In August 2013, I stood in a circle with half a dozen American soldiers at a dusty combat outpost in Paktia province, Afghanistan, about to head out on patrol. Amid the usual macho banter familiar to anyone who has ever served in a military, a half-serious discussion emerged: “Should every U.S. veteran be allowed to hunt and kill one bald eagle as a reward for their service to the country?”
The suggestion was quickly dismissed on the grounds of its impracticality. However, a debate continued over exactly what American civilians owe to those serving in uniform overseas. While there was no definite agreement, the general consensus was that American civilians owed its servicemen and women something, but what exactly?
I listened to the discussion with keen interest. I was an embedded journalist — but only two months earlier, I had worn the military uniform of a nation whose citizens feel they do not owe anything to their soldiers: my homeland, Austria.
My unit had, in fact, been slated to deploy to Syria’s Golan Heights as part of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission there. We were finishing predeployment training when the Austrian government announced that it would withdraw in the face of the intensifying civil war, and my unit was sent home instead. With unexpected free time on my hands, I decided to head to Afghanistan as a freelance journalist.
The reciprocal, but elusive, feeling by members of the U.S. armed forces and the American public of societal recompense for a chosen duty perplexed me and seemed a major reason for the civil-military divide—a growing disconnect between the civilian and military populations in the United States.
This breach has been noted since at least the 1950s, when Samuel Huntington wrote that the U.S. military had the “outlook of an estranged minority.” Estrangement has since morphed into an alien citizenry, who execute the political whims of what James Fallows has called “Chickenhawk Nation”: a people too ready for wars waged by professional soldiers. The military draft ended in 1973, around the time public regard for the military hit an all-time low. Today, however, senior military leaders command an almost Prussian-like respect in the public sphere.
I was raised in a culture in which soldiering is seen as just another dangerous profession, comparable to the work of policemen, firefighters, or other positions of hazard that contribute to keeping modern society structured and safe. Few soldiers in Austria can ever publicly take pride in their work or are publicly honored for what they are doing.
During the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, I was at an art gallery in Vienna with a fellow officer candidate. We were both in uniform when a lady with an upper-class Viennese accent approached us: “In this outfit you ought to be in Iraq but not at a civilized place like this!” We bit our tongues and turned away, resigned to the hostility that our uniforms could trigger in public spaces.
One of the reasons for this is historic. Austria lost the First World War and spent the Second as part of the Third Reich. The collective trauma of both wars left Austrians deeply suspicious of any military hero worship, and averse to seeing military service as something exceptional.
Another is that Austria still has military conscription. A large percentage of Austrians know first-hand that there is little glory in everyday military life, much of which is spent fighting an ostensibly omnipotent yet ultimately ineffectual bureaucracy. As a result, Austrians have a clearer understanding of what they can expect and, more importantly, should not expect from its armed forces.
By comparison, in the U.S., policymakers and the public see the military as the ever-vigilant guarantors of democratic freedom — yet without fully comprehending the military’s concrete duties and responsibilities.
From my Austrian perspective, one of the problems stemming from this aggrandizing sentimentality is the hero-worship of the military by American politicians, the public and the media, who treat them as symbols embodying American values and traditions, all that is good and decent in the country. Not only is this an impossible standard for an individual, but it also has a chilling effect on public debate. Any civilian criticism of veterans becomes politically controversial, as demonstrated by last year’s debate around retired Gen. John F. Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff.
A related problem is the undue weight given to the views of high-ranking military officers on subjects outside of their immediate area of expertise. As Eliot Cohen recently noted, “Just because you’re a general does not mean that you have good foreign policy judgement.”
In Austria, there is no such pretense. Austrian soldiers have served monarchies, dictatorships and democracies equally well (or poorly), and therefore could never be seen as symbols of enduring — or contemporary — Austrian values. Military service is also not seen as a gateway to a political career. Indeed, Austrian soldiers are often labelled Zivilversager—someone who failed in civilian life.
Austrian soldiers and the Austrian public see military personnel as professionals with their own set of professional values, nothing more, and nothing less. The “Thank you for your service culture!” simply does not exist and soldiers are not accorded any special status for their time spent in uniform.
Americans would do well to regard their fellow citizens in uniform more honestly concerning what they can and cannot expect from them. The first step would be to abandon the promotion of hero worship and see servicemen and -women for who they really are: professionals who volunteered to do a dangerous job.
The military itself must begin to break down the walls that separate its privileged members from the general population, which in turn must accept a demotion of its glorified servicemen and women. Both sides need to embrace the notion of a military defined more by function than mythology.
One proposal floated by a number of civil-military-relations experts has been to break up the U.S. Army’s mega-bases that have sprung up over the last decades, such as Fort Hood or Fort Polk. These self-sustaining “military colonies” in the middle of the country have accentuated the widening gap between America’s civilian and military citizenry. Certainly, it would require an immense effort to redesign these facilities and station troops closer to civilian life, but it may be worth considering given the seminal importance of healthy civil-military relations to democratic government.
Two years ago in Afghanistan, I bumped into some Austrian troops at a military base in Kabul. As we spoke about their deployment, and the lack of public appreciation back home, they were struck, and a little envious, that American soldiers receive care packages and letters from random U.S. citizens. By contrast, a few months earlier, a fellow Austrian soldier had received a Silver Star from the U.S. military to honor his courage during a firefight. Austria had barely taken notice.
Looking at the Austrian coat of arms—an eagle—on their uniforms called to mind the U.S. soldiers in Paktia and their dispute over bagging bald eagles. “Whatever,” one of them said. “That’s what we signed up for.”