The remarks of Gen. Kelly at a press briefing last week have excited considerable comment, quite a bit of it negative. Kelly stands accused of widening,worsening, or exaggerating the culture gap between civil and military communities in the U.S. In effect telling his civilian audience that they are not capable of understanding the experience of service members, maybe especially those who have seen combat and who’s friends have been killed.
That’s not quite what Kelly said, and maybe even less what he meant. Some of his remarks to the press were likely those of man still grieving and angry because he lost a son, and who probably gets fed up with his job sometimes, which must be one of the toughest in America. However, I’d like to weigh in on the matter of the civ-mil divide. It is a subject that keeps coming up. It’s important and it needs frequent re-revisiting.
First, I don’t think that Kelly said or meant that it was impossible for civilians to understand the experience of military people. I do think he was and is skeptical as to how many in his audience have made the effort. There really is nothing unique in human experience about being in the military and even going to war. Anyone who has even been scared, tired, too cold or too hot for long periods, or for that matter has experienced deep feelings of professional satisfaction, of connectedness with others, can have a handle on what it’s like to be a soldier. But it’s not automatic. It takes an effort of empathy and imagination. People aren’t compelled to make this effort, but it is probably valuable for at least a segment of the civil populace to make the effort, especially those who, like many of those in the press briefing, write about defense and security issues. They should try to understand what might be called, in the words of novelist James Ellroy, the private nightmare of public policy.
One of the ways in which the gap can be bridged is through literature. More than this, some war literature offers a demonstration that the gap can be bridged through empathy, imagination, and language. Two of the greatest writers on war, Shakespeare and Stephen Crane had never experienced when they wrote works like Henry V and The Red Badge of Courage (although Crane later witnessed war in Cuba). Interestingly, one of Kelly’s favorite military books is The General, by C.S. Forester, who also never served.
An understanding of military service on the part of civilians is attainable but neither automatic nor easily given. In fact, such understanding isn’t inevitable even for service members themselves, absent a degree of reflection and again imagination. Anne Morrow Lindberg wrote that if suffering made us wise, all would be wise. To understand ourselves and our own experience has always perhaps been the greatest challenge.