Paul Walker and Civilian-Military Relations

December 5, 2013

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The minute I found out Paul Walker had died, I was ready for the coming maelstrom on Facebook and Twitter. Angry statuses poured in from service members that focused on our country’s unwavering ability to honor and mourn a blond haired, blue eyed Californian whom millions had never met versus America’s supposed amnesia of those who have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Everyone has heard about the civilian-military divide, and how, as a country, we have to bridge it in the coming years. Yet, to bridge it we have to know what the divide looks like. Many define the divide as a set of experiences attained by a veteran that is incomparable and incoherent to the experiences of his or her civilian counterpart.

The civilian-military divide is an ambiguous term and because it’s ambiguous people like to cling to it like any other buzzword out there. “Bridging the divide” is a phrase thrown around from college classrooms to the halls of Congress, but if you want to know what the divide looks like, here’s a Facebook status from a few days after Walker’s passing:

The unexpected death of any American is sad. However, for the dozens of you who paid meme, collage and Facebook status tribute to a celebrity you never even met, and ignored my TWENTY-FOUR, 24, friends who died in Afghanistan so you could display your self-absorbed IGNORANCE on social media through the first amendment afforded to you with their blood, carry on!

My friends have died in parts of the globe that many people like to pretend don’t exist, and that’s okay. We buried them and touched the casket and cried and poured out a handle of Jack Daniels on their graves accordingly. It’s the nature of the business. You can’t make people mourn Sergeant Joshua D. Desforges from Ludlow, Massachusetts who died on May 12, 2010 in the Zulu sector of Marjah, Afghanistan.

Why doesn’t the whole country mourn the loss of each man and woman who dies in harm’s way? The simple answer is because we’re at war, and while it is tragic, people die in war. We’ve certainly come to accept that over the last twelve years. It has become a sad background noise that most people know how to tune out.

Another answer is a little more insidious, but probably more relevant than the first. America mourns Paul Walker and Whitney Houston because maybe the average American feels they “know” A-list celebrities more than they know the men and women who serve under their flag. Is an American more likely to have seen a Fast and Furious movie as opposed to knowing a service member? Maybe.

As a society, our relationship with our warfighters has changed drastically over the years. We’ve gone from WWII’s “All Together Now”, to the maltreatment of veterans after Vietnam, to the strangely collective ambivalence in the later years of the Global War on Terror.

The year 2001 saw a surge of American flags on Suburbans and hip-hip-hoorays when we started bombing Kandahar, while just six years later anti-war sentiment was at a fever pitch. Now we’re somewhere in the middle. In many ways, it seems as though America just wants to forget that we’re still very much at war. This sentiment was made painfully obvious when, during the government shutdown, four Americans were killed in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber. The only reason it was touted in the news for more than five minutes was because their families weren’t going to be given their death gratuities due to Congress’ inability to function.

And so Mother Jones sometimes tweets a picture with the caption “we’re still at war” accompanied by a helmeted soldier with a rifle at the ready and a decrepit village in the background. As if that’s grabbing America by the shoulders and pointing to a scab of earth 7,000 miles away, saying, “Hey, pay attention to them!”

It’s a nice try.

The civilian-military divide is alive and well and will be for some time because at the end of the day America can pick and choose whom it remembers and whom it forgets. Those who fought next to Josh Desforges will never forget him and will never want to. Our priorities do not revolve around “Paul Walker In Memoriam” because we’re too busy with our own baggage, and that’s okay.

We signed up for it.


Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a columnist at War on the Rocks. He served as an infantryman with 1st Battalion 6th Marines from 2007-2011 and participated in two deployments to Afghanistan. He is a student at Georgetown University and a deputy editor at The Hoya.


Photo credit: DVIDSHUB

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10 thoughts on “Paul Walker and Civilian-Military Relations

  1. A “military-civilian” divide exists because our news media, Hollywood and academia externalize the military. Many DEMONIZE military service. The sterotype is the dumb, can’t get into college “grunt” who commits war crimes and the officers who seem to love killing and aping Nazi Germany.

    Never mind that the US military defeated the Nazis and liberated many.

    Never mind that our military is SMALLER now than in the Cold War era.

    What was once the work of Corps and Divisions can be done by a brigade. Technology and Science have marched on, but the media hasn’t.

    Stop crying over a “divide” that only exists with our east and west coast liberal establishment. The South, Southwest, the Jello Belt and other parts of Fly Over Country love the military and those in uniform.

    1. You’re being ridiculous. If you could point to anyone–especially a major figure–in the news media or even Hollywood who actually demonizes military service, I’d be surprised.

  2. This is very important and well written. The outcry over Paul Walker’s death was definitely overblown and made even clearer the fact that we don’t value our servicemembers’ lives enough.

    I just have an issue with your friend’s status that you posted — specifically, the end part. I’m pretty anti-war and pacifistic, and the idea that the First Amendment was afforded to ignorant Facebookers via his friends’ blood seems a little simplistic. We haven’t had to defend our First-Amendment rights using military force for a long time.

    People are stupid and don’t respect the military enough, but they can say what they want on Facebook without feeling like they owe that privilege to servicemen fighting a foreign war — where our First-Amendment rights are not being threatened in any way — that they may not support. I’m genuinely curious what a less anti-war person (TM?) might have to say about this topic. Any thoughts?

  3. Kind of a stretch.

    The ‘anger’ here dismisses the deep reverence Americans by and large have for their fighting forces. The parades. The tributes at sporting events. The moments of silence in community get togethers nationwide.

    It also completely ignores a special time we have set aside for remembrances of our fallen countrymen…it’s called Memorial Day. And just as my FB feed this week was filled with sadness over a talented young actor taken too soon…on Memorial Day (and not JUST on Memorial Day)…. it’s filled with messages of thanks and honor to those who served and died (including my father)… and reminders that the day off is about something far deeper than cookouts and mattress sales.

    As to the Paul Walker link….well, vets are for the most part conservative, and there is a tangible conservative narrative that despises anything Hollywood (even the death of a kid who once paid $9000 for a wedding ring to give to a military couple he once met in a jewelry store). Fair enough. Some people will never be satisfied that the nation remembers fallen soldiers, sailors & Marines properly…. I would argue, we could honor them deeply by just paying more careful attention as a nation to how our wars that CREATE the fallen start, and who wants them the most. That’s just me.

    But tit-for-tat outrage on who we’re supposed to mourn at any given moment does little to honor the dead….either a young actor enjoying the freedoms to live dangerously, or those that guaranteed it for him.

  4. The divide, while real, is the result of number of factors not easily overcome. First and foremost, how many people know someone in the military? Living in a military community you forget how small and insular it really is. You see a division review and think “Look at all the soldiers” but really its not that large. Paul Walker probably had more fans than there are people in the military. As a minimum, more people knew who he was than knew someone serving.

  5. The comparison of Paul Walker’s celebrity and Whitney Huston’s is as ridiculous as comparing one service members service to anthers.

    The divides exist because both sides engage in creating them.

    Paul Walker bridged the divide with his charity. ReachOut providing FIRST RESPONDERS AFTER disasters. He worked with several military medics in disasters all over the world.

    He died after attending a fund raiser to provide Christmas gifts for poor children effected by the disaster in the Philippines.

    Whitney Huston was a fucking crack whore who only cared about herself! Her death was predictable.

  6. Wow. The article….. the comments……These views need to be shared!! PLEASE consider sharing your thoughts at this website:

    This project is an outlet for both veterans and civilians to share views through personal letters to one another…. in order to bridge the veteran/civilian divide. We have an opportunity as a nation to take advantage of this time period, when so many vets are returning, to do it right…. but we have to TALK IT OUT.