Generals, generals, generals! These days, you can’t shake a stick around Chateau Trump without hitting a retired general — and you can’t shake a stick around America’s major media outlets without hitting an op-ed on the perils of appointing retired generals to cabinet positions.
It’s true that Donald Trump seems to have a fetish for retired generals. Trump has named retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn as his national security advisor and now retired Marine Gen. James Mattis is the president-elect’s top pick for secretary of defense. A gaggle of other retired four-stars are also under consideration for cabinet-level positions in the Trump administration, including Army Gen. David Petraeus, said to be in the running for secretary of state, and Marine Gen. John Kelly, reportedly on the short list for secretary of homeland security.
With the exception of Flynn, whose inflammatory rhetoric on the campaign trail alienated even many of his onetime fans, the retired officers in the running for cabinet spots are widely respected on both sides of the political aisle. Nonetheless, many commentators have expressed concern about the possibility of a cabinet stocked with former four-stars. Writing in the Washington Post, my friends Phil Carter and Loren DeJonge Schulman argue that “if appointed in significant numbers,” retired officers “could undermine … civilian control of an apolitical military.” Op-eds and articles in the New York Times, The Associated Press, and dozens of other publications — including this one — raise similar objections.
Most of these objections have been articulated by people I know and respect, and as the author of a recent book called How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, you might expect me to share these objections. For some reason, though, I’m having trouble getting worked up about the number of generals visiting Trump Tower. (Full disclosure: Both Mattis and Petraeus were kind enough to write nice blurbs for my book, which makes me feel quite fond of them.)
I know I’ll probably get an “F” in Civil-Military Relations Theory for saying this, but I don’t much care if Donald Trump appoints one retired general to his cabinet or 10.
In part, this is because I think we have much bigger problems to worry about right now, such as the resurgent white nationalist movement emboldened by Trump’s victory, the possibility of significant reversals on voter rights, climate change, and a host of other issues. And, more broadly, the simple fact that the White House will soon be occupied by a man who devotes the wee hours of each morning to tweeting insults at Broadway performers, former beauty pageant winners, and random journalists.
Against this backdrop, a cabinet stocked with retired military officers is the least of my worries. (And, frankly, anyone who thinks Rudy Giuliani would make a better secretary of state than David Petraeus needs to have their head examined.) But it’s more than that. I also think that the current outpouring of concern over Trump’s flirtations with retired generals confuses form with substance.
On a superficial level, I get it: If we believe in civilian control of the military — and more broadly, in civilian control of government policymaking — then we should make sure most top executive branch jobs go to civilians.
But pushing past the superficial, why, exactly, should we care about civilian control of the military?
Let’s go back to basics. The founders of the United States cared about civilian control of the military, but that’s not because they had some aesthetic objection to seeing high offices filled by people wearing uniforms. They cared about civilian control of the military for purely functional reasons: In 1789, those who controlled the military had the ability to control the state and its resources. The framers of the fledgling American republic crafted a representative democracy in which, they hoped, the will of “the people” would always prevail and not be hijacked by force of arms.
The framers’ commitment to civilian control of the military had nothing to do with formalistic categories and everything to do with their deep mistrust of concentrated power. The U.S. Constitution represents a comprehensive effort to break up and balance concentrations of power, to ensure that no one branch of government would out-muscle the others, and no one individual, region, party, faction, or group could permanently capture the state. In 1789 — a world in which organized militaries were the sole actors with the ability to cause large-scale destruction of life and property and consequently possessed a unique ability to capture, coerce, and control other would-be political actors — a general commitment to diluting concentrations of power translated into a specific commitment to ensuring that the military would be subject to multiple checks and balances.
These checks and balances relating to the use of military force took many different forms. Civilian control was one form: The Constitution established a system in which the military was subordinated to the elected representatives of the people. The framers recognized that civilian control was only one means of reducing the dangers posed by concentrated military power, however. For good measure, they also divided control over the use of military force between Congress and the president: The president is the commander in chief, but Congress is the entity authorized to declare war; “raise and support Armies” (subject to the proviso that no appropriation of money should be for a period longer than two years); and “make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.”
Again, the framers didn’t value civilian control of the military as an end in itself. It was simply a means to an end. The framers’ normative goal was preventing concentrations of power that could displace or distort the will of the people, as expressed by their elected representatives, and civilian control of the military was valued because (and only because) it was one of several overlapping mechanisms to ensure that the will of the people would prevail over the will of the powerful.
Fast forward to our own era. Most of us would agree that these core normative goals are as relevant today as they were in 1789: To believe in democracy is to believe that political legitimacy derives from the free and informed consent of the governed. Most of us still believe that the choices of the American people, uncoerced and unmanipulated, should guide our foreign and domestic policies.
But in today’s world, does a formalistic commitment to civilian control of the military still do the work it did in 1789? Is it still crucial to preventing the powerful from trumping the will of the people? (No pun intended.)
I’m not at all sure. For one thing, today’s U.S. military has elaborate internal checks and balances and a deeply ingrained respect for democracy and the rule of law. It’s difficult to imagine any active-duty general or group of officers, no matter how popular, persuading the troops to ignore or overturn the results of an election or a properly passed law. (That’s even truer for retired military officers. Technically, they are civilians. They can still give orders if they want to, but even the lowliest private is free to tell a retired general to take a hike, subject only to the constraints of courtesy.)
But more to the point, the ability to destroy — and hence to coerce and control — is no longer in the exclusive possession of the military. Nonstate actors and even lone individuals can cause death and destruction on a mass scale, and increasingly states and nonstate actors also have a range of nonkinetic means of coercion at their disposal, from cyberattacks and bioengineered viruses to the deliberate warp-speed global spread of misinformation and fake news. All over the world, coercive power has become simultaneously more diffuse and more concentrated: Individual billionaires, multinational corporations, hackers, and nonstate terrorist groups can increasingly compete with state militaries in their ability to control the behavior of political actors.
Meanwhile — and not coincidentally — it has also grown steadily more difficult to draw clear lines between “war” and “not war” and between “military” and “civilian” roles. In today’s blurry world of gray zone conflicts and phase zero operations, uniformed “military” personnel train judges, eavesdrop on electronic communications, vaccinate cows, and develop microfinance programs — and “civilian” intelligence community employees and contractors conduct raids, plan drone strikes, and execute offensive cyber-operations in an ill-defined “war” against terrorism.
In this blurry world, we need to ask ourselves a serious question: What work, if any, is the concept of civilian control of the military doing today? When we say that it would be “dangerous” for Trump to offer “too many” senior administration positions to retired generals, what exactly do we mean? What bad things do we imagine would be more likely to happen if retired generals make up half of the next president’s cabinet — and what good things do we imagine will happen if we keep retired generals out of Trump’s inner circle?
My hunch: In America today, the notion of civilian control of the military has become unmoored from its original purpose. It is no longer an effective means to achieve the normative ends we still value. Instead, it has become a rule of aesthetics, not ethics, and its invocation is a soothing ritual that makes us feel better, without accomplishing anything of value. In a world in which power is simultaneously more concentrated and more diffuse — in which the means of mass coercion and control are no longer merely kinetic — in which “war” has blurred and expanded and the “military” does “civilian” work and civilians prosecute our “wars” — keeping a few retired generals out of the cabinet doesn’t protect or preserve anything important.
Let me go further: In today’s world, a purely formalistic conception of civilian control of the military isn’t merely useless. It’s dangerous.
It’s dangerous because it allows us to persuade ourselves that we will have accomplished something meaningful and important if we can just keep the generals in the Pentagon — even as it blinds us to the frightening new forms of power and coercion that increasingly distort our democracy and destabilize our world.
In an era in which foreign hackers, the super rich, and purveyors of fake news can manipulate the American electoral process and cause chaos in the international system, it’s more important than ever to find effective ways to prevent the powerful from distorting or derailing democratic processes. But keeping retired generals out of the cabinet won’t help.
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images
Like this article? Read an unlimited number of articles, plus access to our entire 47-year printed archive, the FP App, and the FP Insights Tool when you subscribe to FP Premium for 20% off!