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Guest Post: If You Haven’t Served, Then...Your Opinion Still Matters

(Today's guest post is by Carrie Morgan. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C. or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

A lot has been written about the “civil-military divide” over the last few years. And while there have been a few prominent civilian voices on this subject (e.g. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran, whose book For Love of Country highlights the stories and sacrifices of post-9/11 veterans, and James Fallow, whose article “The Tragedy of the American Military” appears in this month’s issue of The Atlantic), most discussions of the “civ/mil” divide have been dominated by military voices. This makes sense, since the people experiencing the civ/mil divide most viscerally are typically the folks on the “mil” side of that divide. The majority of civilians aren’t even aware that the divide exists.

Of course, that isn’t to say that civilians don’t suffer from the existence of the divide, because we do. Millions of Americans have served in the military, and when their service is done, they leave the military and find a place among the rest of us. Knowing them--our neighbors and coworkers--and understanding their experiences in service to our country helps us understand our world and our place in it. The skills and insights our “citizen soldiers” bring to the civilian world enrich our democracy. When veterans and military folk are disconnected from the civilian community around them, we all lose.

Still, most discussions of the civ/mil divide remain dominated by military voices, and this one-sidedness is a symptom of the very problem these discussions aim to resolve.

Because they themselves have not served, the civilian community is largely ignorant of the challenges faced by military families and the difficulties service members face when transitioning to a life “off-post.” This gap in understanding is exacerbated by the perception by many in the military community that civilians don’t understand their needs or experiences and never, ever will.  

This gap seems especially evident after the release of the declassified report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11. In the days after the CIA report was released, debates over torture’s effectiveness and propriety filled the airwaves and internet. Occasionally a voice from the military community pops up and says something like, “If you have no knowledge of or experience with interrogations or intelligence work, please spare me your opinion of the torture report.” This is a variant on a theme that goes something like this: “If you haven’t served in the military, then I don’t care what you think about the war/national security/the VA/etc.” There’s a Facebook group that calls itself “About Iraq/Afghanistan, If You Haven't Been There,Then Shut Up!” Such attitudes even show up in the political sphere, such as when the campaign manager for Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota lashed out at a conservative critic in October by saying, “Washington, D.C., blogger Jim Hagedorn, who has never served a day in uniform, has zero credibility on national security issues.” Not only is such rhetoric intellectually specious (for the reasons stated in earlier On Violence posts here and here), it’s also obnoxious and utterly unproductive as a form of public discourse. As the wife of an Army vet and a longtime civilian supporter of veterans causes, I can’t help but feel such “if you haven’t served, then” statements as a slap in the face.

I understand where this frustration comes from. However, this “if you haven’t served, then” attitude is completely unhelpful in narrowing the civ/mil divide. In fact, it only makes that chasm wider, deeper, and more difficult to bridge.

At its heart, the civ/mil divide is about understanding and communication—or more accurately, a lack of it. Many civilians don’t know much about the military experience, and many military folk feel that civilians don’t understand them. The only way to cure this lack of understanding and foster empathy among the civilian community is to enable civilians to access military experiences, and the only mechanism for this to occur (short of drafting all 250 million non-veteran American adults into the military) is communication.

We can narrow the civil/military divide. It’s important for veterans, for those currently serving in uniform, and ultimately for our society and democracy as a whole. It won’t be easy, and it will take effort on both the “civ” and “mil” sides of the divide.

Communication is the key.

Will civilians listen? Some won’t, sure, but a lot of them will. While very few of us have donned a uniform, many of us know someone who has. Most of us are not veterans, but we have friends or family who are. Those links, those connections, form a basis for understanding—but only if both sides of the civ/mil divide are willing to communicate.

Veterans and military folks, I’m talking to you.

Don’t shut civilians out. Tell us what you think. Share your experiences and your viewpoints--please--but dialogue is a two-way street. We have to listen to one another. If a civilian friend, neighbor or coworker opines on a subject of national security, don’t dismiss that opinion out of hand simply because the speaker hasn’t served. If you disagree, fine--but instead of simply saying, “You’ve never served, so you don’t know what you’re talking about,” politely explain why. Open exchange will foster the empathy that will heal the chasms between us. That’s the only way this will work. If we can’t keep the channels of communication open, then the civ/mil divide will remain.

And that hurts us all, both “civ” and “mil” alike.


Carrie Morgan has written a novel, The Road Back From Broken, about the struggle of a military family affected by post-traumatic stress and war trauma. She lives in Orlando, Florida with her husband, a U.S. Army infantry veteran, and is working on a second novel. You can follow her on Twitter here and at her blog, "Wages of War."

four comments

First off, I love this guest post. I don’t think it helps when military people pretend like there is a divide between those who served and those who haven’t in public debates. Especially about something as heinous as torture.

As our links above show, Michael C and I have fallen victim to this. We regularly receive comments from people who complain that we don’t know what we’re talking about, because we haven’t served. Which is funny, because Michael C did serve.

That, for me, highlights the insanity of this debate.

Being honest, I’m not sure the civli/mil divide is as large as many people think, and Michael C and I will be exploring that in the future.

“If You Haven’t Served, Then…Your Opinion Still Matters”

Opinions matter little outside the voting booth. Yet the arguments, reasoning and facts brought forward by a person are independent of the personal background. They draw their weight from reality, not from a CV.

Soldiers live in a world of hierarchy and authority. Authority in a military bureaucracy stems from formal sources, it’s very much unlike in academics where ‘authority’ stems from recognition. Maybe this plays into the issue.

I’ve also noticed that the ‘you are not a vet’ argument rarely seems to be used against the interests of the serving soldiers. The “chickenhawk” accusation appears to be the sole exception.
Maybe it’s just one ‘tribe’ defending its interests (budget, prestige etc.) against other ‘tribes’ of the society and it resorts to dirty rhetoric whenever the facts are not supportive enough for this defence.

I do have an air force background, but I almost never mention it because, honestly, it didn’t give me much more than an understanding for how a rotten, lazy and lobotomised armed bureaucracy may work on the inside. This experience ranges from individuals to service-wide regulations and mythology. My true military training about weapons, fieldcraft, command etc. was a negligible experience by comparison.

Let me know if anyone is having problem submitting comments,. The last three comments we received were blank.

To echo, SO’s comment, it’s funny because most soldiers and marines have no actual experience with interrogation, so it isn’t clear how “having served” gives them more credibility. I’ve found that politicians could make this same argument, and it’s disastrous on its face.

Great guest post.