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NPR Podcast Examines Divide Between Civilians And Military


Memorial Day is about the fallen, which is something fewer and fewer Americans have a personal connection to. That's because of a divide between those who serve and those who don't, between civilians and the military. That golf, the civ-mil divide, is the subject of a new season of the NPR podcast Rough Translation. NPR's Quil Lawrence co-hosts this season of that podcast, and he's here to tell us more.

Hey, Quil.


KELLY: All right. So just explain a little bit more what exactly we mean when we talk about the civ-mil divide.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. So up until Vietnam, all of America's major wars, the whole country was involved because there was a draft. So the military changed that to an all-volunteer force after Vietnam. But none of us really had to notice until we had another major wars (ph), two wars. And for the next 20 years, America sort of lived in two drastically different realities. For most of us, these two wars that have been going on were on the news, you know, sometimes. But for about 1% of the country, they were going to Iraq and going to Afghanistan. And most of them more than once. And most of them actually had a family connection already to the military.

KELLY: Oh, that's interesting - and that - it's just 1%. So it's - the military is a family tradition, but for very few of us, unlike past generations where it was more of a shared experience for the whole country.

LAWRENCE: Right. And so NPR's Rough Translation podcast did a callout to listeners, and we asked people about the civ-mil divide. The responses we got came overwhelmingly from the military side, and they were eager to talk. And you can listen to a few of them right here.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is me. This is me. This is so me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think we live in sort of increasingly isolated tribes in America.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: People can forget that we've been at war for 20 years because they were never at war in the first place.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: When my husband decided to enlist, the response from all of our friends and family, I mean, it was shock, complete shock.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I generally don't talk to civilians. I just yell at them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The first thing I tried to do was reason with myself that I've got to have some friends and some connections of people who aren't in the military. And I came to the conclusion that I really don't.

KELLY: Wow. I'm listening, Quil, to that last speaker - no friends who aren't military. And I - it sounds like many Americans might be the exact opposite - civilians who don't really know anyone in the military that well. Why are there not more friendships, more relationships across that divide?

LAWRENCE: I think it's mostly just a lack of knowledge and experience, maybe compounded by a bunch of Hollywood cliches that, you know, veterans have to be either saintly heroes or, on the other hand, you know, PTSD time bombs. And most civilians don't realize - it's not their fault - that the vast majority of troops, for example, never saw combat. Like Dan Price - he served in Afghanistan. And he says he dreads this question, which people do actually ask him, of, did you get shot at?


DAN PRICE: I mean, it wasn't trivial just because I didn't get shot at or I didn't shoot back. If I tell them that it's that mild, then I miss all of the anxiety about going out on missions and then all of the sadness of missing family events.

LAWRENCE: So he usually, you know, just deflects with a joke when people ask him, but it leaves him feeling almost, you know, doubting the value of his own service.

KELLY: So we can hear the cost there on a very personal level of him feeling not seen. What about it at a high level? You have commanders in chief. You have other political leaders who are civilians. How does the divide play out at that level?

LAWRENCE: Well, President Joe Biden's late son, Beau, served in Iraq. But none of the post 9/11 presidents have any personal experience at war - Bush, Obama, Trump. And many people wonder if the wars would have lasted so long if the cost was felt by more of our leaders. For me, the civ-mil divide burst out into the open at a press conference at the White House in 2017. And President Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly - he's a former Marine general - was talking about four soldiers who'd been killed in West Africa.


JOHN KELLY: Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1% this country produces. Most of you as Americans don't know them.

LAWRENCE: And John Kelly - he was talking about a condolence call to one of the families. And then he starts talking about his own son, who was killed in Afghanistan. Kelly is a Gold Star father, and he's received that visit from a casualty officer. And this is one of the few times he's spoken about it publicly.


KELLY: Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining in - that 1%. He knew what the possibilities were because we're at war.

KELLY: Talking about Joe Dunford, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, there. But what was your read, Quil, on what he was trying to do there? Was John Kelly trying to explain to civilians, this is what it feels like from a vet's perspective? Was he trying to reach across this divide?

LAWRENCE: I mean, that's the way it felt at first. I mean, I found it quite moving. But then, it was time for questions. And Kelly made this request.


KELLY: So I'm willing to take a question or two on this topic. Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling? Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling? OK, you get the question.

LAWRENCE: And Kelly only takes questions from those people. So some military folks told me they thought that this was really dangerous territory. Whether Kelly meant to do this or not, it's a four-star general saying, basically, unless you're connected to military sacrifice, no one on the civilian side of the civ-mil divide can ask me questions about this war.

KELLY: And that - you said that was 2017, right?


KELLY: Have things changed? Where are we now in 2021 on the civilian-military divide?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. The wars are apparently finally ending, but here at home, there have been some events that were confusing to a lot of civilians. I am thinking about the military role in controlling protests in front of the White House or the high number of vets who were involved on January 6 at the - in the riot at the U.S. Capitol. And the military in the past has been this institution that was usually well-trusted in polls of Americans, but that might be starting to slip. And Americans, because of this divide, they just don't know their military as well as they used to.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, so I - people must be trying to change this, to bridge the divide. As someone who covers veterans, who covers the military, do you think it's possible?

LAWRENCE: Yes. I'm a civilian, and I cross this divide all the time. I'll leave you with one more voice to answer that question. This is Kayla Williams, who's an Iraq vet. She's now an assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.


KAYLA WILLIAMS: When I first got out of the military, I definitely bought into believing that nobody could understand what I went through if they hadn't worn the uniform. And I came to reject that idea and believe that civilians have an obligation to try to understand. And that's the only way we're going to bridge this, is to try to meet one another halfway.

KELLY: And we should note that is what this new podcast series is all about - the stories of people trying to cross this divide.

Thank you, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Quil Lawrence, co-host of that new season of NPR's Rough Translation podcast. It's called "Home/Front."


Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.