When I was serving on a U.S. Navy submarine, I once looked out the periscope and saw a beautiful scene in the distance: a tropical island, bathed in twilight…ringed with palm trees and white sand beaches, and rising above it, the splendid, high arch of the Atlantis Resort. From the confines of a submarine control room, with no entertainment to speak of, the whole setting looked idyllic to me, like heaven on earth. The island was even named Paradise.
I remember staring at the island as it receded in the distance, and wishing I could be there. I thought about people relaxing and enjoying the breeze, not knowing how close they were to the product of a different, more dangerous side of life. I doubted they knew what life was like on a submarine or what it was really like for people to keep them safe. A part of me resented them for that. I couldn’t help but feel, at least in a vague sense, that the people on that island were taking their freedoms for granted.
I felt the same way at other moments during my military career…not all the time, but often enough, for example, when I saw fireworks over a cruise ship at night or when I watched part of a Hollywood awards show from afar. The feeling would appear when I thought someone was focused on superficial things, or when I was in a certain mood and people didn’t seem grateful for their security. Needless to say, I felt it watching conversations between the Kardashians. It was a form of contempt, or rather a flash of contempt that would fade away before I thought much about it.
Over the course of my career, though, I began to realize that any emotion I might have had about people on the beach, or about reality television stars, was misplaced. Indeed my feelings were the opposite of what they should have been. (Incidentally, the same misplaced emotion can exist for a civilian who feels guilty, on some level, for not serving in the military.) Somewhere deep down, I had it all backwards; I didn’t understand the role of the military, even after years of indoctrination, training, and experience!
When I was in the Navy, I sometimes felt like I had a more important role in society than civilians did, because I was doing my part to defend the country. But while the act of taking the Oath of Office separated me in a profound way from members of the public, it didn’t change our relationship as citizens.
For much of my career I thought the purpose of the military was to keep our country safe and protect our freedom. At the most basic level, that’s true; the military exists to defend the country. But on a higher level, the military exists so that most American citizens do not have to fight, or even prepare to fight. The end goal is to keep people safe enough for long enough that they can accomplish progressively higher-level tasks – or if they want, so they can take a break and do nothing at all.
The ultimate prize for the military, in other words, is to defend a society that promotes and appreciates the arts and humanities, in the broadest sense of the terms; not just artists, but anyone who raises any endeavor to an art form: people in industry, government, athletics, academics, and other pursuits. The advancement of the arts is just as important to our society as the defense of our country, because the health of a society is not measured by the safety of its people; it’s measured by the output of its artists and engineers and scholars.
It may sound basic (and it is), but once I understood the role of the military in this way, my conception of civilian life changed; I gained a new appreciation for the civil-military relationship, and for the role we all play to improve our collective life as Americans. I no longer resented people for enjoying their freedoms; indeed it was the reverse: I wanted them to do whatever they wanted to do. It gave me joy to see a person on the beach, or to see an actor accept an award. For every work of art, every technology breakthrough, and every act of leisure are testaments, in some way, to the security our military has provided for so many years. (None of which is to equate the Kardashians and the high arts…)
On the theme of civil-military relations last year, the Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, Vice Admiral Ted Carter, proposed what he believes would be a “more personal and more accurate” way for members of the American public and members of U.S. military to acknowledge each other. I have great respect for the Admiral, but I think he missed an opportunity to unite the conversation.
To “remove some of the uneasiness” from the typical interaction, and as an alternative to the statement, “Thank you for your service,” Vice Admiral Carter proposed an exchange, one that would ensure each group acknowledged the other’s constitutional role. For example, a member of the public could say, “Thank you for protecting my freedom” and a service member could respond, “Thank you for your trust.” That way the public would acknowledge the military for defending the country, and the military would acknowledge the public for entrusting it with the power to do so.
I don’t believe this exchange captures the essence of the civil-military relationship. The uneasiness in the typical interaction has little to do with a lack of mutual acknowledgement. ‘Thank you for your service’ is already a form of shorthand, the whole point of which is to express appreciation while removing social awkwardness. The original source of uneasiness is a feeling of separation, where instead there should be a feeling of unity and common purpose. Because of that underlying feeling of separation, the way to remove uneasiness isn’t for the groups to express appreciation for the other; it’s for each group to feel part of the same group.
The Oath of Office divides the public and the military into two groups, but it doesn’t separate either of those groups from the Constitution. We’re all bound together by a single compact to preserve the Republic. We all play a part to uphold that compact, and we all give that compact meaning by finding happiness, however we can. Ultimately, the military is not separate and apart from society. It’s one integral part of a larger, self-contained whole united by one common purpose: to determine the heights we can reach because our freedom is intact.
The greatest gift the public can receive from the military isn’t freedom from harm, it’s the freedom to do something – to think and feel, to enjoy life, and to enrich the lives of others. Likewise, the greatest gift any service member can receive from the public isn’t thanks or appreciation; it’s the satisfaction of knowing that fellow citizens are exercising their freedoms; and when possible, it’s the company of family and friends – fellow citizens enjoying life.
If we want to strengthen the civil-military relationship, it might be worthwhile to reverse the typical civil-military exchange entirely – to ask men and women in uniform to talk about the role of the military itself. We might find that we don’t need to further elevate or appreciate the military, but instead we might need to elevate and appreciate the role of the public; to ask more from ourselves as citizens and try, however we can, to strive for excellence…to do something we love and raise it to an art form. This recognition has been an inspiration for me to do more now that I’ve returned to civilian life.
In a perfect world, the relationship between the public and the military would be as natural as that between a farmer and a mechanic in a small town. When a farmer and a mechanic cross paths on a dirt road, or see each other in town, no words need to be exchanged to show mutual respect and admiration. A smile or wave is all that is necessary; a head nod or handshake, a tip of the cap – a quick way to communicate: “Hello, neighbor, good to see you.” Thanks for being there; thanks for doing your part; and thanks for making life better for me and everyone else.
I propose a different kind of civil-military exchange altogether. It’s not as common these days, but it’s well known and we can even say it together: I Pledge Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America….