WASHINGTON — In Afghanistan and Iraq, the wire ringing our bases divided two starkly different worlds. Inside the wire, life revolved around containerized housing units, cavernous dining facilities, well-appointed gyms and the distant but ever-present risk of a falling rocket or mortar round. Outside the wire, Afghans and Iraqis tried to live their lives amid relative chaos. They didn’t fully understand what we were doing there. And when we ventured out, we struggled to navigate their world.
The wire defines a similar divide in the United States. Inside, troops and their families live and work on massive military bases, separated geographically, socially and economically from the society they serve. Outside, Americans live and work, largely unaware of the service and sacrifice of the 2.4 million active and reserve troops. Discussions of the civil-military divide often blame civilians. But the military’s self-imposed isolation doesn’t encourage civilian understanding, and it makes it difficult for veterans and their families to navigate the outside world.
The U.S. military’s domestic bases are the nation’s most exclusive gated communities. There’s restricted access, of course, and visitors are usually asked to provide multiple forms of ID and to submit to a car search before entering. Through the gates, there’s a remarkably self-contained world. Roughly a third of military families live on bases, with many more living just outside the wire in military enclaves. About 100,000 military children attend on-base schools. Military families shop at discounted grocery and department stores, see dedicated doctors and pharmacists, leave their children in military-subsidized child care, and play in base sports leagues. Many bases have their own golf courses, gyms and gas stations. Some have their own cemeteries, too.
The geographic isolation of military bases divides the services from society. The military increasingly concentrates itself on large bases nowhere near major population centers. Rural settings afford vast ranges and runways for training purposes, but they limit opportunities for interaction with civilians. City dwellers, including the nation’s political and business elites, may rarely see service members in uniform – perpetuating the military’s tendency to draw recruits from rural, Southern and Western populations. And when jobs are scarce in the communities surrounding bases, it makes the transition of veterans out of the military especially difficult.
Finally, the paternalistic way the military trains, indoctrinates and advances its members plays a role in deepening the civil-military divide and frustrating transition. From their earliest days of service, whether at Navy boot camp or West Point, recruits must abandon their civilian habits and embrace new haircuts, clothing, routines and hierarchies. The military tells them where to live, whom to work for and what to do. Service members have little autonomy or choice – even more than a decade into a career.
And so, leaving the military, as more than 80 percent of service members do well before they reach retirement, may provoke serious culture shock, even for those who haven’t recently served in a war zone. For some new veterans, it is the first time they’ve had to find a house, pick a school for their kids and apply for a job, let alone interview for one. They have enormous experience and expertise relating to their military jobs, but they lack basic life skills and experience.
We would not suggest that the military address these issues by allowing service members to choose their clothes each day.
Uniforms, routines and hierarchies help instill and sustain the discipline and cohesion that are necessary when facing an enemy in combat.
Without question, U.S. military forces must embrace a culture that sets them apart from people who work in the local mall or at Yahoo.
Yet many factors that contribute to the military’s separation from society have little to do with combat readiness.
For instance, some on-base schools opened in the 1950s and ’60s after Southern states pushed back against the idea of having the children of black service members attend whites-only local schools.
And as The Washington Post has reported, commissaries are taxpayer-subsidized anachronisms, dating back to a time when military paychecks were much smaller and there wasn’t a Walmart within 10 miles of most bases..
In years to come, as the military shrinks to prewar levels, it should re-evaluate its policies through the lens of the civil-military divide. Military effectiveness should always be the primary consideration, but the services should also consider the extent to which separation from society does harm.
— The Washington Post