When the Yellow Ribbons Fade: Reconnecting Our Soldiers and Citizens

July 14, 2015

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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

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10 thoughts on “When the Yellow Ribbons Fade: Reconnecting Our Soldiers and Citizens

  1. As a USMC Sgt-Vietnam 1966/67 I counseled young men to NOT go in the military both during Vietnam and during the recent illegal, immoral wars. While during Vietnam I supported an end to the draft, I fully support reinstating it today. Today’s military is, in the most part, honorable but this does not mean fighting illegal, immoral wars is right. What can they say to civilians that is true? The wars were fought for freedom, to stop WMD’s is a blatant lie. I agree with the need to reestablish contact between the civilian population and the military. Many, if not most of us don’t fit back in when returning. By all means, lie to the public about how great the Military is. Get the draft reinstated and then see how many more unnecessary wars are fought when the public learns the truth. The Pentagon supports diminishing pensions, more expensive health care along with the so called “patriots” in Congress, would you have the returning speak to the people about that? Like my brother and fellow Marine, Ron Kovik, I spoke truth to the power about Vietnam as do many Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans today. I support a strong, strong defense, the troops, people that do the dirty work, but I do not and cannot support the chicken hawks that send our best off to die in a false cause. Just my thoughts and I do not disagree with you in total, just in practice.

    1. SGT Sabai,

      Illegal wars? If you are referring to the fact that congress did not offically declare war on Iraq or Afghanistan need I point out that neither did they do so for Vietnam or even Lincoln’s war?

      As far as false flag operations go, do you believe that we landed on the moon?

      If there is a grand conspriacy to dupe us all into neverending fanciful distractions and or combat, it is not a very good one. I’d elect to use Occam’s razor prior donning my tinfoiled hat but that’s just me.

  2. It is not hard or improper for those in uniform to question the sincerity of American civilians. After all they elect politicians that undermine the military’s mission, family, traditions, values, and home seemingly at every turn (for at least 8 yrs straight). So, these problems such as low morale and disdain for civilians have organic political roots and it would be wholly unamerican to suggest that US servicemen/women divest themselves of such political reflections and liberties.

    Revising DOD recruiting focus, adjusting marketing stratagems and reeducating troops will not remedy military societal woes. However, if one intends to redefine US military service and use it as a rose tinted magic mirror reflection of society (conduct social reengineering) then by all means continue to purge the ranks and bring back the draft. That way one will get the blank slate mindless military force that is desired and meet the oh so precious racial ethnic sexual identity quotas.

  3. As usual, this overstates the separation between the military and the civilian population. A large portion of the civilian population decries growing obesity, slack discipline in schools (listen to teachers talk sometime!), and civilian disdain for politicians places them on a respect level with used car salesmen. More military members live out among the general population than previously, although they’re generally not as visible as you might think — security concerns discourage wearing uniforms in public, it’s easier to commute in PT clothes and get morning PT out of the way, etc. And while the metropolitan Chicago area may only have 3 Army ROTC programs, it has 8 Air Force ROTC detachments — almost as many as the entire state of Alabama.

    Designing the military to match an arbitrary set of social demographics will inevitably degrade the quality of the force — at what point do performance standards outweigh achievement of demographic goals? What resources are worth pulling from improving warfighting capabilities in order to incentivize under-represented groups?

    Conscription only solves this issue if 100% of the population is taken. Anything less means those who end up serving would either volunteer on their own, or weren’t clever or well-resourced enough to avoid it. Conscription also leads to a much larger force than the U.S. needs, and creates a substantial slice of the population who now dislikes the military because of their forced service.

    If equal opportunity is the real goal, though, General George Marshall proposed the answer even before WWII: universal basic military training. Put every high school graduate into a basic training pipeline. 8 weeks should provide enough to expose all those young minds and bodies to the requirements and purpose of the military. At the end, those who can’t and those who have no desire — even after the exposure — to continue get on with their lives, with a basic appreciation for the service and that “right of passage” pro-draft politicians and social scientists are so fond of. Those who have a desire to serve now have a better idea of opportunities available and the means to pursue them.

  4. I’m more fortunate enough to vets a higher proportion of my friends. In my corner of the world here in Chicago, that divide isn’t as great asyou think.
    If you havent heard of the Pritzker Military Musuem and Library you should. Part of their mission is to promote the “citizen soldier” and maybe bridge some of that divide:

  5. I read this and then I blogged. I’m a military daughter; though I have neither the ability nor the inclination to take basic training, there are other ways mandatory military service could bridge the gap between civilian and soldier. There are ways we could all be useful. Given the chaos that is modern society, perhaps civilians should aspire to the structure that military life provides.

  6. I am tired of the ridiculous notion of the CIV – MIL divide. This idea assumes that some how it is the responsibility of the American citizenry to be intimately familiar with the inner workings or our chosen profession. Do accountants sit around and lament the need to bridge the Civilian – accountant gap? Oh why don’t those lazy civilian non Accountants just learn the actuary tables? Where the real issue lies is in the complete and total MIL-CIV gap, where in our leadership (say O6 and up, but a lot of O5s fit the bill too) have NO understanding of how to talk to civilians or any comprehension of what civilian life looks like. I say the MIL-CIV gap is the real problem, especially in a country where our military is subordinate to civilian leadership. It is incumbent on the Military leaders to communicate effectively and provide realistic plans and capability assessment to our civilian leaders. Not for the civilians to better understand us.

    1. Chris:

      I think you might not have seen the point that General Barno and Dr. Bensahel make in their article. They actually do put the onus on the military to close this gap.



  7. Ryan my point is that the military leadership has no idea what the civilian population does or how they live or think. That is the real problem, we work for civilians not the other way around. We are currently doing all sorts of command directed “community engagement” to close the civ-mil gap. Because nothing brings understanding faster than soldiers unfurling flags at football games and GOs watching from the boxes. Military leadership is failing to explain and effectively communicate our requirements to the elected leaders in this country. Even worse they refuse to accept the descisions of our civilian leadership once they have been made.

  8. I think SecNav’s goal of a 25% female Marine Corps is a bad idea, and rather obviously a bad idea. Unless there is some evidence that women are much more gifted at the non-physical side of being in the military, it seems that doing this is just dropping the physical capability of a large chunk of the Marine Corps without any real clear net gain.

    In terms of people bemoaning the whiteness of the military (and the Marine Corps in particular), we’ve had a much more diverse military in the past and it resulted in an ongoing impression that the military is largely poor people of color who are sent into combat to bleed for the white man. Turns out that the people who actually *want* to fight for this country are quite likely to be white. Trying to recruit people who don’t want to do the job, by advertising how it’s in their own best interest, seems wrongheaded to me.

    Additionally, it’s sort of peculiar to me to comment, in the same article, that only a third of American youth qualify for military service, and also to suggest that military personnel shouldn’t think of themselves as better than their civilian counterparts. Just by those numbers, they’re better almost by definition. Add in the points made by the authors about how beneficial military service is—more responsibility, leadership, more self-discipline—and it seems to me that they are saying there are two populations. One population is healthier, stronger, better-educated, more disciplined, and has more leadership experience than the other…but it’s totally not better.