Friday, June 21, 2019

When Gen. James C. McConville testified at his Senate confirmation hearing to become chief of staff of the Army, his three children sat behind him: all captains in the U.S. Army.

While the U.S. is fortunate to have families such as the McConvilles, this scene renewed concerns over the “civil-military gap” between service members and the society they defend. The data is indeed concerning: Military veterans are twice as likely as civilians to have children in the military. This trend has accelerated since the end of the draft in 1973. In 2011, the Pew Research Center found that 77% of Americans over age 50 had an immediate family member who had served in the military. That share drops to one-third for those ages 18–29.

This trend is due in part to the children of military veterans following their parents into the “family business.” It’s not surprising that children raised around the military come to admire and emulate service members. Over time, this dynamic creates a military subculture increasingly separate from and unfamiliar with the rest of American society.

Designed for Insularity

However, military insularity is also the result of a deliberate, expensive and counterproductive public policy: the military installation as a gated community.

Many military installations are designed for insularity: self-contained communities with their own housing, schools, stores and hospitals, enclosed by gates with armed guards. This phenomenon got worse after 9/11 when DoD closed most military installations off from surrounding civilian communities in the name of security.

These self-contained communities may have once been necessary when the areas surrounding military bases lacked essential services (e.g., “Camp Hood” in Central Texas in the 1940s). There are some remote, sensitive and/or overseas locations where self-contained military communities are still useful. However, for the most part, these communities are not only unnecessary, but harmful to civil-military relations.

Segregated military communities are also harmful to the military. Life “inside the wire” creates a distorted view of the reality most Americans experience. Children growing up on military bases are less likely than their civilian counterparts to know a family struggling to make rent since base housing is heavily subsidized. These children are less likely than kids outside the wire to know a family that lacks health insurance. This benefit, too, is heavily subsidized. Some of these military children will attend college in service academies and spend 30 years in uniform. They will participate in policy discussions about the national interest, but may know little of the concerns that most interest their fellow citizens.

Harmful to Civilians

Segregated military communities are harmful to civilians. Life outside the wire creates a distorted view of the reality that service members and their families experience. Children growing up with no exposure to military service are less likely than their military counterparts to know someone who has been wounded or killed in action. These children are less likely than kids inside the wire to know the psychological toll of repetitive combat deployments, not only on service members but also on their families. These civilian children will one day become voters and policymakers. They will have the power to send in the troops, but may not know the people who fight in their name.


Gen. James C. McConville, left, greets a soldier at Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii
(Credit: U.S. Army/Sgt. Ryan A. Jenkins)

Reducing the gap between the military and American society is an important goal of public policy. As a matter of public policy, military members should be integrated as much as possible into the communities they defend. The time has come to reduce military gated communities, with separate housing, schools, stores and hospitals. Segregated facilities should be the exception, justified by legitimate operational or logistical concerns.

This goal could be accomplished by diverting resources away from closed military installations to subsidies paid directly to service members. Rather than operate military commissaries and exchanges, provide direct subsidies to military members to shop in civilian communities. Rather than operate “privatized” base housing through military contractors, the military should get out of the housing business. Provide direct housing subsidies to military members, adjusted to the local cost of living. This approach is working in many communities, including one with some of the nation’s highest housing costs, Washington, D.C.

Some may object to this proposal on grounds of efficiency, arguing that segregated military communities are cost-effective and convenient. These claims have dubious empirical support. Taxpayers spend $1.4 billion annually to operate 240 commissaries around the world, many of which are located in areas with comparable civilian grocery stores a few miles away. Privatized military housing has made news recently for reports of widespread problems with potential hazards and serious maintenance shortfalls.

Security Risk Not Greater

Others may object for security reasons. Certainly, a strong case exists for secure sensitive facilities, such as military airfields and headquarters. However, there is no logical reason to extend a comparable level of security to military schools and hospitals. There is scant evidence that these facilities are at greater security risk than their civilian counterparts. There is no moral justification for providing military schools and hospitals with a greater level of security than their civilian counterparts. Our schools and hospitals should be secure, but equally so, without special consideration for those serving military members.

Finally, military families may legitimately object to the disruption of cultural cohesion so unique to military communities. There is no community more close-knit than one whose members share service and sacrifice, including even the loss of life and limb. Approximately 30% of military families live in these communities, but those who do can attest to the intensity of the experience. Disrupting these communities is the high but necessary price we must pay to educate American society more broadly about the joys and costs of military service.

I write from hard-won experience, having served 28 years in the Army, including five combat deployments. My wife and I raised our four children in both base housing and civilian communities. In an assignment where we were the only military family for miles around, I visited my daughter’s second grade classroom. The kids were shocked to discover that I wasn’t even close to 10 feet tall. The adults were equally appalled to learn that an officer with a master’s degree could be sent to kill and die on foreign battlefields. My family and I were shocked that our civilian friends were shocked at the terms of the life we knew and loved.

While none of our kids joined the military, each has a profound connection to and respect for military service. They know the difference between reveille and retreat, and every word of Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American). Many of their childhood friends serve in the military; one lost both legs in Afghanistan. When my children hear politicians call to “send in the troops,” they understand what that choice means.

Fostering a broad and deep understanding of military service is an important public policy goal. We could go far toward achieving it by removing subsidies for closed military communities that detract from this goal.