Some See Disconnect Between Servicemembers, Civilian Society

There is a growing divide between American civilians and the U.S. military. Host Michel discusses the reasons for the division with Kevin Baron, Washington bureau reporter for the independent military publication Stars and Stripes, and Ed Dorn, former undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness under President Clinton. He's currently a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we'd like to talk about what a top Obama administration official calls the growing divide between men and women in uniform, and the rest of us.

In an address to Duke University students last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke of what he said is the withering relationship between troops and civilians.

We wanted to find out what factors have led to this disconnect - if, indeed, it exists - so we've called Kevin Baron, Washington bureau reporter for the independent military publication Stars and Stripes. Also with us, Ed Dorn. He's the former undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness under President Clinton. He's currently a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, and he's also an occasional visitor to our Barbershop roundtable. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. KEVIN BARON (Washington Bureau Reporter, Stars and Stripes): Thanks a lot, Michel.

Professor ED DORN (Public Affairs, University of Texas): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Before we jump to the conversation, I just want to play a clip from Secretary Gates' speech, for those who may have missed it. Here it is.

(Soundbite of speech)

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): It is the most professional, the best educated, the most capable force this country has ever sent into battle. Yet even as we appreciate and sometimes marvel at the performance of this all-volunteer force, I think it is important at this time, before this audience, to recognize that this success has come at significant cost. Above all, the human cost for the troops and their families but also cultural, social and financial costs in terms of the relationship between those in uniform, and the wider society they have sworn to protect.

MARTIN: So first of all, a question to both of you. Do you agree with the secretary's assessment? I think that his comments were a surprise to some who remember - like the Vietnam era, for example, when people would come home from uniform and be treated with, you know, active hostility, you know, by some people.

And I dare say, one very rarely ever sees that today. So do you agree with that, Professor Dorn, if you'd start? Do you think the secretary's right?

Prof. DORN: Well, I think your contrast with Vietnam is very good, Michel. Certainly, the American public is more supportive of our soldiers, and of the effort today, than they were 35 years ago in Vietnam.

However, this is the latest in a series of very thoughtful speeches that Secretary Gates has offered - some about democracy, some about the limits of military power, this about the divide. And I think what he's getting at is this, that very few Americans today have direct experience with the military.

Compare that with the Vietnam era and the 1950s, when about 75 percent of able-bodied young men served in the military. Today, only about 15 percent of qualified and available men serve - which means that our knowledge about the military is extraordinarily shallow. And when you have shallow knowledge, you're going to have shallow commitment.

What this means is that when the military is doing well, everybody's cheering for it. And if it runs into a rough spot - as it did in 2005, 2006 in Iraq -the public begins to turn against the war, and enthusiasm or support for the military wanes. That's a real concern.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Kevin, what do you think? And in fact, you've traveled with the secretary a fair amount. In fact, you've been to Iraq with him. What is your sense, and do you think that the men and women in uniform also feel that way? Do you think they share his view?

Mr. BARON: Yes. That's the short answer. I don't think this is anything particularly new. It's new that Secretary Gates is out there talking about this, but the idea that this is - you know, these two wars are wars for the military; they're not wars that the entire country's engaged in - is nothing new. And I think since Iraq has begun to quiet down and draw down and Afghanistan has come up, you may have seen a little bit more of - interest in the war by the general public. But, you know, this is not something that engages every person. There's no draft. There's no reason to be engaged unless you have something real specific to - you know, a specific reason to.

And it's also not making front-page news, like it used to. You know, and I don't think I'd argue against or for that, you know, happenstance. You know, this is nine years of war in Afghanistan. Even with renewals or troop surges, I'd find it hard to decide what to take off the front page to give more press to something like this, to try to engage the people.

MARTIN: Is it your sense that this a problem for those who are serving, that they feel a distance from the people whose lives they're putting on the line to protect and defend?

Mr. BARON: Sure. You know, there's the old adage of the sign on the base down range that says: This is the Military's War; America's Gone Shopping. You know, the military is a closed society, I think. I've been, you know, on this beat, the Pentagon, for two years. I've previously done some more military reporting -been to bases, been to the war zones, even. I haven't even done an embed; I'm a Pentagon reporter. And even in that sense, you can tell that, you know, that military life is something that most Americans have no clue about. It's almost as if there's a network of cities around the country where people live, and they live in their own world separate from the rest of the U.S. - their own shopping experiences, their own living, their own schools. And this is their own war.

And all the problems that go with the war - something that doesn't translate to the rest of society. I think we can write all the TBI and head-injury stories we can. But unless you know somebody, or you've, you know, felt it or seen it, it's - you know, it's distant. It's at an arm's length.

MARTIN: You know, Professor Dorn, there are those who would argue that the military could do more itself to address that problem. I mean, some of these are, you know, class, economic, education issues and all this other thing, and the way the economy is going. But some people would argue that the military could do more to help people understand what people do - and the coverage of, say, their returning through the Dover Air Force Base is part of it, even though that is a sensitive subject because you're talking about those who have lost their lives. But some people say that the military's closed the door on itself - except for the embedding program, which is, you know - has its supporters and detractors. Professor Dorn, what do you think about that?

Prof. DORN: I'm not sure what more the military can do, Michel, to familiarize the public with what it's like to serve in the force. It is tough duty. The only thing I think the military can do is to try to get more people onto military bases to get a sense of what goes on there - maybe a few more open houses a year on all the military bases. But I must say that all the military bases do do those kinds of things now. It is just that the turnout is usually limited to the people who already have a strong interest in the military. I don't know how you engage the larger population in this when, as Kevin just said, such a small percentage of American families have family members who have served on active duty.

MARTIN: Well, there's also, though - the security concerns since 911 have changed the access to some of these bases. I mean, they can be quite an intimidating thing to even try to approach a base, even in a largely civilian area. I can tell you that it's a - since 911, it's been a - you know, they've made it very clear that they're not going to let anybody on base that doesn't belong there. I can just sort of give you that from personal experience. Kevin, what is your thought? We only have about a minute and half left. Is there something from your reporter's perspective that, as a person who sort of lives both - you know, in both worlds all the time, that could change that sense of relationship with people who are not actively involved on a day-to-day basis?

Mr. BARON: Well, I think a lot of this goes back to, you know, post-911, when there were a lot of complaints that the Bush administration at the time wasn't doing enough to engage the rest of the country, not just the military. And that's something that has come up again in the last couple of weeks, where just last week, Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton were onstage, shoulder-to-shoulder, yet again asking for more civilian help for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and beyond - in preventing conflict and establishing, you know, more security through more diplomats, more development workers, things that the civilian world can do to help shoulder the burden the military has had to carry.

But there's a question that - of how far they're really going to get, you know, with - that would require a major plus-up, and a major recruiting effort, to engage the American people. And I don't know if we're seeing anything like that.

MARTIN: And Professor Dorn, a final thoughts from you? What would you do if you were in charge?

Prof. DORN: Kevin's absolutely right. We made a mistake in the early 2000s, when the Bush administration tried to convince people that we could run a war on the cheap, and that there was no need for us to have to pay for it. I -unfortunately, the Obama administration seems to be continuing that message. We would rather run huge budget deficits than to ask the American public to make small sacrifices in taxes in order to pay for the conflicts.

MARTIN: All right. Well, to be continued.

Ed Dorn is the - a former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. He served under President Clinton. He's now a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, and he was kind enough to join us from member station KUT in Austin.

Kevin Baron is Washington bureau reporter for the independent military publication Stars and Stripes. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C.

Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Prof. DORN: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. BARON: Thank you very much.

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