Thanks or Pity? How Assumptions About Veterans Widen the Civil-Military Gap
The texts and notifications start early on Veterans Day. Friends and family send me messages laced with flag emojis and tag me in various patriotic memes on Facebook thanking me for my service. It’s kind, and I always appreciate the thought. But it also feels awkward to be lumped together with all veterans, as if all of our experiences are the same.
Every Veterans Day, Americans honor those who have served in our nation’s armed forces. And every year assumptions about veterans reemerge, casting all veterans into a similar mold regarding their motivations and reasons for joining. While this may seem innocuous enough, to make such assumptions only furthers the civil-military divide in American society.
People assume many things about those who choose to serve in the military. One common assumption is that those who serve do so only because they have no other options available to them. A related misconception is that servicemembers come disproportionately from economically disadvantaged areas. An even more pernicious extension of this is that the military actively preys upon those of low socioeconomic status. The actual demographics of the armed forces tell a markedly different story, though.
A report published in the Journal of Strategic Studies in early 2020 disproves the hypothesis that those who join lack other options. On average, military personnel perform the same or slightly better than the civilian population when comparing cognitive abilities. The report cites technological, tactical, operational, and doctrinal changes across the military that have led to a change in the types of personnel in demand. Put simply, the services attract talented people, in competition with the civilian job market, to meet the needs of the changing landscape of the military. The military is also overwhelmingly made up of middle-class recruits. The Journal of Strategic Studies report more specifically shows that recruits are most likely to come from families in the middle of the wealth distribution, with median wealth of $87,000. In fact, the middle three quintiles for household income are overrepresented among military recruits — they are mostly middle class.
Assumptions regarding the motivations of servicemembers are problematic on a number of levels. First, they remove all agency from those choosing to serve. Joining the military is a process that requires follow-through and intention to successfully navigate. There are forms to fill out and medical screenings to complete. No recruiter, no matter how persuasive, can force a potential recruit through this process. Second, it is offensive to those of us who serve to cast military service as a last resort. Military service is something to be proud of. It is something that many aspire to. To assume that it’s only a final option equates service to the exact opposite.
On one hand, society tends to place servicemembers on a pedestal, publicly recognizing them as selfless warriors. On the other hand, there is the common misconception that they serve out of a lack of alternatives. Military personnel are somehow simultaneously society’s heroes who can do no wrong as well as low achievers who lack options. As a result, America’s public reverence has an element of private pity.
There is a wide variety of reasons people decide the military is the best option for them. And even within individuals it’s not uncommon to find multiple motivating factors. For example, I was motivated to join the Navy by a family history of service. Both of my parents served in the Army, and I saw the doors their military service opened. I was also seeking a challenge. I had already completed graduate school and started my professional career in Washington, D.C., but the military was a way to serve at the next level. The military allowed me to combine my passion for world events, desire to see the world, and interest in communication, all in a career serving my country.
Over the past six years, I’ve learned of the many diverse reasons that drove my peers to serve as well. One friend, an Air Force pilot, mentions 9/11 as the pivotal event motivating him to seek a commission. Another, a police officer in the Army, cites the desire to help people and be part of a team. Many are following in the footsteps of family members who have previously served. Others wanted a path to pay for higher education. While we’re all in the military together, the reasons that got us here look markedly different.
The diversity of backgrounds is also mirrored in the variety of experiences people have in service. Not all jobs in the military are combat-related. Administrative professionals, lawyers, dentists, accountants, and cooks serve in the military, too. Some servicemembers are never stationed outside the United States, while some spend the better part of their careers at sea or on deployment overseas. And all these individuals have unique service experiences as a result of these differences. Ignoring these nuances of service and generalizing veterans as a homogenous, optionless group makes it easier to send that same group into harm’s way on our behalf.
When I asked my mother why she enlisted in the Army after high school, her reply was simple: opportunity. She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, so there wasn’t a clear path to college, to say nothing of the lack of funds. She joined the Army not just to improve her own circumstances but for her future children — my sister and me — to have better opportunities as well.
Our stories are not unique. Each year, tens of thousands of young people join the U.S. military for reasons as diverse as their backgrounds. However, assumptions about why they choose to serve come from across the political spectrum.
A recent study shows that those on the right assume a self-sacrificing patriotic motivation, whereas those on the left assume economic reasons as the basis for joining. The reality, however, is much more complex. While love of country is a powerful motivator for many, it is not the sole factor inspiring service. Similarly, to point to financial reasons as the reason people join is in itself an oversimplification. It assumes that all military members are coming from an economically disadvantaged position when, in actuality, there are many economic reasons to join, from money for college to job security or health benefits that are, arguably, appealing across income groups. Military service transcends politics, and no party has a monopoly on service and its motivators. Further, continuing to assume why people have joined the military only widens the divide between those who serve and the rest of society.
Serving in the military is an opportunity to better oneself, whether that’s driven by the promise of financial benefits, world travel, job security, patriotism, or all of the above. This Veterans Day represents an opportunity to understand this reality rather than blindly thank those who have served. Recognizing that military members have more similarities than differences with their civilian counterparts is an important first step.
The best way to say “thank you for your service” this Veterans Day? Meet each veteran as an individual with unique experiences rather than assuming all are the same based on any set of preconceived notions — positive or negative.
Marissa Cruz Lemar is a writer, communications consultant, and Navy public affairs officer. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Insider, and Task & Purpose, among others. Follow Marissa on Twitter @mcruzmissile.