• Ideas

Bridging the Civilian-Military Divide With Stories

7 minute read

Twenty years ago, military reporter Thomas E. Ricks followed a platoon of young Marine recruits through their first year in the Corps. Watching them transition back home after boot camp, he was stunned to see how alienated many of them felt from their previous lives. Realizing that he was seeing their personal experience of the widening gap between military and civilian America, he was inspired to write an article for The Atlantic describing this divide. “The United States may be in danger of drifting into a situation in which the military is neither well understood nor well used,” Ricks cautioned. That was July of 1997.

Flash forward nearly 20 years, and Ricks’ observations not only proved prescient, but remain exceedingly relevant.

In January 2015, James Fallows wrote a separate piece for The Atlantic, in which he pointed out that the “distance between today’s stateside America and its always-at-war expeditionary troops” in the Iraq-Afghanistan era of war “is extraordinary.”

Fourteen years after 9/11, “I think the divide has gotten much wider,” said Ricks at a recent New America discussion about the civil-military gap. “We have a society that has war is being waged in its name, yet doesn’t seem to be aware that it’s going on.”

Several veterans who joined Ricks in discussion along with Catherine Cheney, a journalist and military spouse, echoed his sentiments.

“When I came back, I realized that most of my countrymen did not really know that women were in the military, certainly didn’t know we were at war, and had no sense of what we were doing at war,” said Kayla Williams, a former U.S. Army Sergeant in Iraq and author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army. “Some people asked me if I had been allowed to carry a gun, ‘because I’m just a girl.’”

Williams experienced first-hand another dimension of the civil-military disconnect while helping her husband – also a service member – navigate his recovery from a penetrating traumatic brain injury and subsequent PTSD. “It’s almost like while troops are in the military, they’re heroes,” she said. “But as soon as we get out of the military, people think we’re broken.” Williams pointed out that a majority of veterans go on to lead fulfilling lives as contributing members of society. But headlines portray veterans as “ticking time bombs” and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

Between journalism that fails to provide adequate context and a public that is often weary of war stories after 14 years of conflict, it isn’t surprising that the U.S. military and the American civilian population have trouble connecting with each other.

“The biggest problem in civil-military relations,” said Ricks, “is a failure for civilian and military leaders to listen to each other seriously,” which results in situations where the president is “not hearing the truth” from generals, who “don’t know how to tell the truth.” The media and storytellers can intervene productively by speaking truth to power and the public.

Panelist Adrian Bonenberger, a former U.S. Army Infantry Officer who is now a freelance journalist himself, feels fortunate to have witnessed what he called “the best” of this kind of storytelling. On his first deployment, journalist Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington — who produced and directed the 2010 documentary film Restrepo — followed a sister battalion. On his second deployment, reporter James Dao and photographer Damon Winter of the New York Times embedded with his battalion. Bonenberger described both teams as “very sensitive to military issues” and characterized their military reporting — especially the New York Times’ blog, A Year at War (edited by Dao) — as “superior.”

But the responsibility to bridge the civil-military divide extends in both directions. Williams acknowledged that she and fellow veterans say “you can’t imagine what it’s like” or “you can’t know if you weren’t there” as much as civilians say “I can’t understand being in the military” or “I just can’t imagine going to war.”

It is — as U.S Marine veteran Phil Klay, author of the National Book Award-winning Redeployment, writes — a “failure of imagination” that goes both ways.

As it turns out, good storytelling is crucial on both sides. As Williams observed, it’s important for vets to “invite people in” to their world and to be “willing to open up and share our experiences.” When Williams looked around for representations of military women, most of what she saw were memoirs written by white men who had served in the Army or the Marine Corps, and usually in the infantry. “It’s their ‘becoming men’ stories. It’s ‘how I went to war and became a man,’” said Williams, “And that narrative is not there for women. You don’t join the army to ‘become a woman.’” That led Williams to write her own memoir to provide a richer exploration of what she had experienced.

For Bonenberger, who has also written about his military experiences, it was less about describing “becoming a man” and more about how combat impacted him as a person, including dealing with PTSD. Bonenberger chronicled his experiences in epistolary form, basing his memoir Afghan Post on letters and emails that he sent and received while he was in the military.

Beyond traditional reporting, other forms of storytelling can also play a role as in bridging the civil-military divide. Williams reminded the audience that photojournalism continues to play an important role in current conflicts as it did in wars past, capturing moments and connecting with people.

Bonenberger added that fiction — in the tradition of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell A True War Story” — can allow readers to access deeper truths about war. “In fiction,” he said, “it’s possible to consider things that wouldn’t be permissible in journalism.”

Lest civilians and reporters feel that they necessarily have to be in and of the military in order to write about it effectively, Ricks assured, “You don’t have to be a vet to cover the military, but there are vets who cover the military beautifully.” As for how to do the job, Ricks advises: “Get the facts, get the story, be fair and seek comment. That’s all you really need to do.” But he added, “Don’t expect anyone to thank you for it.”

Jenny Lu Mallamo is a Media Relations Associate at New America. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

More from New America:

  • Go Inside the NSA With Shane Harris and Anne-Marie Slaughter
  • How the Lebanese Army Has Become an Extremist Incubator
  • More Must-Reads from TIME

    Contact us at letters@time.com

    TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.