When the Yellow Ribbons Fade: Reconnecting Our Soldiers and Citizens


A retired Navy officer recently told us a story that happened 20 years ago in New Jersey, when he was introduced to several very successful businessmen at an elite golf course outside his base. When a friend introduced him by his rank as “Commander,” one of these well-to-do members looked deeply confused and said, “Commander? What the heck is that?”

Today, after 14 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Navy commander is more likely to be recognized by his or her rank when introduced in public. But as those two wars evolve into smaller conflicts, the military is coming home once more, drawing back into its often isolated and tightly guarded bases. The yawning civil–military divide that was so evident to our Navy friend in the 1990s has every chance of returning and widening — with even more damaging effects on the U.S. military and the nation as a whole.

Since 9/11, America’s armed forces have been highly visible to the U.S. public. About 2.5 million U.S. troops have served overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have been prominently featured in news headlines nearly every day. Public confidence in the U.S. military is near historic highs. But now the number of troops remaining in both countries is only a tiny fraction of what it once was. Media attention has diminished and will continue to fade — and that absence is fraying one of the few remaining connective threads between the U.S. public and its military forces.

Since the all-volunteer force replaced military conscription in 1973, the number of Americans with a personal connection to the military has shrunk dramatically. There have also been fewer opportunities for Americans to serve in the military. The size of the active force has declined from 2.2 million in 1973 to just over 1.3 million today, while the U.S. population has grown from 211 million to 321 million. Today, fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve in uniform at any given time — including active duty, reserves, and the National Guard.

Furthermore, that 1 percent tends to increasingly comprise the same 1 percent of the population, one generation after the next. One of the biggest factors affecting the propensity to serve is whether someone has grown up near someone with current or previous military service. As a result, members of military families are far more likely to serve than the rest of the population. A 2011 survey found that an astonishing 57 percent of active duty troops at that time were children of parents who had served in the military. One of us has two military sons who grew up on Army bases and both repeatedly encountered their childhood playmates across Afghanistan on some of our nation’s most remote and dangerous battlefields, a place where such encounters are commonplace. The U.S. military has become a family business, generation after generation.

This growing divide between the civilian and military populations poses four related dangers, for each of those populations as well as the nation as a whole.

First, it narrows the military’s access to the best and brightest talent that the nation has to offer. Already today, fewer than one-third of young Americans are even eligible to serve, because of the military’s rigorous health, education, and behavioral requirements. Even fewer of those will even consider military service. Only 13 percent of young Americans have a favorable view of joining the military, and the percentage is even lower for high academic achievers. That statistic sadly makes sense: Many of those who hold unfavorable views will never have met anyone who has served in uniform, much less someone who can dispel common stereotypes and actively encourage them to serve.

Second, recruiting heavily among those with family connections tends to build a military that looks less and less like the nation as a whole. The military already recruits heavily from the south and west, favors rural areas over urban, and trends heavily male and white. (The Marine Corps is the most unrepresentative, at 94 percent male and 84 percent white — though Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus recently announced a plan to increase the percentage of female Marines to 25 percent.) If current recruiting trends continue, the military is likely to become even less diverse — ethnically, culturally, geographically, and in gender. This growing lack of diversity exacerbates the challenge of accessing the nation’s best talent, and perpetuates a vicious cycle whereby civilians become even less interested in serving as those in uniform no longer look like or share the values of the population as a whole. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned while he was in office, “there is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.”

Third, the U.S. military increasingly sees itself as apart from and even above the citizenry from which it is drawn. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a former judge advocate now teaching at Duke’s law school, notes: “I think there is a strong sense in the military that it is indeed a better society than the one it serves.” We have both heard U.S. military personnel speak disparagingly about the broader population, citing growing obesity rates, slipping self-discipline and integrity, and a willingness to stay comfortably at home while service members might be on their third, fourth, or fifth wartime deployments. We also hear military members often express variations of the theme: “We did our job in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the politicians failed us because they didn’t have a strategy.” Combined with a creeping lack of regard for America’s civilian citizenry, this outlook could cause the U.S. military to begin to regard its civilian political leadership with equal disdain. A military elite that perceives itself as separate, distinct, and better than the general population would be deeply dangerous for both the military and the nation as a whole.

Fourth, the fundamentals of American democracy require a military that is representative of and connected to the people of the United States. Throughout American history, the weighty decision to go to war has been one that always deeply involved the people. The framers of the Constitution deliberately gave the power to declare war to Congress as the elected representatives of the American people. While the nature of modern prolonged conflicts and the demise of conscription have sharply eroded the personal exposure of the American people to their wars, their ultimate responsibility for this most consequential of national decisions remains. Civilians have a responsibility to understand their military and have an essential role in decisions to commit it to battle — regardless of how removed they may be from personal participation or connection to our warriors. Wearing yellow ribbons and saying “thank you for your service” are simply no substitute for active engagement with U.S. military personnel and the political decisions to send them into harm’s way.

Reversing these dangerous and self-reinforcing trends will require active efforts from the U.S. military, the nation’s political leadership, and the population as a whole.

The U.S. military needs to deliberately seek to engage — and recruit from — broader and more diverse elements of the general population. In particular, it must do far more to connect with and educate women, minorities, and the growing populations on both coasts about the opportunities and intrinsic rewards of military service. This effort should focus on explaining the challenges and rewards of military service as a way of giving back to the nation while getting practical skills, taking on responsibilities at a young age, and gaining immense leadership experience. Recruiting from populations that have not traditionally served in the military will be challenging and may well be more expensive, but the potential benefits of attracting a wider base of talent into the military more than justify these costs.

Military leaders also must do more to avoid growing isolation and elitism in the force as it returns from years of arduous combat and operational deployments. Uniformed leaders at all levels must talk to their men and women about this insidious trend, and publicly and strongly reject the premise. Military elitism must be stamped out. The belief among those in uniform that “we are better and more select than anyone in civilian life” is an outlook that appears far too common today — and has often been inadvertently promoted by the popular adulation showered on the military since 9/11. This viewpoint is extremely unhealthy in a democracy because it dissolves the vital link between citizen and soldier.

The military should fund its experienced young leaders to travel far away from military communities to talk to Americans in urban areas, in the arts and sciences, in academia, and in Hollywood about what serving in uniform is like. America needs to meet and listen to these amazing young men and women on a far more regular basis — not just in friendly communities near military bases, but among those parts of the population least well-represented in the ranks of the uniformed services. National Guard and reserve units can make tremendous contributions to these efforts, since their members live in and are connected to almost every community across the country.

The military can also do more to increase diversity in the future military leadership brought in through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and the service academies. Congress should challenge the long-standing trend of locating ROTC detachments at inexpensive schools in the south and west where recruiting is easier, rather than pricier institutions concentrated along the more urban coasts where recruiting is harder. In 2010, Secretary Gates noted that the state of Alabama had a population of five million and 10 Army ROTC host programs, whereas the Los Angeles metro area had a population of 12 million with four programs and the Chicago metro area had a population of 9 million with only three programs. Little has changed since then.

Legislators should also push the service academies to serve as exemplars for attracting broad-based talent and diversity. This could start by insisting that the numbers of female cadets is ramped up more sharply to begin to approach the numbers of female undergraduates in civilian universities in the United States (where women are more likely to attend college than men, and earn more of every type of advanced degree offered). Such measures will go far to ensure that the future U.S. military is led by a broad and representative array of leaders from all across America.

Civilian leaders also need to take a more active role in ensuring that the U.S. military does not fall from the public eye and public responsibility. Civic influencers — high school and college teachers and coaches, elected officials, parents, family members, and mentors — need to talk about military service to America’s young men and women. Every young American should know what military service looks like and how they might consider serving their country in this way. It is a profoundly important and meaningful way to give back to the nation for the immense privilege of U.S. citizenship.

The aftermath of American wars inevitably produces a growing divide between a military that is coming home and an American population that will quickly move onto other interests. The trends today suggest that this divide is already opening, and without attention now, will only grow worse. As the United States emerges from 14 years of major wars overseas, both sides have a responsibility to prevent this troubling outcome. Bringing America’s military home after two long and bloody wars need not inevitably result in a military that is isolated and apart, nor a population that is indifferent to its men and women in uniform. The future success of America’s remarkable all-volunteer force and its lasting connection to the nation requires our civilian and military leadership to take up this challenge now.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army