The Civil-Military Bridge, Part 1: Simplification and Shorthand Abstractions


The civil-military gap is both real and significant.  Its causes are many, but it is in large part a result of the fact that Americans simply do not know much about the military – and that many national security and foreign policy elites spend little time or effort communicating across this divide.  But while the moat that separates the two parties is wide, both sides need one another desperately; the habitants on both shores need help communicating to cross this perilous water hazard.  Security simplification and Shorthand Abstractions (SHAs) can be useful tactical tools for bridging the civil-military gap in the national security and foreign policy arenas.

Take your pick: when it comes to national security and foreign policy, Americans are either apathetic or confused.  At presidential campaign time, when Americans are asked what issues they consider most important, vast majorities say “the economy.”  Answers linked to “foreign policy or national security typically yield between 3 and 5 percent.” Professor Ivan Arreguin-Toft recently lectured on the lack of basic “military literacy” in the United States and how this is detrimental to a liberal democracy. He cited a worrying statistic: 70% of newspaper-reading Americans never turn to the foreign affairs section (and that’s of the paper-reading subset). The New York Times recently featured a story about the U.S. Army’s adaptation to garrison life. In a published response, one reader quoted an Army specialist, home from Afghanistan, who griped about “too many slow days.”  The letter suggested a “few projects” for the soldier, including: “playing sports with children whose parents don’t have time,” “road and bridge building,” and “delivering food to shut-ins.”  Though the letter may have been tongue-in-cheek about the soldier’s role in society, with such a small sliver of society (.5%) currently in uniform, maybe it wasn’t.  Those comments might just represent what Americans think soldiers are for.

There are also those on the other side of the civil-military gap. These are the ones “in the know” – national security and foreign policy elites – who often talk and write in what seems like code, military acronym, or the dreaded Pentagonese (akin to Klingon): “Joint Adaptive Expeditionary Warfare requires capabilities organized cross-enterprise, adapting dynamically to uncertainty and turbulence in a multi-dimensional, nonlinear, competitive environment” (Brian Linn, The Echo of Battle, p. 3).  Some consider this intentional: for example, consider a 2012 article in Parameters, which assessed that the national security world propagates a “Cult of Complexity.”  Even journalists charged with interpreting this military stuff get confused: witness the infamous Financial Times column that referred to “counterinsurgency” as a policy, strategy and tactic all in one article.  And it doesn’t help that some foreign policy elites take deliberate shots against those who make real efforts to simplify security challenges for the average citizen.  It seems that some would prefer to keep national security and foreign policy issues somewhat exclusionary.

Why does communication across the civil-military gap matter?  As Stephen Biddle once said in an interview, security choices often “ultimately rest on value judgments that analyst[s]” cannot resolve. These choices are a “function of how risk-tolerant we are as a people,” and “the answers turn on value judgments, not analytical findings.” Biddle counseled the strategist to “lay bare the choices and illuminate the costs and benefits of them each, and to show where the value judgment lies as a way of facilitating a political debate.”  For a liberal, democratic society to function properly it needs national security and foreign policy elites to make sustained efforts to explain complex issues to the general public.

So how might one do that?

Bruce Lee once said, “the height of cultivation runs to simplicity.” Simplification can be valuable in communicating to broad audiences. Recently, comedian Greg Edwards has found success in an alter ego (Sparky Sweets, Ph.D.) who, at Thug Notes “serves up video summaries” of classical literature, which include “a minute or two of analysis.”  Edwards, interviewed in character, described Thug Notes as “my way of trivializing academia’s attempt at making literature exclusionary by showing that even highbrow academic concepts can be communicated in a clear and open fashion.”  Similarly, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof just wrote that “to be a scholar, is, often, to be irrelevant,” critiquing this particular sort of inaccessibility.  Echoing this theme, distinguished social critic and author Michael Walzer spoke in part on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan last month at the University of California, Berkeley. He advised to always write about public issues with two audiences in mind: “you want to influence the people who make the decisions…but you’re also trying to shape the critical debate, the judgments that your fellow citizens will make about these wars.” His final advice: “remain engaged” with the public and “write in an English that is accessible to those people and not just to your [peers].”

Academia has been at work codifying this public discourse simplification. The process began in New Zealand, with an idea from James Flynn, emeritus professor of political studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin.  Professor Flynn coined the term “Shorthand Abstractions” (SHAs – yes, another acronym), which he defined as “concepts drawn from science that have become part of the language and make people smarter by providing widely applicable templates.” “Market” and “placebo” were provided as examples; for a recent War on the Rocks example, see Patrick Porter’s recent column on the “global village.”  The book’s editor summarizes Flynn’s insight as the “idea…that the abstraction is available as a single cognitive chunk, which can be used as an element in thinking and in debate.”

When to use security and foreign policy-relevant SHAs?  Maximum benefit would accrue when major security choices emerge or threats materialize.  Most commonly in the contemporary era, this appears when intervention becomes a real possibility.  The biggest issues, requiring greatest investment in terms of human and financial resources, provide the most appropriate stage because this is when society’s support matters most.

Who might actually employ security and foreign policy-relevant SHAs?  That remains to be seen.  Unfortunately, purely political actors would likely harden into a particular position to communicate to domestic constituencies; Department of Defense speechwriters and military public affairs officers might find more use for the terms in describing individual threats and responses.  That said, political and military leaders ought to consider employing SHAs as these terms can speed the process to necessary political value judgments on present security threats.

In conclusion, one useful historical example of a political figure choosing simple and direct speech over complex and “comprehensive” comes from FDR’s “Infamy” speech. Japanese historian Eri Hotta commented on this decision in her book, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (p. 8):

Roosevelt’s cabinet, led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, initially urged the president to present to Congress a comprehensive history of Japan’s international misconduct. Roosevelt decided instead on an accessible five-hundred-word speech so that his message would get through to as many people as possible: The Japanese attack was treacherous, and the United States had to defeat this cowardly enemy, no matter what it took.

Though we cannot go back and run an experiment, it seems that FDR’s choice for December 8, 1941 was the correct one – security simplification and SHAs can be useful tactical tools for bridging the civil-military gap in the national security and foreign policy arenas.


Major Matt Cavanaugh is a FA59 (Army Strategist), currently assigned to teach military strategy in the Defense & Strategic Studies Program at West Point; he blogs regularly at


Photo credit: Secretary of Defense