Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide: Thoughts from those Who Have Been on the Front Line

There was a time in US history when, during periods of war, almost everyone in a community had served or knew someone who had served in the military. This reality helped to foster bonds of shared sacrifice and understanding among civilians, servicemembers, and veterans. No longer. Since 2001, the US has fought two wars overseas, but only a small percentage of Americans participated or even felt directly affected by these wars.  As a consequence, we have seen weakening connections between the military and civilian worlds. Both those who have served and those without any connection to the military have increasingly experienced what has come to be known as the military-civilian divide: the experiential, cultural, and social gulf between servicemembers and veterans, and civilians. This concerning divide – what is causing it, how it manifests, why it matters, and what might be done to address it – was the topic of this year’s DAV (Disabled American Veteran’s) Distinguished Speaker Series at Harvard Law School on November 3rd.

Sebastian Junger, New York Times bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, War, Tribe, and Freedom and producer-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, engaged in a rich conversation on the military-civilian divide with Brian Buckwalter, senior communications associate at DAV. Contributing further to the exploration of this topic were panelists Robert Santiago, Navy veteran and the City of Boston’s Commissioner of Veteran’s Services, and Phoebe Kotlikoff, Harvard Law School student, president of the Armed Forces Association, and current Navy reservist.

Reintegration into What?

For servicemembers re-integration not only means leaving the military, and close bonds created there, but it also raises the question of reintegration into what? In many cases, it is reintegration into a fractured society that values individualism, and often demonstrates little understanding of or appreciation for the contributions those in uniform have made.

“Politically, socially, and economically, it behooves any administration to try to insulate the American population at home from the effects of war” said Junger. “But the downside is that it can look like the nation is going about its merry way, while proportionally a very small number of people are fighting and paying enormous costs overseas. You don’t want it to be so separated that our men and women in uniform have the feeling that the nation doesn’t even know what they are doing and doesn’t care.”

This feeling can be profound when servicemembers return home, leaving a small group in the military committed to a clear purpose – what Junger calls a tribe – and entering into a society that not only does not have a tribal mentality but essentially says “The group doesn’t need you individually; we are fine.” Being needed in a small, cohesive group is the essence of being human, said Junger, and when this no longer exists, it can lead to depression and other mental health issues. “We need to try to foster community in the absence of catastrophe.”

Social Media is not Social

Throughout the COVID pandemic, data has been published that underscores the negative effects that social media had on many: depression, suicide, and other mental health issues. For servicemembers who have returned home and feel isolated, social media can be an outlet for trying to build community. But, according to Junger, “We are designed for face-to-face interaction, and social media is a misnomer – it is actually anti-social media. Social media is known to take away from one-on-one personal interactions,” often leading to a deeper sense of isolation.

Kotlikoff reflected on the bonding experience that she had while stationed on a submarine – and how departing the military can leave one seeking out similar connections on social media and elsewhere. “The 150 people on board that sub trusted each other to safely operate that multibillion-dollar warship. The relationships formed in a group like this can’t be overstated,” said Kotlikoff. “Part of what makes this experience so formative is the fact that each person is deeply needed and necessary. This is something that does not translate all the time to civilian life.”

For some who come home from war and feel adrift, engaging on social media, said Kotlikoff, can lead to them becoming “extreme versions of themselves” and getting pulled further and further into radical views. Buckwalter raised the question of whether the use of social media – speaking without any repercussions or instant feedback that can lead to outlier views — is driving a further wedge in the civilian-military divide. Junger commented that these extreme positions get mitigated by dialogue and reality, but when people develop these feelings in isolation, they can lead to self-harm or harming others. “This is bad for vets and dangerous for the country.”

The Path Forward

Buckwalter raised the question of what is needed to help bridge the divide, commenting that this divide may have started when the draft was disbanded and that it is estimated that only one percent of people in the US have served in the military.

 As the City of Boston’s Commissioner of Veteran’s Services, Santiago is undertaking a number of efforts to bring veterans and civilians together to get to know one another. “We are not just about being in uniform and fighting wars,” said Santiago. “That human aspect of who servicemembers are is important to get out there.”

Junger encouraged everyone, including veterans, to take part in our society – to vote, serve jury duty, and donate blood. “If you do these three things, you will feel like you are part of something noble.” He also suggests that the United States might consider mandatory national service, with a military option, that would help everyone feel part of the whole and break down chasms. To help build awareness and understanding, Junger has created Veteran’s Town Hall: on Veteran’s Day, any veteran can go to town hall and has 10 minutes to speak about what it was like to serve. “The experience is enormously cathartic, and it requires the community to participate morally in the war. When we send soldiers off to fight a war, it is our war, not their war. That disconnect needs to be solved.”

All presenters underscored the importance of dialogue — not superficial communication, but intentional conversation that results in people getting to know one another — as the path to bridging the divide. In the words of Santiago: get to know the person behind the uniform. While there is much that needs to be done to fully integrate veterans back into society, these acts of connection are an important step forward in helping veterans feel valued and appreciated.

The DAV (Disabled American Veterans) Distinguished Speaker Series at Harvard Law School is made possible by the generous support of the DAV Charitable Service Trust, and is co-sponsored by the Veterans Legal Clinic at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School and the Law School’s Armed Forces Association.

Previous speakers in the DAV Speaker Series have included US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Delphine Metcalf-Foster, National Commander California DAV (Disabled American Veterans), Barbara Ward, Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses member at the US Department of Veteran Affairs, Christopher Parker, Navy veteran,  Hon. Robert Davis, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims; Dr. David Shulkin, Secretary of VA; Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy; Robert McDonald, Secretary of VA; Hon. Robert Russell, founder of the nation’s first veterans treatment court; and Lieutenant Colonel Shannon McLaughlin, the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit demanding that partners and family members of LGBTQ military service members and veterans receive the same benefits as those of heterosexual service members.

View the full event on our website.

In November, DAV co-presented with Theater of War Productions scenes from Sophocles’ Philoctetes—an ancient play about a young man who is sent to betray a decorated warrior who has been abandoned on a desolate island. This play served as a catalyst for facilitated town hall discussions about healing the visible and invisible wounds of war. Learn more about this presentation and other collaborations between DAV and Theater of War.

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