Post Magazine: A Growing Gulf: the Military and Civilian

Kristin Henderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 23, 2007; 12:00 PM

More and more in America, civilians have no connection to the people who do the fighting, yet civilians are the ones who decide when and where those people fight.

What happens to a democracy when its civilians live in one world and its warriors in another? Kristin Henderson explores this question in this week's issue Washington Post Magazine.

Kristin Henderson is the author of "While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Home Front."


Kristin Henderson: Hello everyone. There are lots of questions and interesting opinions lining up, so let's get started.


Grand Rapids, Mich: Thank you for an excellent article. Can you comment on both the civilian and military leaders' perspective on one major difference between Vietnam and Iraq, the lack of visible street protests over the Iraq War, generally attributed to the 'no draft' policy for the current war?

Kristin Henderson: The lack of a draft is probably related to the lack of street protests at this point, given where public opinion is on the war. But there was an interesting item in "Tom Ricks' Inbox" in the "Outlook" section of the paper yesterday -- an American University professor wrote about how his students are generally focused on their personal lives and are not engaged by larger issues, whether it's the war or anything else. This points to the larger societal issues that lie behind the gap between military and civilian today -- the causes are large historical shifts within our culture and within our governmental system.


Washington, DC: Why didn't you have a military person review your article? E.g. you used Pfc. instead of PFC for Private First Class. If you don't know anyone in the military after writing this article, how close did you really get to us?

Kristin Henderson: The different services have different ways of abbreviating rank. Using Pfc. instead of PFC is a Washington Post style rule... it's out of my hands.


Arlington, VA: I enjoyed your article, but I think at times you conflated those who are against the war as the same as against the military. I am against the war, and furious at the way the military is getting royally screwed by the civilian leadership. And yes, there should be a service draft (either military or civilian), that could be completed either before or after college. And, frankly, all of those College Republicans who make noise about how much they support the troops need to sign up NOW. Let them put their money where their mouth is.

Kristin Henderson: Just want to share this other opinion that came in with all of you...


Bethesda, MD: I very much appreciated your excellent article...especially

since it agrees with my long held views.

You did not refer to one obvious fact: For the past 15

years voters have elected Viet-Nam generation presidents

who conspicuously avoided military service. The

Democratic president avoided wearing a uniform at all

while the Republican president served, barely, in the Air

National Guard when most units were unlikely to be

mobilized for active service. Among the leading

presidential candidates only Senator McCain, who

candidacy is floundering, is a military veteran. It seems

increasingly likely that no Viet-Nam veteran will ever be

elected president.

I would appreciate your thoughts.

Kristin Henderson: It's an interesting trend. Vietnam veterans have entered public service at a much lower rate than veterans of prior wars. My guess is that this is related to the alienation they experienced in the course of their military service and America's ambivalence about Vietnam and its veterans. It will be interesting to see if the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan run for office at the same rate, or at a higher rate, like WWII vets.


Washington, DC: Two questions: do you know whether the idea of a deployable "civilian" force of economists, judges, etc., has gained any traction? Also, did Chris Day get his infantry assignment?

Kristin Henderson: I'm not aware of any big moves to make the deployable civilian force a reality, but it's the kind of systemic change that would take a long time to make happen. If you think it's a good idea, letting your elected representatives know would be a good place to start. And yes, Chris did get his infantry assignment.


Washington, DC:"In the six years since, with America's wars dragging on overseas, the military services have struggled to meet recruiting goals."

Might this be because many American's realize that the Military's Civilian "masters" have been misusing the military in pursuit of an unrealistic idealogical goal, putting the lives of innocent men, women, and children in jeopardy? Your article seems to imply that those of in my "class" think we're better than the soldiers who are out there risking their lives. In reality, most of us simply don't want to be a part of something that we believe is fundamentally immoral, poorly run, and not remotely in the interests of the American public at large. There is quite a difference between being anti-military, and anti-abuse of military power, and your story seems to miss that.

Kristin Henderson: There's only so much space, even in an article as long as this one, to hit all the nuances. But this is an important point. Frank Schaeffer, the father of an enlisted Marine, would argue that military service is about serving a principle larger than the issue of the moment. But as sociologist David Segal pointed out, in a democracy, no war effort can succeed without the ongoing support of the people.


Alexandria VA: I graduated from a high-performing public high school in an affluent neighborhood where graduates, especially in the 'honors' track, were expected to go to university. My teachers, counselors and fellow students were shocked when I decided to enlist in the military instead. My two brothers followed in my footsteps. The experience certainly introduced me to facets of American society that I would not likely have encountered otherwise.

The problem isn't really military vs. civilian. It's wealthy vs. poor. Until we see greater equality in America, the military (esp. the enlisted ranks) will continue to draw from the struggling middle class and from poor America, segregating it further from the CEOs who send us off to die for Halliburton in the first place.

Kristin Henderson: Class does seem to be a major factor in the gap.


Bowie, MD: I found this to be a powerful piece.

I was particularly interested in the fact that only about 25% of Congress has served in the armed forces, and less actually saw combat. One of the few who did see combat, Chuck Nagel, has a fascinating take on the use of force. (So did John Kerry...although the Republicans somehow managed to turn his actual combat service into a handicap against an opponent who managed to spend the war in Texas....)

Here's my question: How does a deployable State Department contingent come to be? That sounds like the best solution to the kinds of skirmishes in which the U.S. keeps involoving itself. If we're serious about supporting young democracies, we can't do it through military occupation. Why has this not been discussed more?

Kristin Henderson: I recommend Anthony Zinni's book "The Battle for Peace," which lays out the idea of deployable civilian contingent in more detail.


Washington, DC: Just an FYI - When discussing Ivy League ROTC, you appear to have missed the largest commissioning source. Cornell University commissioned 16 Army, 11 Navy, 2 Marine Corps, and 9 Air Force officers (total of 38) in 2006. 2 of the AF officers were from neighboring schools (and a few Army officers might be too), but, for example, all the Navy and Marine Corps offcers are Cornell grads. In fact, military service was (and remains) included in the vision of Cornell.

Kristin Henderson: Good information.

Another interesting factoid: Yale, for instance, also has a handful of Air Force ROTC cadets. However it has no Navy or Navy (Marine Corps option) cadets because the Navy does not have an ROTC program close enough to Yale for cadets at Yale to get to military science classes at another school.


Washington DC - No Misunderstanding At All: Ms. Henderson, I am a veteran and long-time reservist whose commitment is ending next year. My parents were both active-duty. My father-in-law was active duty. I am a civilian, living a civilian life, and have been for over 15 years, but I served - twice - in uniform, as an officer, in Iraq.

I don't think there's a misunderstanding - I think there's a cabal.

Members of the Armed Forces on active duty receive over 50% of their pay in the form of tax-free housing allowances, cash subsistence allowances, and free (to the Member) retirement and health care. Essentially every junior enlistee in the Army and Marine Corps in particular would - if working as a civilian - be making in the range of minimum-wage.

They are utterly insulated from the "real world" in which civilians live. Their judgments are dominated by artifical moral measures of good and evil (torturing an animal or a civilian is OK, failure of a PT test is "loose" and not respectable) because of their insulation from common reality.

Officers are compensated far, far more than their civilian government counterparts. They are responsible for imposing "busy work" agendas on their NCOs and troops, in part so as to deflect attention away from the questionability of the mission in Iraq, and from the absence of real combat support. So what we end up with is misguided, angry, bored, endangered soldiers, battling in the wrong country, spending most of their time torturing civilians and animals. And the soldiers simply don't know that anything is wrong with this picture.

Kristin Henderson: Another opinion. Though I would just like to point out that most service members don't engage in torture.


Sierra Vista, Ariz: You mention an increasing number of troops that are 2nd or 3rd generation soldiers, creating an American Warrior class, which continues to grow, what are some of the possible repercussions for future conflicts?

Kristin Henderson: I think Chuck Hagel put his finger on it: disconnection. A disconnect between those who decide where/when we fight and those who do the fighting, a disconnect from the consequences. Combine that with the tendency toward civic disengagement that the AU professor noted in his students... it seems to me that if those two trends don't change, it's more likely rather than less that mistakes like those made in Iraq will be repeated. Democracies are at their best when their citizens are engaged and subject to the consequences of their decisions.


Arlington, Va: Regarding your wording in the article about medals received, in the lexicon of the military they are awarded, not "won". It's not a competition.

Kristin Henderson: Good point.


Commander (sel), Medical Service Corps, USN: The announcement says: Kristin Henderson discusses her article about the misunderstanding between the civilian and military communitites over the war in Iraq.

What about Afghanistan?!? Along with thousands of shipmates, I served there last year. We were often amused re the lack of coverage of our actions, including numberous medical, civil, infrastructure building, and other humitarian work goes unreported.

Kristin Henderson: My husband served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and I agree that Afghanistan gets overlooked... probably because it seems less controversial to most people, and the military operation is smaller. But it's certainly part of the larger issues that the article addresses.


Fairfax, VA: I'm just wondering about reactions to your article. I was surprised at the comment about Pfc/PFC above. I would have anticipated that the responses to your article would have been friendlier on the military side, more hostile from the elite side (e.g. Yale grads like me who wanted desperately to keep recruiters off campus). What has the response been, generally? Did you ask any of the folks you interviewed to read the article/comment upon it before publication?

Thanks for the thought-provoking Sunday read, and doing the chat.

Kristin Henderson: Actually, it's against Magazine policy for interviewees to read (and potentially edit) a story before it is published. Generally, the response on both the military and civilian sides has ranged from "thank you" to expressions of disagreement about smaller, related issues. Everyone sees it through the lens of their own experience.


Veteran, Washington, DC: That was a great article, Kristin, but I think there's a more nuanced issue here that rarely gets addressed. Military service simply makes one a better, more compassionate, empathetic, and forward thinking human being. In fact, it makes one a bona fide stakeholder in the future of this nation. I enlisted in the Army between high school and college and frankly look down on anyone today who chooses not to serve. Cumpolsory service may not be in the military's best short term interest, but it is in the nation's best interest. Think of it as being akin to a course in Citizenship and Sacrifice 101.

Kristin Henderson: I've met many veterans and active duty who've had a similar experience.


Great Falls, Va: I was fascinated in some respects by your article. One might very well imagine that our nation is now trending down the path taken by ancient Rome. However, it seems to me that the nature of war has changed since WW 2, Korea and Nam.

A huge difference is now is we truly are fighting a war among the people in Iraq. Nevertheless our leaders both civilian and military seem to look at war as if it is the same as it was years ago. It is not. Our guys need flak vests and properly armored vehicles but we seem only to know how to build nukes and such. The picture of Marines training to advance in a row while firing their weapons strikes me as pure old time warfare. In reality our guys are shooting at snipers in buildings; they are not advancing in a line like the troops at Gettysburg. Moreover, the enemy now does not wear uniforms.

However, what bothers me most is the disconnect between our Nation's so called elite, The products of Brown, Yale and such. Kerry's gaffe a couple of months ago and Clinton's aloofness are examples of that disconnect no matter they try to cover it up by calling it humor.

Are we repeating now what led to the downfall of prior civilizations?

Kristin Henderson: Interesting point.


Kabul, Afghanistan: We volunteered to dedicate our lives to a cause--to put our families on hold, to sweat, possibly bleed--for something our citizens claimed they believed in. We are acutely aware of the debate back home: is our strategy flawed; is the war just; is it worth so much sacrifice? Yet those who have been asked to sacrifice the most are given the least voice. The press distrusts our leadership, and anti-war groups press to "bring the troops home," as if we have asked for their intervention. All of this plays into the hands of those we fight. The lesson of Viet Nam was that you do not need to defeat America's military; you only need defeat its electorate. The Senate recently held an all-night session, ostensibly to debate the war in Iraq. Many of us also got no sleep that night, and those for whom we were watching were surely watching our Senate's theatrics, likely smiling. Being elected to the Senate does not immediately qualify someone as a military strategist--nor does belonging to the press corps--so I will put this very simply: if you truly want to support the troops, if you ever want this war to end, then declare plainly that there will be no peace without victory. Victory in this war--which even now extends beyond Iraq and Afghanistan--depends solely on the strength of will of the American people.

Kristin Henderson: An opinion from a deployed service member...


Arlington, VA: Thank you for the excellent and moving article.

As someone who grew up and has lived with no personal ties to the military (other than a father who served in WWII), I find it very worrisome that it is so easy for most of us today to feel no real connection to the million or so servicemen and women who have now spent time deployed in the Middle East. We experience the war differently than the families and loved ones of those deployed troops. There are, however, many ways to build those connections, including by volunteering with various troop support organizations (and this is something that you can do no matter how you feel about the war itself). For more than three years now I've been an active volunteer with, an online organization that takes requests for care packages from deployed troops that are then filled by a cadre of volunteers around the country. In the process, I've formed some deep connections with deployed troops and gotten an insight into the conflict that I would not have had otherwise.

I encourage others to consider reaching out to troops (and their families) as well. There are many excellent troop support organizations out there in addition to Books for Soldiers; and are two more.

Kristin Henderson: Here's an example of those personal attempts at bridge-building, mentioned at the end of the article.


Washington, D.C.: Recently during a televised discussion on Meet the Press, Senator Webb of Virginia and Senator Graham of South Carolina errupted into a debate on the reasons soldiers re-enlist. While Sen. Graham contends that it is because the re-enlistees believe in the President's politics and the war, Sen. Webb argues that soldiers re-enlist because they love their country and feel a responsibility to the other members of their unit. He pointed to a poll of deployed soldiers in Iraq showing that their views on the war closely mirrored those of the American public writ large, which Graham dismissed as invalid.

What have you found to be more true: that soldiers fight because they love the president and approve of the war, or because they love their country and feel a responsibility to serve?

Kristin Henderson: Based on what I've heard, I would say they're both right, but Webb is more right. It's true that like any other American, politics is a motivator for some in the military. But every study of soldiers at war going back 100 years has found that men fight not for political reasons but for the buddies on either side of them. That is the #1 motivation.


Washington, DC: Thanks for your great article.

As a (struggling) pacifist, I am saddened that the concept of work with the Peace Corps (or with any of the other many, many international service organizations) is not considered true "service" or patriotism. It's written off as too passive, but the word "pacificm" and "passive" are not the same, they don't have the same root. Peace Corps service is HARD WORK, without a weapon.

I just think it's tragic that many people limit service to country as military service.

Also, too often the word "patriotism" is actually defning "nationalism," which is so much more frightening. How will we ever learn to live peacefully in this big world when we narrow our allegiance to one nation that exists within certain imaginary boundaries?

Kristin Henderson: Another opinion.

This gets back to the idea of some form of national service, both military and non-military -- if non-military options were required or better promoted, perhaps it wouldn't be seen as "passive."


Alexandria, Va: What's really sad is that even with the number of reservists like my husband (OIF veteran and Purple Heart recipient) who live and work in the civilian world 90 percent of the time, civilians keep our world at bay. We are both well educated, and live a comfortable middle class life with our two young children. His service is about more than just this war; it's been a 13-year adventure and service to country in war and peace.

I was shocked at the lack of sensitivity of some of my neighbors, my friends and even our families during my husband's one-year deployment to Iraq. People don't want to be bothered unless it's on their front door step. They want to pump us for arguments to use against the war, and dig for shocking stories, but not pick up the phone and call to see how myself and my two sons are faring while he is getting blown up in Iraq, or how he is doing since returning home.

Thank you for writing this article. I just hope it inspires people to extend some tangible support to the service members and the families who wait at home.

Kristin Henderson: The insensitivity you experienced is familiar to me. With so few people serving in the military these days, most people simply don't know what it's like to have someone you love deployed to a war zone -- the emotional roller coaster, the way those emotions (fear, pride...) conflict with each other.


Santa Monica, Calif: Kristen,

As a high school teacher, I note an incredible apapthy toward the war and its participants. I teach at a middle income Catholic Prep and I have even sensed a bit of apathy on the part of young teachers to discuss the war, or to ask students to voice thoughtful opinions. Thankfully, the number of hawkish kids who had no plans on actually serving themselves has either diminished they just don't sound off as much, but I see no anger, little concern, or very much of anything that approaches responsible citizenship being displayed. In the last five years, only 4 of our students has opted to serve in the military and and I know of none who have considered serving in the Peace Corps or public service of any type. Is this war simply "unreal," for teens?

Kristin Henderson: Another perspective on the disengagement we've been talking about...


Herndon, Va: MS. Henderson: One person said the military is separated from "common reality." Partially true - but the civilian world is separated from the "reality" the military is often required to face. I'm a Viet Nam veteran, whose familty was show case for the country's split - the two older brothers, ROTC and Army commissions - the youngest - conscientious objector. Until we "spread out" military service, the problem just gets worse, and reading that the officer corps is 6 to 1 GOP scares the hell of me, and I'm a Republican.

Kristin Henderson: Another interesting opinion...


Kaneohe, Hawaii: Thanks for an insightful and well-written article. I'm a

Navy LT, married to a Marine Corps Captain who is

currently stationed in Iraq. Both of us are in the extreme

minority among officers--registered Democrats. I work

mostly with Army enlisted in my current job and I find it

fascinating that they blame the failures in Iraq squarely on

liberals. I'm not really sure how that works, since the

Democrats just took over Congress in January and the war

has been a mess for much longer than that, but that's

their story and they're sticking to it.

Do you think that there is anything short of a draft that

would make this war a shared sacrifice? There is no doubt

that only a small few are directly affected, but they are

affected over and over and over again. Military families

are nearing a breaking point and I don't think the full

ramifications will be known for years. Thanks again for

your article.

Kristin Henderson: I agree that the longterm human costs of our current conflicts have not been calculated or funded. I'd like to see a dedicated funding source to adequately support mental health and family programs, as well as the VA. As it is, those suffering from combat trauma have to wait months (or years) to get help. That hurts not just the service member, but also their families and their communities. We'll pay for it one way or another.


Washington, DC: Having served as a USAF Reservist for 20 years (activated several times, served in war myself) and now as a civilian working as an RN at Walter Reed in the Medical Intensive Care Unit, plus having a son who is in the Army National Guard currently on his second deployment into a war zone, I can tell you about my feelings about the disconnect between the military and the civilian point of view on the Global War on Terrorism: It angers me. It discourages me. It saddens me. It disgusts me. I find no solace amongst my civilian peers or in most of the media. It only increases my negative feelings. The only people with whom I find solace are those who have lived the military life themselves. There's a reason there is a saying, "Until you have walked a mile in -my- boots..." When the boots happen to be combat boots, that mile is far wider and longer than any civilian will ever know or understand.

Kristin Henderson: This writer has a lot of company.


Lt Commander, Medical Service Corps, US Navy: A little balance would be nice (and rare). For every story about killing, there are dozens of stories of Americans and other allies setting up clinics, distributing clothes, food, medicine, and toys. As a Navy Medical Service Corps officer who served in Afghanistan last year, I watched thousands of Americans and our allies put their lives on the line to help out our fellow man, only to have our stories considered "not news worthy" by the press. By giving the American people only the bad side, you show your basis and demonstrate your true feelings for the military and the nation.

Kristin Henderson: This is a common complaint among those in the military. It's true that the news media are drawn to drama and conflict, whether the story is in Iraq or in Detroit. On the other hand, I read a recent report by an Army public affairs officer who had done a study of media coverage of the war, and found no evidence of bias. He urged his fellow service members to reach out to the media, to tell their stories. I would urge them, too, to tell talk about their experiences with civilians. Since most don't serve, it's the only way they're likely to learn. For instance, in Massachusetts, a group of veterans visit schools to talks about their military experiences, in the process teaching both history and critical thinking skills. They're at


Washington, DC: When I was in high school, I hd a number of girlfriends whose older brothers went to Nam, and a couple who did not make it back. But - when I was in school, from K-12, we were taught the importance of contributing to the community, and had regular classes in civic at all levels of governement. My kids were in public school from 1978 until 2001, and these topics were not covered except as electives; local governement was never even discussed. It's hard to believe this has not contributed in some way to the divide.

Kristin Henderson: Good point.


Williamsburg, Va: Having spent 24 years in the Air Force, starting in 1967, and having spent 27 months in combat (FAC in Vietnam, Raven in Laos, RF-4 from Udorn in 1972), I think this article is extremely accurate. I would quibble with a couple of points -- senior military leadership, for instance, does (mostly) understand the cost ("economics" is the wrong term) of weapons systems. What they are incapable of dealing with is the flawed, inefficient, and sometimes corrupt development-production process which is welded to a too-often pathetic government procurement process wedded to a Congressional benefits system.

To those who seek "victory" -- you are thinking in conventional military terms in an arena which is, clearly from the outset, an unconventional war -- something which can be defined by many terms but which remains non-conventional.

Kristin Henderson: Another good point. The need to shift to a more unconventional approach is a challenge facing both the military and those on the civilian, State Dept side.


Alexandria, VA: Kristen,

I enjoyed your article. Do you think this rift you right about is representative of a fundamental paradigm shift? Do you think the nation is capable of generating a response to a situation similar to WWII if the conditions were more favorable than those in Iraq?

Kristin Henderson: That's the million dollar question, isn't it? We ARE in the midst of a major paradigm shift. My hope is that we will give it the attention it deserves so that we make the shift as intentional as possible, reflecting our values as a democracy, and not just let it happen to us.


Kristin Henderson: Well, this has been a vigorous discussion. Thanks for sharing your time and your thoughts. I'll be discussing this article further at 1:40 this afternoon on Washington Post Radio, 107.7 FM or 1500 AM. Or go to to listen from your computer.


Fairfax,VA: We see the military civilian disconnest even in our home. My husband has been deployed with the Navy 5 times on our 11 year marriage. It was easy be supportive of him and his career at first but his increasingly more frequent absences make me feel like I am the one in need of support. I am home, feeling the disconnect. Feeling like my family is sacrificing for these wars and yet I am still not sure what the right answer is, will a surge help this come to closure faster? Will withdrawing troops make the terrorists have the opportunity to set up huge headquarters from which to attack us here in the US?

I believe most people don't even give a second thought to this and many of the polititans are just on a soapbox with catch phrases. What makes one qualified to have a valid opinion? (PS to the people who order the deployments--this are not just little boats you are moving around on a map but thousands of families you are affecting and while we are prepared to be a part of the team it isn't easy.)

Kristin Henderson: Just want to share this one final view from the trenches with you...


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