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Gourley’s Strachan Files (III): Strategy is the first casualty of poor civ-mil relations

Gourley’s Strachan Files (III): Strategy is the first casualty of poor civ-mil relations

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense chief military culture correspondent

The Direction of War has an entire chapter on civil-military relations, in which Sir Hew Strachan discusses how governments and their militaries ought to (but largely don’t) interact according to Clausewitz. But throughout the work he observes some interesting dynamics about how a military’s relationship with civilian society, as well as government, change in war. The bottom line is that things go badly at home when they don’t go according to plan on the battlefield, and significantly worse when you go to the battlefield without a plan in the first place.

“A new model of civil-military relations is required, and it has to reflect the changing character of war,” he writes. He emphasizes four factors of change:

1. Today’s wars are “de facto wars,” compared to the officially-declared kind that dominated Clausewitz’s era.
2. Conflicts are “of low intensity, but are often persistent, continuous and simultaneous.”
3. Countries now fight with all-volunteer forces. Strachan observes the same consequences often discussed on this blog: separate societies, the question of civilians being able to relate to their servicemembers, etc.
4. “Society’s image of war is mediated by the press.”

But the military creates its own share of problems with its cultural attitude (or rather, its belief that it has a cultural attitude) of staying out of politics. “If the media is such a powerful tool in the debates on the use of military force, the armed forces need to cease behaving like rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. They should not react as though they honestly believe that apolitical behaviour is the corollary of professionalism. Such responses reflect the power of the Huntingtonian norm, not of reality. The US armed forces lobby on Capitol Hill in a way which would affront British liberal norms, and the link between success in high command and the presidency runs through every ‘existential’ war the United States has fought,” going all the way from Washington to Ike.

The consequences of keeping mum in the interest of being apolitical, according to Strachan, are numerous. Instead of being informed by serving generals, we get retirees who make stuff up whenever they don’t know the real answer. If a serving senior officer does speak, the public immediately assumes it is to endorse the government’s view, not to provide an impartial professional commentary. Nor do military members who speak to the press out of turn help things. Strachan claims that they are “destabilising” and unhelpful to a public dialogue because they create too much controversy.

He goes on to make one of the most forceful arguments of the entire book: “We cannot expect a sophisticated and informed discussion on the uses of military force, when the information in the public domain is partial, in both senses of the word. For too long, at least fifty years, we have started this debate with the answer, not the question. We have tended to assume that the danger is a military coup d’état, when the real danger for western democracies today is the failure to develop coherent strategy. A revised system of civil-military relations would re-empower the constitutional controls on the executive, help reintegrate armed forces and society, and — most important of all — enable an approach to strategy appropriate to the norms of liberal democratic government.”