In Afghanistan and Iraq, the wire ringing our bases divided two starkly different worlds. Inside the wire, life revolved around containerized housing units, cavernous dining facilities, well-appointed gyms and the distant but ever-present risk of a falling rocket or mortar round. Outside the wire, Afghans and Iraqis tried to live their lives amid relative chaos. They didn’t fully understand what we were doing there. And when we ventured out, we struggled to navigate their world.
The wire defines a similar divide in the United States. Inside, troops and their families live and work on massive military bases, separated geographically, socially and economically from the society they serve. Outside, Americans live and work, largely unaware of the service and sacrifice of the 2.4 million active and reserve troops. Discussions of the civil-military divide often blame civilians. But the military’s self-imposed isolation doesn’t encourage civilian understanding, and it makes it difficult for veterans and their families to navigate the outside world.
The U.S. military’s domestic bases are the nation’s most exclusive gated communities. There’s restricted access, of course, and visitors are usually asked to provide multiple forms of ID and to submit to a car search before entering. Through the gates, there’s a remarkably self-contained world. Roughly a third of military families live on bases, with many more living just outside the wire in military enclaves. About 100,000 military children attend on-base schools. Military families shop at discounted grocery and department stores, see dedicated doctors and pharmacists, leave their children in military-subsidized child care, and play in base sports leagues. Many bases have their own golf courses, gyms and gas stations. Some have their own cemeteries, too.
The geographic isolation of military bases divides the services from society. The military increasingly concentrates itself on large bases nowhere near major population centers. Rural settings afford vast ranges and runways for training purposes, but they limit opportunities for interaction with civilians. City-dwellers, including the nation’s political and business elites, may rarely see servicemembers in uniform — perpetuating the military’s tendency to draw recruits from rural, Southern and Western populations. And when jobs are scarce in the communities surrounding bases, it makes the transition of veterans out of the military especially difficult.
Finally, the paternalistic way the military trains, indoctrinates and advances its members plays a role in deepening the civil-military divide and frustrating transition. From their earliest days of service, whether at Navy boot camp or West Point, recruits must abandon their civilian habits and embrace new haircuts, clothing, routines and hierarchies. The military tells them where to live, whom to work for and what to do. Servicemembers have little autonomy or choice — even more than a decade into a career.
And so, leaving the military, as more than 80 percent of servicemembers do well before they reach retirement, may provoke serious culture shock, even for those who haven’t recently served in a war zone. For some new veterans, it is the first time they’ve had to find a house, pick a school for their kids and apply for a job, let alone interview for one. They have enormous experience and expertise relating to their military jobs, but they lack basic life skills and experience.
We would not suggest that the military address these issues by allowing servicemembers to choose their clothes each day. Uniforms, routines and hierarchies help instill and sustain the discipline and cohesion that are necessary when facing an enemy in combat. Without question, U.S. military forces must embrace a culture that sets them apart from people who work in the local mall or at Yahoo.
Yet many factors that contribute to the military’s separation from society have little to do with combat readiness. For instance, some on-base schools opened in the 1950s and ’60s after Southern states pushed back against the idea of having the children of black servicemembers attend whites-only local schools. And as The Washington Post has reported, commissaries are taxpayer-subsidized anachronisms, dating back to a time when military paychecks were much smaller and there wasn’t a Wal-Mart within 10 miles of most bases.
One way to reduce some of the unnecessary isolation would be to rezone military bases and allow outside access to — and interaction with — everything, save headquarters and training ranges. Most bases already separate their family housing areas from critical functions, so it may be possible to make changes that would shrink the psychological and physical divide between servicemembers and civilians.
In thinking about its future geographic footprint, the military should try to locate bases closer to population centers. Range space and the ability to expand should be balanced against the value of close relations between the military and society.
The military should also give more time and resources to its transition programs. It is unrealistic to think that years of military culture can be reversed with a one- or two-week transition course, as occurs now for separating troops. The military is understandably reluctant to invest in anything that would help its best and brightest leave. However, there are long-term benefits in having veterans transition successfully, particularly for an all-volunteer force that increasingly recruits from the families of those who serve and depends on its alumni network for political and popular support.
The military should invite more civilian agencies and private firms inside the wire to help troops as they form and execute their transition plans. In parallel, it should share more data about departing servicemembers with the private sector and nonprofit institutions, to help them better receive veterans who come home to their communities. And it should explore ways the reserves, with their part-time troops and bases scattered throughout the country, can aid the transition process for veterans.
In years to come, as the military shrinks to prewar levels, it should re-evaluate its policies through the lens of the civil-military divide. Military effectiveness should always be the primary consideration, but the services should also consider the extent to which separation from society does harm.
Phillip Carter and retired Lt. Gen. David Barno are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, and senior fellows at the Center for a New American Security. This column first appeared in The Washington Post.