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Pen and Sword By: Colorado Springs Gazette
Colorado Springs Gazette | Monday, November 11, 2002

That the pen is in all cases mightier than the sword is open to debate, as any journalist operating under a dictatorship would attest. But the people at the Pentagon who carry the swords, obviously understanding the influence over public perceptions exercised by those in newsrooms who wield the pens, are proposing to put civilian reporters covering the military through basic training, offering a shortcourse in military manners and methods intended to enhance their ability to cover the beat.

It seems to us a worthwhile venture, not only because the work of reporters can always benefit from a deeper understanding of the subjects they cover, but because the nation as a whole seems to be suffering from a widening understanding gap between civilians and professional military that has potentially serious political and social implications.

That military-civilian culture gap not only can affect the way reporters cover military issues and operations, however, but also the willingness of the nation’s civilian population and political leadership — fewer and fewer of whom have served in uniform or endured the hardships of actual war — to order the military into harm’s way.

Due to the establishment of an all-volunteer fighting force in the 1970s, fewer Americans today have a direct relationship with the military than at any time in recent history. And that disconnection is particularly serious among the nation’s opinion leaders in newsrooms, on college campuses and in Congress — many of whom don’t know a M-16 from an MRE.

A survey of Congress in the late 1990s found that only 33 percent of lawmakers had any military experience, and only 12 members of Congress at the time were military retirees. That was the lowest number of veterans in Congress since World War II, according to the Retired Officers Association. Between the end of World War II and 1992, in contrast, more than 50 percent of the members of Congress were veterans, as were all post-war presidents until Bill Clinton. But the percentage of veterans in Congress has plummeted in recent years, and it’s probably a good bet that only a tiny fraction of members have a son or daughter, sister or brother serving in the armed forces.

Why does this matter? Because the cultural disconnect could make it easier for the lifelong civilian, on the streets or in elected office to see the soldier as an abstraction; a military mission as Xs and Os drawn-up on a blackboard; the dead or wounded as mere casualty figures. And it’s probably easier for the nonveteran — whose ideas about warfare come from the movies — to overestimate what the military is capable of and underestimate the personal sacrifices demanded of those who have to fight wars, not just vote on them.

That understanding gap may also encourage political leaders to view the military as some kind of laboratory for politically correct social experimentation — by placing women in elite combat units, for instance, or aboard submarines — with little appreciation for how such things affect morale or undermine the warrior spirit that services must maintain in spite of all the distractions.

The military and civilian worlds also increasingly seem at odds with one another on the values each hold paramount. According to Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who several years ago conducted a study of the civilian/military relationship called Bridging the Gap, "the next great battleground in the culture war may be between the political elite that says values don’t matter and the military, which says values do matter."

And if that culture gap continues to widen, the danger may be that "civil leadership, knowing relatively little about the military, will overestimate what they do or fail to understand how complicated the use of military power is," national security expert Edward Luttwak has said. "What you have are elites who never served willing to talk about brave soldiers, then, psychologically, not prepared to accept that these people are used in mortal combat," according to Luttwak.

Maybe the concept of giving civilians a better taste of military life should be expanded beyond journalists, therefore, to include basic training for politicians as well.

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