The Military is From Mars, Civilians are From Venus: Avoiding Planetary Collisions in the Conference Room


Earlier this year, we taught a short skills institute for graduate students called Understanding the Military. When we asked our students what they most wanted to learn, we were very surprised by the most common answer: how to behave in meetings with military personnel.

We’ve attended many meetings where it felt like the military personnel were from Mars and the civilians were from Venus: part of the same solar system, but from planets with vastly different landscapes and languages. And we knew many of our friends and colleagues who had also shared this far-too-common experience. So we decided to crowdsource our class preparation: We reached out to our network, through email and social media, and asked what military and civilian national security professionals most need to know about meeting with each other.

We received an outpouring of ideas, suggestions, and anecdotes — many of which involved horror stories of encounters gone terribly, terribly wrong. We used them to develop a role-playing exercise that involved a fictional Pentagon staff meeting of military officers, civil servants, and contractors. Our students loved the exercise, and we had lots of fun.

So, as a public service, here are some key things that both military and civilian personnel need to know about bridging the interplanetary gap between them, in the interest of helping to build more unity of effort across the U.S. government.

Tips for Military Martians

Know who the senior civilians are in the room, and show appropriate respect for them. Military leaders can be easily identified by their rank insignia and usually have their last names on their uniforms. Civilian leaders can’t be identified so easily, and they are sometimes younger, female, and more diverse than their military counterparts. In the military, age correlates with rank and station, whereas civilians often get promoted more quickly because of talent, skill, and in some cases their political connections. One of our colleagues told us of a meeting where an Army one-star ran over his allotted time and took 10 minutes of the speaking time allocated to a (much younger) Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. He failed to recognize her rank and seniority. According to Pentagon protocol, she was the equivalent of a three-star general.

Know which civilians you are talking to, since they are not all the same. Contrary to popular military belief, there is no such entity as “the interagency.” Failing to recognize the differences among political appointees, civil servants, contractors, and representatives of the private sector can make you look foolish. Civilians come from organizations with a wide variety of cultures and subcultures, just like military personnel. The Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, and Homeland Security are all very different — and the latter includes more than 20 disparate organizations. Nobody confuses the Marine Corps with the Air Force just because both are in the Department of Defense; don’t make the same mistake with other big U.S. government agencies.

Communicate in ways your audience will understand. Don’t run your meetings like a military command and staff meeting, where hard questions and contrary views are often frowned upon. Many civilian policymakers prefer open conversations rather than briefings and want all dissenting views to be aired. Use PowerPoint as sparingly as possible, since other U.S. government agencies rely far more on memos than slides. (Someone once described the difference between the Departments of Defense and State as the difference between “horizontal” and “vertical” paper.) If you must use slides, avoid packing them with dense text and incomprehensible charts — and do not, under any circumstances, read the slides aloud to your audience.

Speak in plain English. Think about how you would explain Clausewitz to your grandmother. Tone down the jargon and explain all acronyms, which are often an impenetrable foreign language to civilians. A friend shared the story of attending an important meeting of the National Security Council’s Deputies Committee several years ago in which the military briefer spoke urgently about the importance of securing the LOCs — lines of communication — in Pakistan. The future of these key routes that provide the vital supply lifeline for U.S. forces in Afghanistan was at stake. As they left the meeting, this friend overheard the two senior representatives from the State Department asking each other, “What’s a LOC?” Remember that only the military is capable of inventing a three-letter acronym to replace a three-letter word: POV for “car.” Don’t add to the alphabet soup of confusion. It’s okay to say “drone” instead of “UAV.”

Turn down the power setting. Military officers bedecked in ribbons and shiny stars can be intensely intimidating to civilians throughout the government — from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill to the White House. Military culture prizes plain speaking, bluntness, and direct engagement in work conversations and briefings alike. But for many civilians, this frontal assault can seem aggressive and off-putting. Building personal rapport at the beginning of meetings or conversations, especially with first-time engagements, can produce much more positive long-term results. Start by asking who picked the latest upset in March Madness or discussing the latest plot twist in “House of Cards.” Ironically, the military trains its leaders to take a more personal approach when interacting with local leaders and tribal elders overseas, but often fails to apply this at home. Be tactful if you need to correct civilians who get your rank or title wrong.

Recognize that your audience may have different expectations and perceptions. Meetings with civilians often involve discussions that evolve well beyond the specific topic of the meeting, and can often end without clear decisions — an outcome far less common in military settings. Getting informal feedback after the meeting is also essential to find out what was really absorbed, agreed to, and rejected, since civilians don’t always express their conclusions and objections as directly as military people do.

Pointers for Civilian Venusians

Be on time, in the right place, and prepared. Military people are fanatical about starting on time, and arriving exactly on time will often be seen as “late.” Crashing into a meeting that has already started is extremely bad form. Get the “read ahead” brief and figure out the acronyms and terms ahead of time — and ask for help if you need it. Don’t hesitate to jump in with your points, since military people expect directness.

Show respect for the senior players. Everyone customarily rises when the most senior official (military or civilian) enters the room and again when he or she departs. Seating is usually structured by seniority, with the most senior people seated at the table, and the leader(s) at the top. If you are relatively junior or a contractor, you probably shouldn’t sit at the table unless invited to do so. Don’t call senior military officers by their first name in meetings, and avoid doing so even in smaller settings unless you are senior to them and have a strong personal relationship. If you don’t know the appropriate term of rank or title, it’s generally safe to call military officers “sir” or “ma’am.”

Learn military ranks and how to read them on uniforms. Know that Navy officer rank titles and meanings are different than those of the other services. A Navy lieutenant is an O-3 but Army, Marine and Air Force lieutenants are O-1s and O-2s; a Navy captain is an O-6 while Army, Marine, and Air Force captains are O-3s. Also remember that O-6s (a colonel or Navy captain) are senior military leaders, even though there are lots of them in the Pentagon. In the field or fleet, these officers may command thousands of troops or large warships. They make the trains run on time in the Pentagon and get most things done — don’t treat them like action officers.

Stash the personal electronics. All classified meetings and many sensitive unclassified meetings will require smart phones and wireless devices to be left secured outside, so be prepared for that. If you can bring them in, put phones out of sight and turned off. Nothing is worse than having your cell phone go off in the middle of a military meeting — unless you pull it out and take the call! Having a cell phone in your hands during a meeting is considered rude, even if you’re using it to take notes. Computers and iPads may be ok, but don’t get caught texting or surfing the net. Additionally, keep your body language respectful and attentive at all times: no gum chewing, eye-rolling, note passing, or putting your head in your hands.

Be direct, learn the language and ask questions. Be well-prepared, and interrupt with questions if the brief wanders off into “acronym valley” or is clearly losing you or other participants. State your objections directly but respectfully: “Colonel, I disagree…and here’s why.” If a military officer makes a serious mistake during a brief, be respectful and when correcting him or her. One military briefer mistakenly referred to his USAID counterpart in a meeting as an “NGO” — he was gently corrected (though it left a terrible impression). Make sure you know the meanings of key military terms, such as requirements, capabilities, capacity, doctrine, mission, intent, course of action, and command. Note any military terms or slang you don’t understand during a meeting and ask someone about them afterwards, so your vocabulary continues to grow.

Avoid politics, especially in an election year. Military leaders see themselves as apolitical servants of the nation. There are no “Republican” or “Democratic” generals or admirals — and to show any political affiliation in uniform is very bad form (although occasionally violated). In an election year, it’s particularly important to avoid political commentary, even if you and your colleagues may be directly affected by the results of the next election. Don’t assume all military personnel hold a particular political affiliation — individual political views fall across the entire political spectrum. Military servicemembers are committed to upholding the Constitution and obeying the legal orders of the commander-in-chief, regardless of party (and civilian government employees swear a similar oath). Mixing politics with military issues will bring nothing but trouble, even in just off-hand comments.

Getting these interactions right isn’t just about the importance of civility and good manners between different departments or our varied military and civilian players. A lack of understanding between the diverse people traveling across our governmental solar system can have serious policy consequences. It risks undermining unity of effort and adding confusion to already-complex intergovernmental processes. And misunderstandings and bruised egos often endure far beyond the topic at hand, souring important personal relationships for months and even years. We all get better by learning these lessons before living through more bad examples — which can only help improve U.S. national security policymaking.

We encourage you to share your own pointers in the comments section or by emailing


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. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.