I spent the first half of the year sailing around the world as a Semester at Sea professor, teaching classes to some of the 600 students enrolled in this college study-abroad program. It was an extraordinary opportunity — and an abrupt change from my previous job at the Pentagon, where I was a senior defense official wrestling with ongoing wars, the future of conflict, and the allocation of a $600-billion-plus budget. And it brought me face-to-face with the gap between the military and the American public.
The college students on our voyage knew only an America at war. To them, it is normal to hear about conflict — terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan — in a way that wasn’t for my generation. But for all the talk of war, they don’t really know anyone who has lived it. The military, even to some of the other professors, was a baffling and bewildering institution. “Why would anyone ever serve in the military?” one colleague asked me, with genuine curiosity, upon learning that I had worked on national security affairs at the Pentagon. Her generation had lived through the Vietnam War; for many of them, joining the military could only be motivated by desperation or a low draft number.
But it wasn’t my question to answer. I’ve worked in the Pentagon for five secretaries of defense and have a doctorate in strategic studies, but I have never worn a uniform. Less than half of 1 percent of Americans currently serve in the armed forces. And the gap between most Americans and those in uniform is growing. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and scholar Kori Schake found in their research that many Americans aren’t sure what to say to a veteran, so they often default to sensitive topics like post-traumatic stress disorder. The handful of veterans on our ship weren’t at all surprised to hear this; in fact, they were hesitant to begin an unstructured dialogue that might start with an extremely personal question like whether they had ever killed someone.
And yet these veterans, and I with them, wanted to begin bridging this gap. We wanted to start a conversation in a comfortable intellectual space where the shipboard community could learn about those who make the ultimate commitment to their country. So we organized a panel of six veterans who spanned three generations, put the word out, and nervously entered the ship’s massive amphitheater prepared for our footsteps to echo in a largely empty room.
Yet nearly 600 people showed up — and stayed for two hours, as we sailed from India to South Africa, very far from America’s battlegrounds. They came because the people onstage weren’t “veterans” in their eyes; these were just their friends. They had sat next to one another in class, shared meals, and traveled together. They vaguely knew the veterans had served in the military—especially one Marine who led an especially excruciating yet extremely popular exercise boot camp each afternoon—but not much more. And the students wanted to support their friends, but also harbored a curiosity about their pasts.
The civilians wanted to listen. And the veterans wanted to share.
It was the most moving dialogue I’ve ever heard. Amid lots of laughter and some tears, the veterans connected with their shipmates as they shared their stories. They shed light on their lives in uniform. They described experiences ranging from combat photography in the Vietnam War to leaving the Marine Corps late last year after multiple tours overseas. They had different reasons for joining the military, different descriptions of an average day at work, different stories about a day in the service — not all went to war — and different transitions to civilian life. The Vietnam veteran explained how he made sure to change out of his uniform before journeying back to his home state so that no one would harass him. His experience contrasted with the post-9/11 veterans who never felt the need to hide their service, but instead found disinterest upon returning home. And they all talked about their desire to find jobs that might be as personally rewarding as being in the military; the two older veterans were inspired to become a college professor and to join the Los Angeles police department. Three generations of veterans gave firsthand accounts of experiences as varied as fighting in Iraq and watching friends die, to processing tedious paperwork, to training ad infinitum for a war they would never fight.
This dialogue was the first step, the first breaking down of barriers between a group of veterans and some of the Americans whose country they served. As we continued sailing between Asia, Africa, and Europe, the conversations on military service flowed more easily.
Building the Bridge
How did we bridge this gap between civilians and veterans? The veterans wanted to talk. The participants wanted to listen. But they didn’t know where to begin.
Setting ground rules was a critical first step. Both sides needed to understand what to say, and what not to say. For example, civilians needed to be told that it is absolutely taboo to ask, “Have you ever killed someone?” (Why? Because you have nowhere to go next.) They also had to avoid politics, particularly in the heated months after the 2016 presidential elections. Veterans, at one level, needed to avoid acronyms, and at a much deeper level, to recognize that this was the start of a conversation—they simply could not nor should not overwhelm the audience with every last detail of their time in uniform. Above all, all parties needed to pledge that they would be respectful.
That night we took the first bumbling steps on a long and crucial journey. But it can’t stop there. The distance between those who serve and those they serve continues to grow wider. Our country has never been at war for so long, while simultaneously having so few that serve. And if we can’t find ways to discuss it, especially with those who have been on the front lines, how can we possibly hope to understand the impact it has had on our military and those who have dedicated their lives to securing America? How can we approach future national security challenges like the wars that will follow Iraq and Afghanistan?
Your community can have this same dialogue. Indeed, it must if we are to begin bridging the divide.