The Key To Bridging The Civil-Military Divide, According To Mattis


In an era where Americans seem increasingly at each other's throats, Defense Secretary James Mattis has a simple idea for bridging the gulf between the civilian and military worlds: Be excellent to each other.

OK, perhaps Mattis didn't actually invoke Bill & Ted when he appeared at the Reagan National Defense Forum this past Saturday. But the defense secretary did encourage active-duty service members and veterans to embrace compassion and respect as vehicles for engagement with their civilian brothers and sisters.

“If we can create a society where respect and friendliness is the passport that we all have when we meet each other … then the military, who literally will go in harm’s way for us, will not seem alien anymore,” Mattis said.

“We better all go back to finding a way to embrace one another,” he added. “And the military, we’re not that special. We’re simply patriots who decide this is how we pay our dues.”

Mattis isn't talking to civilians. The military isn't just far more trusted than it was during the height of the Vietnam War and despite the messes in Afghanistan and Iraq; instead, it remains one of the few American institutions people still trust.

According to 2017 polling from Gallup, 2017, 72 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot of faith” in the military, far outstripping the presidency, Supreme Court, and Congress. This is a big deal considering a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found 51 percent of citizens dissatisfied with the current status of American democracy.

Instead, Mattis was talking to active-duty service members and veterans who have increasingly ceded their historically apolitical position in American civic life as reverence for the military has increased, a trend detailed in a thoughtful essay by Army Maj. M.L. Cavanaugh at Just Security back in April:

In 1976, when surveyed, 55 percent of officers said they were “independent” or “non-partisan” or “unaffiliated” with a party. In 2009, the same question was asked and the number was down to 16 percent. (And I’m sure there are newer figures in Dr. Kori Schake’s most recent book, Warriors and Citizens).

Behavior-wise, when surveyed in 2010, 27 percent of officers said that another officer had tried to influence their vote in the 2008 election cycle. This was followed five years later by Col. Heidi Urben’s 2015 study of 500 West Point cadets and National Defense University colonels which found that over one-third had observed or shared insulting, rude, or disdainful comments about elected leaders.

"The military has long held on to non-partisanship to prevent politics from dividing our troops and separating us from society," Cavanaugh wrote. "But this supremely important norm appears to be changing — for the worse."

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., brief reporters on the current U.S. air strikes on Syria during a joint press conference at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Apr. 13, 2018.DoD photo / U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith.

Mattis' comments, in this context, appear yet another reminder from the defense secretary to U.S. service members that the new generation of reverence the country has fomented not only doesn't make them superior to their fellow Americans, but it requires them to redouble their efforts at maintaining that apolitical status swaddled in the comfort of professionalism and kindness.

"If ... we can get back to a fundamental friendliness with one another as Americans, if we can rediscover a respect for each other as fellow Americans, even if we have very different ideas about how we take the country forward," Mattis said. "We probably don't have big differences about where we want to go ultimately."

In other words: Cut the veteran entitlement syndrome and remember the values that ostensibly brought you to the military in the first place. And don't take it from Mattis, but his obvious intellectual influences:

SEE ALSO: Mattis Delivered A Warning About Politicizing The Military Amid Brazil’s Election Turmoil


Jeannine Willard (Valencia County Detention Center)

A New Mexico woman was charged Friday in the robbery and homicide of a Marine Corps veteran from Belen late last month after allegedly watching her boyfriend kill the man and torch his car to hide evidence.

Read More Show Less
In this courtroom sketch, defendants Noelle Velentzas, center left and Asia Siddiqui, center right, appear in federal court with their attorneys, Thursday, April 2, 2015, in New York. (Associated Press/Jane Rosenberg)

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two women inspired by radical Islam pleaded guilty in New York City on Friday to teaching and distributing information about the manufacture and use of an explosive, destructive device and weapon of mass destruction, federal prosecutors said.

Read More Show Less
U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Sandra Welch

This article originally appeared on

Inside Forward Operating Base Oqab in Kabul, Afghanistan stands a wall painted with a mural of an airman kneeling before a battlefield cross. Beneath it, a black gravestone bookended with flowers and dangling dog tags displays the names of eight U.S. airmen and an American contractor killed in a horrific insider attack at Kabul International Airport in 2011.

It's one of a number of such memorials ranging from plaques, murals and concrete T-walls scattered across Afghanistan. For the last eight years, those tributes have been proof to the families of the fallen that their loved ones have not been forgotten. But with a final U.S. pullout from Afghanistan possibly imminent, those families fear the combat-zone memorials may be lost for good.

Read More Show Less
DOD photo

After a string of high profile incidents, the commander overseeing the Navy SEALs released an all hands memo stating that the elite Naval Special Warfare community has a discipline problem, and pinned the blame on those who place loyalty to their teammates over the Navy and the nation they serve.

Read More Show Less
Ed Mahoney/Kickstarter

In June 2011 Iraq's defense minister announced that U.S. troops who had deployed to the country would receive the Iraq Commitment Medal in recognition of their service. Eight years later, millions of qualified veterans have yet to receive it.

The reason: The Iraqi government has so far failed to provide the medals to the Department of Defense for approval and distribution.

A small group of veterans hopes to change that.

Read More Show Less