about our democratic system so as to understand how and why policies are made. I’ve also tried to develop healthy relationships on Capitol Hill and with colleagues in other federal agencies. These are, after all, the decisions and decision-makers that drive our budgets, strategies and operations. We ignore them at our peril.

I have been struck in just the past couple of years, indeed the past few months, by how some military officers dismiss Washington’s bitter partisanship as something beneath them. It’s not. Political discourse may appear messy, even unseemly. But it is the very business of governing. And if the military has any hope of properly advising our civilian masters, we must take the time to understand them and even their most acrimonious arguments.

While he firmly believed that the military should play no role in political matters, my former boss, Adm. Mike Mullen, recognized that we could not be wholly divorced from them. Though he had developed solid relationships on the Hill, he was surprised early in his chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that each week he would be at the White House so often, and for so long, that he and the chiefs needed to discuss and understand political factors as much as operational ones. He refused, of course, to make political decisions or give political advice.

“My job is to tell them what they need to hear,” he told me, “but I also have to listen to what they need to say.”

Listening to what people need to say extends to other aspects of communication as well. It troubles me to see military doctrine, plans and operational memoranda that refer to public communication as some sort of weapon that can be fired downrange. It is not. Rather, it is an obligation to explain ourselves, to put into context what we are doing and why.

We live in a participatory culture, a post-audience world. People don’t just want access to information anymore. They want access to conversation. They want to be heard.

To take part in that conversation and guide it, at times, requires a humility that we don’t always possess. It requires us to listen as well as speak, to solicit as well as inform, to admit our shortcomings and accept sometimes brutally frank feedback.

I know my credibility — and that of the Navy — is enhanced when I join a discussion rather than merely lead it. That can be a hard thing for those of us in uniform to do, to let go of leadership a little. But letting go means getting ahead. It gives us a better sense of the mood and attitude in which our words and actions land. It helps us communicate more comfortably across regions, dialects and generations.

Finally, we shouldn’t become too enamored — as I fear many commanders are — of our ability to speak directly to people through technology. There is a place for social media, of course, but there is no better validation or check of our decisions than an independent press. Some of the best relationships we can form are with members of the news media — who, by the way, feel every bit as certain that they, too, perform a valuable public service. They’re right about that.

We are taught almost from the beginning of our careers that military service is something special, apart from other forms of citizenship. We hold ourselves to higher standards of conduct. We tell ourselves that not everyone is good enough to join us. All this is true.

But it’s foolish to believe we are better than the society we protect. To believe that only further separates us from the rest of America. Not everything we do is or should be accessible to the public. But as public servants, answerable to the taxpayers, we as individuals absolutely ought to be.

We need to better understand the American people and the leaders they elect, to build relationships with those outside our Spartan lives. We need to talk a little less and listen a whole lot more. It’s time for this 1 percent to say thanks to the 99 percent. They deserve it.

john.kirby1@navy.mil

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