Sunday, June 22, 2014

Hero worship and the civil-military divide

In a Washington Post op-ed, a US Army Captain cautions against the indiscriminate use of "hero."

I have worn an Army uniform for the past eight years and deployed twice to Afghanistan. This doesn’t make me a hero.

(Disclosure: I too wore that uniform for 3 1/2 years in the 60s.  I am proud of that service but never have flaunted it let alone thought of myself as a hero.)

His point is important.  Fewer and fewer Americans serve in the military, and there are fewer and fewer Vets in Congress, disturbing trends, also noted by Rachel Maddow in her book "Drift."  In short, there is an increasing divide between the civilian electorate and the military.  That divide has serious policy consequences.

Over the past decade, a growing chasm between military and civil society has raised the pedestal upon which the United States places those who serve in its military. Too much hero-labeling reinforces a false dichotomy that’s commonly heard in our political discourse: You’re either for the troops or you’re against them. We badly need to find ways to bridge this civilian-military gap to cultivate a more nuanced appreciation of service and to produce better policy in Washington.
While we veterans surely appreciate a supportive public, too much hero-labeling has unintended consequences.

Read more about managing our military resources after the break.

One example is how we treat defense funding.

Too often, policymakers frame discussion of whether to cut the military budget as being for or against the troops; the political battle over the military portion of the sequester is an example of this black-or-white mind-set. But any bureaucracy — particularly one that doesn’t function with a profit-and-loss mentality — can innovate and gain efficiencies when it’s forced to do more with less. If we’re not searching for opportunities to fix, clean and trim our organizations, we’re not being good stewards of them. When we can’t have political discussions that dig beneath the blanket of “for or against the troops,” palatability wins over stewardship. And one of our nation’s most precious resources suffers the long-term consequences.

So we need better resource management.  To start, we need a higher bar for labeling our service personnel as heros.

We were all happy to see Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl released after being held prisoner in Afghanistan for so long, but to prematurely say that he served with honor and distinction diminishes those who did earn such accolades and illuminates the general mislabeling of military service. It isn’t that the U.S. public shouldn’t honor those who served in combat; it’s that a large civil-military divide prevents policymakers from even asking the right questions. Leaders inside and outside the military need to focus on bridging this gap.

One way to shrink that divide is to expect more from our citizens.  Instead of 1% serving our country, let's go for 100% and an expectation of universal service.

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