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Bridging the Military/Civilian Divide

December 15, 2018
This post was co-written by D. Glen Miller and Christian J. Nickels

One of the most powerful quotes we’ve read in a long time comes from a nearly century-old text: “War is like a comet—the tail is longer than the star itself.” 1 The tail of course is the aftermath of War. Some Americans are stunned to know that more Vietnam veterans died in the 15 years after the War’s end then are memorialized on the Wall. Most of these deaths were premature and caused by Agent Orange, wounds, suicide or drunkenness. Current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have their own legacy. Approximately nine (9) soldiers/marines/airmen/others are wounded for every war zone death. The Defense Department of the United States reports that 20 active duty or veterans kill themselves every day. That is 7,300 in one year. Compare that to the combined war zone deaths of 7,652 to date. Starting with Vietnam and carried forward the carnage is significantly higher after the War.

 

The more we learn about moral injury, PTSD, reintegration into civilian life, and other things that veterans face the more poignant the tail of the comet named War. Since war affects us all in small and large ways civilians need to understand and eventually empathize with the difficulties, uniqueness and gravity of the War experience. We certainly need more than the current refrain of “thank you for your service.” The refrain is quite often received as sincere but disingenuous. The phrase “TYFYS” may further distance the military from civilians because the soldier, marine or other military person knows that American citizens rarely experience the violence and moral dilemmas encountered in war zones. More importantly military personnel realize that war is not front page news and is secondary to most of our daily politics. George Bush famously said that civilians should go shopping and that the military will take care of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In our view he said that war-making is not part of the American civilians’ responsibility. Rosy the riveter would be turning over in her grave.

 

Another way to describe the separation and distancing between military and civilian is called “performative allyship.” We learned of this term from an article by Logan M. Isaac that called attention to its practice. 2 Performative allyship, to us, looks like a device that ends up further separating the lives and experiences of military members and civilians. The phrase, “TYFYS,” is probably a fine sentiment on the surface. But the problem is that it stays on the surface. One author of this article is a combat veteran. He is open to it, but it’s kind of an awkward thank you. We have heard veterans’ wonder if they should reply to TYFYS with a comment like, “what do you know about my service?” That reply would create an awkward space in the conversation. Yet, we think that awkward spaces can be a path toward growth. Previous agendas could go to the wayside, leaving an opportunity to explore new ground together.

 

This connection is important because soldiers need allies and support from their nation. This support is voiced but action is limited. Veterans know, for example, if they need medical support when discharged there will probably be a long line at the VA. Funds are limited everywhere. However, our military knows there is plenty of money for war making but little for repair of the mind and body of those that fight. U.S Marine Corps veteran and author Phil Klay describes this experience in a piece he wrote for the Atlantic. 3 He has fought in our current war on terror and he sees a detachment between our military people and civilians. He questions if service members can “maintain a sense of purpose when nobody-not the general public, or the Congress elected to represent them, or the commander in chief himself-seems to take the Wars we’re fighting seriously.” 4 Ask yourself the last time you read or heard news coverage regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Klay writes, “American service members are willing to sacrifice their lives for one another and for their country. In return, they ask only for a mission that is moral and achievable.” 5 We wonder if “TYFYS” is seen as an insincere thank you because the receiver knows that after 17 years of War nobody cares enough to scream “What are we doing in Afghanistan and Iraq??”

 

Being a soldier, marine or other serviceman or woman is not just another job. It requires skill, strength, endurance and savvy. Most of all, fighting in a war requires purpose. A civilian may continue to go to work, perform and collect a pay check while he or she finds the corporate mission to lack meaning and higher purpose. On the other hand, a soldier is expected to fight to the death. That is almost impossible to do just for a pay check. To face violence and constant danger there must be a moral imperative. War fighting is not just a job. Klay notes that morale is perilously low because “after nearly 17 years of war, service members have seen plenty of patriotic displays but little public debate about why they’re fighting.” 6

 

We have noticed the continued distancing between our military friends and our neighbors in the community. We do not live near a large military base but those veterans and their families that we do know are suffering from 17 years of war. We meet and speak with veterans and their families. Morale is not high and people are worn out. The stress of numerous deployments is breaking the strongest of personalities. Moreover, getting help is not easy and certainly not swift. Furthermore, the VA does not seem to have adjusted to prolonged war and the severity and quantity of injury because of the type and length of these wars.

 

These issues will not be solved easily and addressing them might feel awkward. But we need a compassionate willingness to move down that path. Perhaps learning to engage in deeper, mutual conversation and relationship can help bridge this divide. We wonder if civilians could learn to respond in ways that create better opportunity for relationship? Instead of “TYFYS” being the beginning and end of their veteran engagement, what if it was followed up with, “Can you tell me about your service sometime? I would be glad to listen.” This response will demand greater participation and commitment from us as civilians, because it’s not something you can simply say and walk away. And honestly, more needs to be required of us as civilians.

 

As this realization has emerged for us, we have also sensed connections to a foundational instruction in our faith—to “love your neighbor.” 7 We cannot love our neighbor if we are not truly listening and growing in relationship with them. A willingness to go deeper into this kind of relationship may be a good first step in helping to take the “performative” element out of allyship.


Glen Miller was deployed as an Army Ranger in Vietnam, 1969 – 1970. In 2010 he founded Veterans Community Network a non-profit with a mission to educate the greater Philadelphia area regarding Post Traumatic growth. Glen also teaches ethics and leadership within the Fox School of Business, Temple University, in Philadelphia, Pa.

Christian J. Nickels (MACL Eastern Mennonite Seminary) lives in Schwenksville PA, and partners with community members seeking to help veterans return home and find healing from trauma. Chris is the pastor of Spring Mount Mennonite Church in the suburbs of Philadelphia.


  1.  Corinna Haven Smith and Caroline R. Hill, Rising Above the Ruins in France: An Account of the Progress Made Since the Armistice in the Devastated Regions in Reestablishing Industrial Activities and the Normal Life of the People (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920) 153. 
  2.  Logan M. Isaac, “Why ‘Thank You for Your Service’ May be Performative Allyship at its Worst,” Medium, March 27, 2018, https://medium.com/pewpewpress/thank-you-for-your-service-is-performative-allyship-at-its-worst-c9611bb3cde5. 
  3.  Phil Klay. “Two Decades of War Have Eroded the Morale of America’s Troops,” the Atlantic, May 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/05/left-behind/556844/. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:34-40. 
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe Landis permalink
    December 16, 2018 4:23 pm

    Chris and Glen, you are so right about loving your neighbor, it can not happen unless there is a relationship. I believe you are on a journey that will build the kind of relationships needed to bring healing to our veterans that the VA cannot provide. I’m happy to be on the road with you.
    Joe Landis

  2. December 18, 2018 6:04 pm

    Thank you, Joe. You are one of the ones who brought me into this relationship, and I’m thankful for our group of “kindred spirits” and the work we do together.

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