Paul Walker and Civilian-Military Relations

CLB-3 Marines construct bridge, aid Afghan community

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