On October 17, President Trump called Myeshia Johnson, widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of several soldiers killed in Niger over a month ago. The phone call, which was supposed to be a thoughtful condolence call ended up controversial. During the call, Trump supposedly forgot La David’s name, told Myeshia that La David “knew what he was signing up for,” and subsequently left the family in tears. During the call, Myeshia had Johnson family friend and congresswoman Frederica Wilson (Dem-FL) listen in over speaker phone. Wilson was so outraged by what she heard from Trump, she took to twitter, accusing Trump of such gross behavior. A twitter feud ensued, culminating in Trump calling Wilson “wacky” and tweeting, “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”
As the Washington Post points out, regardless of the factual accuracy of either side’s account of the phone call, the better action to take would have been for Trump to apologize. Not only to the Johnson family, but to the several other families and service members Trump has offended since running for office: Senator John McCain, the Khan family, the Baldridge family, and the Johnson family. While many attribute Trump’s penchant for attacking Gold Star families to personality, it is emblematic of a larger and seldom-discussed problem within our society: the civilian-military divide.
The civilian-military divide is a term for the growing demographic and cultural differences between the civilian population and increasingly minority military population within the US. The percentage of Americans serving in the military, and those families subsequently related to active-service members, is dropping. This past summer, there were 1.34 million active duty personnel in the US Military; making up just 0.4% of the population. Including veterans, that percentage increases to a mere 7%. Even within government, military-veteran-congress members have dwindled from 75% to just 18% since the early 1980s. Increasingly, military personnel are being recruited from isolated geographic areas, namely, the South. In recent years, the highest-rate contributors of military personnel by state have been Georgia, Florida, Idaho, Virginia, and South Carolina. On top of all this, military recruitment has become a sort of family business for southern families. An LA Times survey suggests, “as many as 80% of those who serve come from a family in which a parent or sibling is also in the military.”
Trump himself is somewhat archetypical of these isolating features, falling on the civilian side of the civilian-military divide. Hailing from an affluent family in the northeast, Trump received several military service deferments for the Vietnam war—one for bone spurs in his heels and four for education. This has led many to accuse the president of being a draft dodger.
Even as Trump falls squarely on the civilian side of the civilian-military divide (as many presidents and politicians have before him), he seems to make no attempt to bridge the divide. On many issues of consequence, such as the Johnson family feud, Trump often defers to a lifelong member of the military community, namely, his Chief of Staff General John Kelly, himself a Gold Star recipient.
Kelly’s statement in response to the Johnson family feud is both powerful and telling. In it (besides defending Trump), he expounds upon the civilian–military divide:[Who] are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces.
Kelly is unfortunately correct; most Americans don’t know who these service members are due to the civilian–military divide. It makes sense than that President Trump, with a civilian background, struggles to respectfully handle instances of such sacrifice without muddling the situation further.
Kelly continues, “I just thought — the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.” Kelly is right, service members’ sacrifice both big and small should be held sacred by the communities they serve and protect. Whether or not our president is ready to lead the way, we as American citizens need to do better. The best way, many argue, is through more natural, informed conversation. Rather than simply saying “thank you for your service” on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, try better to understand the history and sacrifices military personnel contribute through their service. As Kelly says, it’s “all right” to not enlist yourself, it can be as simple as talking to your grandparent or relative about their own stories. It’s paramount, however, that these small conversations happen if the civilian–military gap is to be closed.