March 29, 2001 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did just that when he recently declared a moratorium on civilians at the controls of any military ship, aircraft or vehicle. However, his decree could have a serious consequence: A moratorium that lasts indefinitely could widen the gap we already find between our soldiers and sailors on one hand, and our shopkeepers and stockbrokers on the other.
Although a short-term ban is good policy, especially while the current investigation is underway, we must ensure that civilians stay a part of military life. With the end of the draft in 1975, and many base closings in recent years, almost two generations have passed with little or no connection to military life. Allowing civilians to interact with the military-visiting ships and touring bases-will help them better understand the daily sacrifices made by those who volunteer to be in uniform.
A 1999 study found a great amount of disparity between military and civilian perceptions. More than two-thirds of 2,000 civilians surveyed said they believe the military sometimes tries to avoid civilian orders it doesn't agree with, according to a report by the North Carolina-based Triangle Institute for Security Studies. The report also found nearly half doubted the safety and security of civilian control of the government.
Of course, most people in the military know these fears are unfounded. But the survey results show that "schisms and trends" between civilians and military personnel, if left ignored, will "degrade military effectiveness" in certain circumstances, said Peter Feaver, the Institute's executive secretary.
The military must make a conscious effort to incorporate civilians into its lifestyle, or troop retention, morale and recruitment will suffer. With the Army falling short of its recruitment goals by thousands in recent years, and the Air Force missing its recruitment goals as well, this is vital.
It's also easy. Most military members take pride in showing what their lives are like and what they're capable of doing. When I was in the Navy, my crew and I loved flying in air shows because, quite frankly, it gave us a chance to show off. Talking to kids as they walked through our plane on a tour was a blast. Just as importantly, watching the Navy's Blue Angels fly stunts or the Army's Golden Knights parachute team perform, helps our families and friends-and, one always hopes, future soldiers and sailors-to appreciate what those defending our country do for a living.
This up-close exposure also is a great way to help recruit more young people into an all-volunteer military. And the military needs all the help it can get: Morale in the military is as low as it's been in years. Mid-level officers such as captains and majors, the important "middle management" of the military, are leaving the service in droves, partly to join the go-go economy and partly because they're frustrated with a military that's attempting to do more with less.
The services are trying to revamp their images-consider the Army's lamentable black-berets-for-all initiative and its "Army of One" campaign. But they have yet to address deeper issues, such as pay that's still too low, outdated equipment, random deployment schedules and problems with military housing and support.
When civilians rally behind the troops, our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen embrace that gung-ho attitude critical to high performance. But when our military feels it doesn't have the support of the people it's sworn to defend, it affects everything-including the mission at hand.
In politics, there's another saying: "Hard cases make bad law." The military will make a grave mistake if it allows the justly-called moratorium to last indefinitely. The Greeneville incident is a rare and tragic occurrence that should be investigated. But it shouldn't impede civilian contact with our military. The men and women who serve in uniform do it with pride. They are true professionals and know their jobs well. It's important that we rally around them and not widen the gap still further.
Dexter Ingram, a database editor in The Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy, served as a naval flight officer.
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