Increase civics education for service members to close the civil-military divide
Special to Stars and Stripes July 19, 2023
Fifty years ago this month, the U.S. switched from a mixed military system, where the military was composed of both volunteers and draftees, to an all-volunteer force. In the intervening decades, the military has become detached from the American public with a proto-warrior class forming of generations of military families who serve. The steadily growing “gap” between the military and the general public affects how service members see themselves as well as how citizens and civilian leaders interact with the armed forces. A military removed from society is easier to commit to conflicts without backlash, and a military little understood, but abstractly revered, is a tempting way for partisan candidates to score political points.
In this climate, service members shoulder a disproportionate responsibility to be paragons of civic responsibility that we unreservedly trust to preserve and protect our interests both at home and abroad. As a recent Center for a New American Security report points out, service members are held to a higher standard of behavior than their civilian counterparts. While this may be unfair, it is also unchangeable. As we entrust our military with a relative monopoly on the use of force, it is paramount that there is no question of their commitment to American ideals. However, if we are going to hold our service members to a higher standard, the impetus is on us to ensure that they can meet it.
One foundational step toward this goal is guaranteeing that they fully grasp their role and responsibilities through a thorough understanding of civics. General civic knowledge correlates with higher political awareness and participation as well as a higher reported level of patriotism. The current lack of emphasis on civic education among our armed forces is a wasted opportunity to underscore the vital importance of being not only a good solider, but also a good citizen.
As it now stands, military basic training does not include civic education. While it is easy to argue that recruits should have a strong background in civics before joining the service, and therefore it is not the military’s responsibility to provide this education, the truth is that the majority of America’s youth does not receive adequate civic instruction before graduating high school. Only nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of civics or government in high school. This low prioritization translates to an overall low comprehension of the American system; in a recent survey, only 47% of American adults were able to name the three branches of government. This does not instill confidence that future recruits will have a nuanced understanding of the proper role of the military in our society.
As we cannot rely on the public education system to adequately prepare our troops, it is unacceptable that it is often not until decades into a military career that things such as the civil-military relations are addressed. At a conference at Georgetown University in February, Michael Mullen, a retired Navy admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, lamented that he was largely unaware of the ins and outs of civil-military control before becoming an admiral and being expected to consider political goals in a way he had not previously confronted in his career. Expecting general officers to pivot from thinking operationally to thinking politically with little formal training is an exceedingly difficult ask. Introducing general civic education early in officers’ and enlisted service members’ careers would situate them within the civil-military context from the start and mitigate future frustrations.
Mullen is not alone in wanting more emphasis on civic education in the military. Cadets at the Naval Academy have formed an advocacy group asking for civic education to be prioritized as they claim they are taking an oath they do not fully understand. A civic education for military recruits can do more than ensure they understand the oath they take; it could also help with the “gap” between the military and the people they serve.
As it currently stands, military members report feeling disconnected from the general public, which can lead to resentment toward those who do not serve. Veterans and service members who sacrifice for the good of their country can be frustrated by actions they perceive as unpatriotic. These frustrations contribute to increasing polarization and extremism within the force.
A good civic education can give service members a social-positive lens through which to see their service. For example, a strong foundation in civics would help servicemembers recognize actions such as flag burning as a protected form of speech rather than a middle finger to those who serve. In addition, civic education can emphasize the importance of the military remaining apolitical in a climate where that is no longer the default.
There has been a marked erosion in institutional norms that typically govern service members’ behavior both while they are in the military and after they retire. These norms insulated the military from partisan politics and contributed to the high level of trust the American public had in their military. In recent years however, this trust has fallen as a new norm has developed of political candidates seeking as many endorsements as possible from retired general officers, and as partisan political behavior seems to have increased on military installations and among current service members.
These trends are dangerous, as an overly politicized military can threaten the stability of the regime. What happens if military leaders decide they do not agree with a congressional mandate? Or the justifications for a conflict? What would have happened if the military decided they agreed with the motive behind Jan. 6th?
The services have significant latitude in the training of their recruits. They can and should adjust their curriculums without waiting for congressional action on this issue. Likewise, the service academies should listen to their students and mandate civics as part of their core curriculums. The military is a distinct profession with distinct demands. Expecting our service members to be educated about the role they play should be a minimum requirement. It falls to the services to institutionalize and prioritize this education.
Ayla McBreen is a researcher on the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.