Bridging the Civil-Military Divide at Stanford

Opinion by Kimberly Tan
March 10, 2014, 11:21 p.m.

A brief Q&A with military veterans at Stanford is included at the bottom of the column.

Last quarter, I was casually chatting with a freshman student when he remarked:

“Wait, you know I’m 24, right?”

I didn’t. But apparently, while I had been studying math and English in Silicon Valley, he had been in the Israeli Defense Force, where he studied for the SAT in a bomb shelter and only decided to apply to college after his military service.

At Stanford, his story is perhaps uncommon, but certainly not unique. Yet for me, coming from a community where hardly anyone considers military service, speaking or thinking about the military was something I rarely, if ever, did. Though he served a different nation, his experiences nevertheless alerted me to my own ignorance about the U.S. military.

I’m not alone. Though polls indicate that the military has the highest approval rating of any federal institution in the United States, the growing civil-military divide (in short, the lack of public awareness about the military) has led to a weakening of ties between the civilian-controlled military and the civilians themselves. This phenomenon is partially due to the end of the draft in 1973, which eased citizens’ worries about being called to serve, allowed them to become less engaged with military affairs and led to an overall decrease in the military’s citizen oversight.

The effects of this divide are dangerous. According to Kristina Lobo, director of the Haas Center Military Service as Public Service (MSAPS) program, the public needs to be informed about military affairs “so we can voice our opinions to our elected officials.” She explains that “our military was designed to operate under civilian control, so failing to form and voice opinions on military affairs is neglecting our responsibility as citizens.” In doing so, we allow an incredibly powerful force to undertake risky operations without being scrutinized, making the military almost too easy for the government to use.

If we aren’t informed, the military becomes a hammer for the government to use, and every issue looks like a nail.

I attended an event by MSAPS a few weeks ago, where four former military officers who are current Stanford graduate students discussed their experiences both in combat and after their return. One officer recounted how, when standing in line at Subway with one of his friends who had lost a leg in combat, a lady standing next to them pointed to his friend’s leg and asked about what had happened.

“I lost it at Fallujah,” he said, referring to the Battle of Fallujah in the Iraq War.

Her response: “What’s a fallujah?”

Her reply exemplifies the irony of people’s perception of the military – though it is the institution supported by the public the most, it is the one understood the least. This became even more evident when the panelists unanimously agreed that it was difficult to return to the U.S. after witnessing torture, human shields and the victimization of women and children, only to realize that civilians have no idea what is happening.

“People like to thank us for our service when they don’t really know what we did,” one panelist said. And it’s true – we love to thank troops for their service, hoist American flags and admire soldiers for defending our nation. But do we know what these soldiers did and what they fought for?

What are we really thanking them for?

The fact is, when you think about our citizenry today, most people have no idea what their soldiers are doing. But to sustain civilian control over military operations and hold our government accountable for its policies abroad, it is critical for us to be aware about what the military is doing, regardless of our personal opinions about the military itself. People can die in combat. And though our lives may not be at stake, others’ lives are, and our personal distance from these issues doesn’t justify our ignorance for what happens at the front lines.

At Stanford, with the whirlwind of classes and internships and relationships and parties, it is undeniably difficult to stay informed. But students should nevertheless strive to do so by reading the news and getting to know a veteran – whether by interacting with one in class, attending events hosted by MSAPS or the Haas Center or reaching out to Stanford faculty or Hoover fellows with military backgrounds.

Part of being at Stanford is engaging with the diversity we pride ourselves so highly for, and this diversity stems not just from ethnic or socio-economic differences, but also from the differences of our experiences. Listening to others’ stories is simply part of our overall Stanford experience – another way to broaden our perspective by learning from not just our instructors, but from each other as well. “It’s different to … [hear] from someone who was on the ground,” one panelist concluded. “We really enjoy the opportunity to share our experiences.”

You can learn more about the Haas Center’s Military Service as Public Service program at

Contact Kimberly Tan at [email protected].


Will Castillo, Senior majoring in Computer Science, former Marine

What is your perception of military-civil relations and/or your perception of Stanford students’ awareness about military issues as a whole?

I think most people have little understanding about military issues, including Stanford students. This doesn’t really bother me. What does trouble me is that the growing military-civilian divide is reflected in the political leadership of the country. Less and less members of congress have served in or have ties to the military than ever before. This is a problem because it is the civilian leadership that must hold the military accountable and make decisions when to use military force, yet they have little understanding or experience with the military.


Dr. Kori Schake, Hoover Research fellow, Defense Strategy and Requirements Director on the National Security Council for George W. Bush

Do you think students have an obligation to engage in some sort of national service, whether military or not? If so, what kind of service?

I don’t think they have an obligation, but I do think it’s ennobling to participate in something bigger than yourself, whether that’s military service or Teach for America or working in a hospice or designing better software for county governments I argue for national service as good for young Americans — they should do it out of self-interest, because it will make them more self-reliant and mature. Which will make them better business people, better citizens, and take them outside the circumstances of their upbringing to see more of our diverse country and its diverse people and its diverse problems. In addition to being good for the individual, it’s most certainly good for the country.

Do you think it’s possible for a citizen to not support the military but to support the troops?

That’s a hard one. It’s certainly possible not to support the wars but to support the troops; that entails understanding that our military doesn’t get to choose which wars our country fights. If you don’t like the war, be mad at the politicians. But if you don’t like the way the war is being fought, then you do have reason to be mad at our military, because they have wide latitude in determining operations and tactics in the conduct of the war.

Why is it important to stay informed about what the military does? Why are civil-military relations important?

It’s important because our military works for us — they risk their lives to keep us safe. And that incurs on all of us a responsibility to understand who they are and what they do on our behalf. It’s a moral obligation for those of us who benefit from the dangers our military runs that we pay attention. And not just to the wars, but to the experiences of veterans coming home to our communities, to how much our government spends on defense and where that money goes.

Civil-military relations are important first and foremost because we need them to work reasonably well if we are to keep our country safe. We’ve had a volunteer military since 1973, and most of our political leaders now don’t actually know very much about the military. In our system of government, establishing relationships of trust and candor between civilians and the military is essential in developing military strategy that properly serves the ends of national policy. The political leaders need the military to give them advice, even if they don’t want to hear it; and military leaders need to understand the political limits in which civilians are operating for the military campaign to be sustainable.

How should Stanford students stay informed about the military? What faculty members or Hoover fellows at Stanford have experience or knowledge about the military (especially ones students could potentially reach out to)? Are there any opportunities Stanford students could take?

Join. And I’m not kidding — Stanford leads nearly every field of national endeavor, but too few of our sparkly students choose to become military officers. Get to know the veterans in our midst — Stanford’s graduate schools actually have quite a few, the Hoover Institution has serving officers and several distinguished veterans as fellows. Four veterans I strongly recommend students get to know are George Schultz (USMC), Charles O’Reilly (USA), Jim Mattis (USMC), and Joe Felter (USA). Invite them over to your dorm for dinner and get to know them; ask them why they joined up and it’ll open the conversation.

Kimberly Tan is an Opinions columnist at The Stanford Daily. She is currently the only freshman columnist and enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics related to social and policymaking concerns. She is originally from Saratoga, Calif. and is a prospective Economics major. In her free time, she loves chatting with friends, visiting downtown Palo Alto and reading random Wikipedia articles. She can be contacted at kwtan 'at'

Login or create an account