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JCS chief: Time to rethink civil-military relations

Jul. 12, 2013 - 12:49PM   |  
General Dempsey speaks to congressional interns
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said in an op-ed that the U.S. 'should pause to think about what our military means to the people it protects.' (Air Force)
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The nation's top military officer is urging troops to brace for a postwar era in which the relationship between the military and the civilian population it is sworn to protect will change in fundamental ways.

The nation's top military officer is urging troops to brace for a postwar era in which the relationship between the military and the civilian population it is sworn to protect will change in fundamental ways.

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The nation’s top military officer is urging troops to brace for a postwar era in which the relationship between the military and the civilian population it is sworn to protect will change in fundamental ways.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey offered a rare public reflection on the cultural link between the all-volunteer force and civilian society and sought to dispel stereotypes that have arisen since 2001.

“Together, we need to discuss who we are and what our wars mean to us,” Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote in a July 3 op-ed in The Washington Post. His office subsequently provided essentially the same piece to Military Times.

“Now is the defining moment in our relationship with the 9/11 veterans,” Dempsey wrote, urging the country to gain a better understanding of who those returning warriors are as individuals. “All of us in uniform volunteered to serve, but that doesn’t make us all heroes. Many of us have seen the horrors of war, but that doesn’t make us all victims. Today’s warriors and their stories are more diverse than these simple characterizations suggest.”

Dempsey’s call for a national discussion comes at a challenging time for civil-military relations, according to several experts, career officers and others who spoke to Military Times.

In Washington, a fierce debate is in full swing about the future of defense spending that could veer into a bitter battle over pay and benefits for the people who serve in uniform. Across the country, veterans are returning in large numbers, some of them struggling to adjust or suffering from physical or psychological injuries. And as the war in Afghanistan winds down, the military may begin to lose its privileged place in American culture.

“The moral contract between the people and the military is changing. It changes after every war,” said James Burk, a civil-military affairs expert who teaches at Texas A&M University. “I think Dempsey is taking a stand against polarization and calling for a serious discussion about what the military community needs and how we achieve those objectives.”

Sensitive issues

Dempsey also touched briefly on proposed changes to pay and benefits in light of the current budget squeeze.

“We owe much to our veterans and their families, but we shouldn’t view all proposed defense cuts as an attack on them,” Dempsey wrote. “Modest reforms to pay and compensation will improve readiness and modernization.”

He also trod lightly on issues underlying the budget debate, cautioning service members not to assume they have a special or unique claim to national service.

“We are an all-volunteer force, but we are not all who volunteer,” Dempsey wrote. “Service has always been fundamental to being an American. Across our country, police officers, fire fighters, teachers, coaches, pastors, scout masters, business people and many others serve their communities every day. Military service makes us different, but the desire to contribute permeates every corner of the United States.”

Peter Feaver, a former Bush administration adviser during the Iraq War who is now a professor at Duke University, said Dempsey may be concerned about the long-term effects of the special status afforded to service members during the past decade-plus of war.

“He is a warning against the pride that the military may take after a decade of having privileged access to the nation’s resources and the pride of place, whether it’s in terms of our national ceremonies or sporting events or letting those in military uniforms board a plane first.” Feaver said.

That’s a valid concern, said Marine Maj. Peter Munson, the author of “War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History.”

“The military has been lionized in these recent conflicts and I don’t think that is necessarily healthy,” Munson said in an interview after reading Dempsey’s op-ed.

“I think there is a certain subculture in the military that has grown to expect the perks and admiration and adulation. I think that a lot of folks are starting to feel that way without realizing it,” he said. “While I certainly think that what the military has done over the past decade is admirable, we don’t want to feel entitled to a certain treatment different from other citizens. Ours should be a culture of selfless service and selfless leadership.”

Munson applauded Dempsey’s call for a national discussion.

“I think now is the time to address these things before the memories of these recent battles fade from the limelight and before any bitterness sets in about budget cuts,” he said.

A 'bond of trust'

Dempsey has made safeguarding the health of civil-military relations a focus of his tenure as the Pentagon’s top officer. During last year’s presidential campaign, he publicly scolded some veterans groups for endorsing candidates, saying that the military community must “remain apolitical” or else “erode that bond of trust we have with the American people.”

Dempsey also has written extensively about the professionalization and unique responsibilities of the officer corps and warned about the prospect of the all-voluteer force growing apart from the civilian world.

He said civilians have an important role to play in bridging that gap, but he also said today’s troops have a special responsibility to preserve the military’s connection with civilians and avoid becoming isolated.

“Some fault lies with us. It can be tempting to stay on our bases and talk only to those we know,” Dempsey wrote. “But we didn’t stop being citizens when we put on the uniform. We came from small towns and big cities across our country, and we’ll go back one day. Civilians aren’t an abstraction; they’re our parents, grandparents, siblings and friends.”

That may be especially important as the more than 2 million veterans from the past decade return to civilian life.

“There is a lot that vets have to reach out and explain to the general public,” said Pete Hegseth, an Iraq and Afghanistan Army veteran who now heads the advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America. “For example, veterans and veterans’ organizations have been very effective in shining a spotlight on some of the signature issues in this conflict, like [traumatic brain injury] and [post-traumatic stress]. Which is very important. At the same time, you can go too far and create the perception that everyone who is coming home is damaged goods. That is not an easy balance to figure out.”

Helping to assimilate returning veterans will require massive support from civilians, said Briana Goff, the director of the Institute for the Health and Security of Military Families at Kansas State University.

“A lot of people have sort of expected the military to take care of its own and think ‘Oh, that’s a problem for the military,’ or ‘Oh, that’s a problem for the VA’. But now I think there is a recognition that if [veterans] are coming into the community, there [must] be people and programs and agencies that are willing to step up,” she said. “I think there are individuals who are wiling to step up and provide the services, but there is still a lot of work to do to make sure they have good information and know how to do that.”

“The power of Dempsey’s position and his bully pulpit could make a big difference,” Goff said. “I think he’s making some pretty bold statements. These are things that other people have thought but are not heard in public very much. The fact that it’s being said by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that is important.”

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