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Barriers Between Civilian, Military Need Breaking

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 31, 2000 – When Bill Owens was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from March 1994 through February 1996, it was commonly known in Pentagon circles that he felt strongly about breaking down the barriers between the civilian society and the military.

"I felt America's military was getting separated from its civilian counterparts and that it was time for us to do all we could to try to bring the two together," said the retired Navy admiral. He is now co-chief executive officer and vice chairman of Teledesic Corp. in Bellevue, Wash.

He felt the civilian society perceived the military as being a very structured establishment with leaders who barked out commands and "troops just do it."

"But that's not real leadership. In fact, leaders tend to be wonderful, compassionate people, in general. They lead people, not by force, but by influence and nurturing. That leadership culture is something that the civilian society misunderstands completely," said Owens, who still passionately clings to the belief that the military and civilian sectors need to work closer together.

Powell on Patriotism

"America is a nation of many patriots -- ordinary citizens bound together by the opportunity to give back to a nation that has given so much to us. Ordinary people fulfilling the promise of America -- rally to help a crying child, defending our beloved land, or buttressing an ally in distress. All are American patriots.

"We embrace patriotism as both an honor and a duty -- a debt to the nation and to one another. It is a commitment the diverse people of this great land have revered since our earliest days of gaining independence because of our faith in this place we call America.

"Our patriotism is the glue that binds the incredible medley of our many heritages into a union stronger than our many parts -- a nation that seeks out great and noble causes, not just for ourselves, but for the good of all."

-- Retired Army Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Oct. 1, 1989, to Sept. 30, 1993, in an American Forces Press Service interview, May 9, 2000.

The former vice chairman said he subscribes to the philosophy of the late General of the Army Omar Bradley, who believed leadership "means firmness, not harshness; understanding, not weakness; justice, not license; humanness, not intolerance; generosity, not selfishness; pride, not egotism."

Civilian society doesn't understand how hard the military works and how difficult the life is for military families, Owens noted. Using his mobile military career as an example, he said he moved so many times that his son attended 12 different schools from kindergarten through the 12th grade. "Nor does the civilian world understand how little military personnel are paid compared to similar jobs in the civilian sector."

For example, he said, "We'll bring a college graduate into my company at a wage that's higher than what a one-star general earns. Just think of what that general has gone through and the life that he has had to lead in dedication to his country."

Owens attributed the military-civilian split in part to more than 25 years of the all-volunteer force. The armed forces of the 1970s have been transformed into a different kind of military, one where not many people serve relative to the whole population, he noted. Even veterans, proud and sure as they are of their service, may not fully appreciate how the military has changed if none of their service is recent.

For instance, he said, people who volunteer for military service nowadays stay in longer than draftees who finished a two- or three-year commitment and quit. Consequently, instead of being unmarried 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds living in barracks, most of today's service members are older and married with children, he said.

Corollary to this situation and of deep concern, he believes, is that many leaders of American institutions lack military experience, including defense and other government leaders -- the people who have to decide the kind and number of tanks or airplanes DoD needs to buy.

"So the military is getting separated from civilian society and many of America's institutions don't have the experience of military service anymore," Owens said. "Senior military and civilian leaders need to work more together so they can learn from each other.

"The National Guard and Reserve components are extremely important in military and civilian societies," Owens emphasized. "These are people who have civilian jobs and are doing their weekends with the military. But they represent the interface between the military and its civilian counterparts."

In addition to being taught how to function as soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen, officers and enlisted personnel are also taught about allegiance to country and patriotism, Owens noted.

"When they go through training, many of them don't realize how much pride in defending the nation they absorb," Owens said.

"Civilian society has lost the connection with the patriotism that the military represents because so few people have served in the military," he said. Consequently, civilians take the armed forces for granted and see the defense of the nation as a given, he said.

"They tend to see the military as a different kind of people, even though military personnel come from a cross section of American society," Owens noted.

"The military society provides a lot of training in leadership and how you gather men and women around you and get then to focus on a common goal," Owens said. "The military does a very nice job of training leaders, but civilian society doesn't." In many cases, civilian organizations don't even realize that leadership is lacking, he remarked.

Military training and experience makes veterans better citizens because they don't take democracy for granted; they realize that you have to fight for our freedoms," he noted. "They know the need for an allegiance to country and patriotism can't be taken for granted."

One way that might help the military and civilian sectors reconnect is to look at whether the military could become a little bit more like the civilian structure in some ways, Owens suggested.

"For example, I don't think the military innovates very well," he noted. "The military doesn't find a fellow like Jack Welch, the chief executive officer of General Electric, who can change it -- shift it around and make it a new organization to respond to new times. The civilian world seems to do that much more profoundly."

There are many things DoD can learn from civilian businesses about making money that can be applied to managing DoD resources, Owens said. He said using the best in business practices could result in a system that uses the defense budget more efficiently.

"You could possibly reduce the budget and have a larger, more ready military than you have today," the admiral said. "That probably could only happen with radical changes that come from the bowels of the civilian innovation and creativity."

DoD also needs to consider some profound changes in the way people are recruited, he said. "There's no reason the military can't hire, for instance, someone like a Microsoft executive, and after six months of training, make him be a colonel or one- star admiral," Owens said. "That would bring some of the change and innovation into the military.

"You'll find a lot of senior executives who would be glad to have a new adventure at age 40 and come into the military to be a new kind of leader," he said. "We just have to stretch our minds to try to find ways to integrate the technology of the civilian world with the military. In general, most of the new technology is being developed in the civilian work place.

Unless DoD takes heed, Owens said, "We'll wind up with a military that's separated from its civilian society. We'll wind up with a military that's viewed as a mercenary force rather than as part of American society, trained to protect America's freedoms."

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DoD Public OutReach: America's Military and You Web site

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRetired Navy Adm. Bill Owens thinks the America's military and civilian communities are becoming estranged and need to be brought together. Owens is a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Photo courtesy Warren Mell.  
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