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.”
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: