Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Mac Owens on the forgotten dimensions of American civil-military relations

By Mackubin Thomas Owens Best Defense department of civil-military relations It is fair to say that most Americans do not pay much attention to civil-military relations (CMR) and on the rare occasions when they do, they equate the term almost exclusively with civilian control of the military. There are a couple of reasons for this: ...


By Mackubin Thomas Owens

Best Defense department of civil-military relations

It is fair to say that most Americans do not pay much attention to civil-military relations (CMR) and on the rare occasions when they do, they equate the term almost exclusively with civilian control of the military.

By Mackubin Thomas Owens

Best Defense department of civil-military relations

It is fair to say that most Americans do not pay much attention to civil-military relations (CMR) and on the rare occasions when they do, they equate the term almost exclusively with civilian control of the military.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

First, U.S. CMRs appear to be fairly healthy, especially in terms of civilian control. The U.S. military as an institution seems to have internalized a commitment to civilian control. Second, most of those who have written about U.S. CMR, from Sam Huntington to Richard Kohn and Peter Feaver, have focused on civilian control.

But this is problematic: It may cause citizens to miss other signs of unhealthy CMR.

For soldiers, this focus, especially as articulated by Huntington in The Soldier and the State, which provides an "ideal" formula for maintaining civilian control while also keeping the military strong, means that they will tend to focus on operational factors — how to fight wars — at the expense of strategy, the purpose for which a war is fought. In other words, they may fail to connect operational art, at which the U.S. military excels, to political goals.

My own argument is that it is necessary to take a broader perspective on CMR. Civilian control is important but it is not the only dimension of CMR. For citizens and soldiers to ignore the other dimensions of CMR runs the risk of placing the Republic in peril.

What do we mean by Civil-Military Relations?

The term "civil-military relations" refers broadly to the interaction between the armed forces of a state as an institution, the government, and the other sectors of the society in which the armed force is embedded. Civil-military relations have to do with allocating responsibilities and prerogatives between the civil government and the military establishment. It can be seen as "two hands on the sword." The civilian hand determines when the sword is drawn. The military hand keeps it sharp and wields it in combat, always guided by the purposes for which the war is being fought.

It appears to me that U.S. civil-military relations constitute a bargain, regarding the aforementioned allocation of prerogatives and responsibilities between the civilian leadership on the one hand and the military on the other.

There are three parties to the bargain: the American people, the government, and the military establishment. The bargain must be periodically re-negotiated to take account of political, social, technological, or geopolitical changes. There have been several renegotiations of the U.S. civil-military bargain over the past 70 years, including:

  • World War II, when the military becomes a "central" as opposed to a peripheral institution in America
  • The Cold War, with the rise of nuclear weapons and the central role of deterrence
  • Post-Cold War, when there was a shift to constabulary operations
  • Post 9/11, when CMR has to cope with a time of protracted conflict, giving rise to the possibility of praetorianism

The central question we face today is whether another renegotiation is in the offing.

The Bargain and Five Questions

There are five questions that cover the domains of CMR.

1) How do we ensure civilian control of the military establishment?

2) What constitutes an acceptable level of military influence on the other spheres of society?

3) What is the primary purpose of the military, e.g. will it be used primarily to deter and defeat foreign enemies or will it be used primarily to maintain domestic order?

4) What pattern of civil-military relations best ensures military success?

5) Who serves?

The emphasis on civilian control can be explained as a response to the central dilemma of CMR: A military can threaten a government by being either too strong or too weak. Coercive power makes the military at least a potential threat to civilian government. But a weak military also threatens the government if it is too weak to protect it. How do we create a military establishment that is strong enough to protect the state but not threaten it?

Patterns of Control

Sam Huntington identified two general patterns of civilian control. The first is "subjective" control, which maximizes the power of the civilians — authority, influence, and ideology — at the expense of the military. It can be done by means of government institutions: In Great Britain, there was a struggle for control of the military between Crown and Parliament. In the United States, the president and congress vie for control.

In many countries, civilian control was achieved by means of social class, especially the aristocracy. Civilian control may be by constitutional form. Many argue that democracy is the best way to control a military but totalitarian regimes have done well by pitting one part against another, e.g. Hitler’s use of the Waffen SS and the Soviet use of political officers in the Red Army.

The danger with subjective control is that maximizing civilian power at the expense of the military may weaken the latter to the extent that it fails on the battlefield. For example, Hitler cowed his generals so completely that his strategic mistakes trumped the operational excellence of the Wehrmacht.

In The Soldier and the State, Huntington proposed an approach he called "objective" control, which maximize military professionalism. As he wrote, "On the one hand, civilian authorities grant a professional officer corps autonomy in the realm of military affairs." On the other, "a highly professional officer corps stands ready to carry out the wishes of any civilian group which secures legitimate authority within the state."

Civilian control is assured but military effectiveness is simultaneously maximized.

Eliot Cohen calls this the "normal" theory of civil-military relations. In theory it is superior to subjective control, but it is flawed in practice. The line between military and civilian is not impermeable. Success in national security requires that civilians have an ongoing say in military affairs and that the military have a seat at the policy table.

Why is Objective Control Problematic?

First, it is by no means the norm in American history, even in recent times. As Eliot Cohen has shown in Supreme Command, successful democratic war leaders have always "interfered" in the military realm. In addition, attempts to achieve the Holy Grail of objective control can remove the military from debates over strategy and policy. Thus it can create a "strategy deficit." For example, Richard Kohn has written that "In effect, in the most important area of professional expertise-the connecting of war to policy, of operations to achieving the objectives of the nation-the American military has been found wanting. The excellence of the American military in operations, logistics, tactics, weaponry, and battle has been manifest for a generation or more. Not so with strategy." He is echoed by Colin Gray who observed that: "All too often, there is a black hole where American strategy ought to reside."

The problem here is that objective control focuses the military on the operational level of war and not on strategy. As Hew Strachan has observed, "The operational level of war appeals to armies: it functions in a politics-free zone and it puts primacy on professional skills."

Herein lies the problem for U.S. strategy making: Strict adherence to objective control creates a disjunction between operational excellence in combat and policy, which determines the reasons for which a particular war is to be fought. The combination of the dominant position of the normal theory of civil-military relations in the United States and the U.S. military’s focus on the non-political operational level of war means that all too often the conduct of a war is disconnected from the goals of the war.

As two writers recently observed, "rather than meeting its original purpose of contributing to the attainment of campaign objectives laid down by strategy, operational art-practiced as a ‘level of war’-assumed responsibility for campaign planning. This reduced political leadership to the role of "strategic sponsors," quite specifically widening the gap between politics and warfare. The result has been a well-demonstrated ability to win battles that have not always contributed to strategic success, producing ‘a way of battle’ rather than a way of war."

They continue: "[T]he political leadership of a country cannot simply set objectives for a war, provide the requisite materiel, then stand back and await victory. Nor should the nation or its military be seduced by this prospect. Politicians should be involved in the minute-to-minute conduct of war; as Clausewitz reminds us, political considerations are ‘influential in the planning of war, of the campaign, and often even of the battle.’"

The reverse is true as well. The military has to be at the policy and strategy table in order to ensure that its advice regarding options and risk are being heard.

In this regard, it is important to recognize that there is a difference between being "political" and being "partisan." Military officers must be "political" in the sense of understanding the political environment and being able to navigate its currents. But they must be non-partisan and resist becoming an adjunct of a political party.

U.S. CMR are complicated by the reality of the separation of powers. Civilian control of the U.S. military involves not only the Executive Branch but Congress as well.

The two branches vie for dominance in the military realm (a species of subjective control) but the decentralized nature of Congress gives the president and the executive branch an advantage. The separation of powers also means that U.S. civil-military disputes usually do not per se pit civilians against the military, but involve one civilian-military faction against another.

For example:

–The post-World War II debate over air power vs. the Navy: Truman, Secretary of Defense Johnson, and members of Congress teed off against the Navy and its civilian supporters regarding the B-36 strategic bomber and the "super-carrier" USS United States as the Air Force attempted to gain control of naval aviation.

–The firing of MacArthur (Marshall and Eisenhower urged Truman to fire him, while Republicans in Congress supported MacArthur)

–The Marines and the Osprey.

As budgets decline, this is likely to be the main arena of civil-military discord.

History Teaches other Lessons about U.S. CMR

Civil-military tensions are not new & the absence of a coup does not necessarily mean that civil-military relations are healthy. Past examples include:

  • Washington at Newburgh
  • Federalist vs. Republicans re a Military Establishment
  • Andrew Jackson and Spanish Florida
  • Mexican War: Whig generals and a Democratic president
  • Civil War: Lincoln and McClellan
  • Reconstruction: Johnson Urged to Use the Military to Suppress Congress
  • Preparedness Movement
  • Election of 1920: Leonard Wood runs for the Republican nomination for president while still on active duty and indeed, in uniform.

Other CMR Lessons and Implications: Advice and Dissent

U.S. military history illustrates that the military is not always right, even regarding strictly military affairs. The military has an obligation to forcefully present its best advice but does not have the right to insist that its advice be followed.

Dissent is not disobedience: tTere must be a "calculus of dissent" that extends beyond the stark choice of "salute and obey" and "exit." This is a function of professionalism.

Dissent raises the question: Is the uniformed military just one more obedient bureaucracy in the Executive Branch or is it a profession granted significant autonomy and a unique role in its relationship with civilian policy makers due to its expert knowledge and expertise? What options does an officer have when he/she disagrees with policies/orders, etc.?

During the "Revolt of the Generals," Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, USMC (ret) wrote: "I offer a challenge to those still in uniform: A leader’s responsibility is to give voice to those who can’t — or don’t have the opportunity — to speak…It is time for some military leaders to discard caution in expressing their views and ensure that the president hears them clearly." Many believed that his dissent would have carried more weight had he offered it while he was still on active duty.

Nonetheless, the issue of dissent has suggested to some that resignation or retirement is the only option for those officers who disagree with policy. But as Kohn argues, "Personal and professional honor do not require a request for reassignment or retirement if civilians order one’s service, command, or unit to act in some manner an officer finds distasteful, disastrous, or even immoral. The military’s job is to advise and then execute lawful orders…If officers at various levels measure policies, decisions, orders, and operations against personal moral and ethical systems, and act thereon, the good order and discipline of the military would collapse."

I have argued that this belief on the part of officers is the result of a serious misreading of Dereliction of Duty. "Many serving officers believe that H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty effectively makes the case that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should have more openly voiced their opposition to the Johnson administration’s strategy of gradualism [during the Vietnam war], and then resigned rather than carry out the policy.

"But the book says no such thing. While McMaster convincingly argues that the chiefs failed to present their views frankly and forcefully to their civilian superiors, including members of Congress when asked for their views, he neither says nor implies that the chiefs should have obstructed President Lyndon Johnson’s orders and policies by leaks, public statements, or by resignation.

Future U.S. Civil-Military Relations

What factors will influence U.S. CMR in the future? They include:

  • The character of the wars we will fight in the future. For instance, protracted wars often create the danger of praetorianism: France after Indochina and Algeria; the "Team America" conceit on the part of Gen. McChrystal’s staff in the Rolling Stone article that led to the general’s resignation.
  • Declining defense budgets that may lead to the end of "jointness" and the emergence of civilian-military faction fighting over resources and missions.
  • New circumstances, e.g. cyber and oversight of special operations may create new tensions.
  • The participation gap: The "other one percent"
  • Domestic politics, the truly "forgotten aspect" of U.S. Civil-Military Relations: How society treats its soldiers and veterans and vice versa
  • Future debate over the Iraq and Afghanistan "narratives." Copperheads and Vietnam.
  • Will PTSD, a "disease model" prevail, or might it be supplanted by what Gen. James Mattis has called "positive traumatic growth" as the best way to look at the impact of close combat/intimate killing on soldiers? In other words, do we see our soldiers and veterans as victims or as men and women who served honorably under difficult circumstances? Here we need to look to the problematic legacy of the Vietnam War. Karl Marlantes, with whom I served in the same Marine infantry battalion in Vietnam has addressed these questions in a recent book: What it is Like to Go to War (he is also the author of the remarkable Vietnam War novel, Matterhorn). The psychological "split" in the soldier at war is captured in a passage from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal. "Shame and honor clash where the courage of a steadfast man is motley like the magpie. But such a man may yet make merry, for Heaven and Hell have equal part in him."

What Constitutes "Healthy" CMR?

  • Comity and a low number of disagreements between civilian and military decision makers
  • Success in war and peace and the absence of policy-strategy "mismatches"

But in the end, the key to healthy CMR can be summed up in four words: TRUST. TRUST. TRUST. TRUST.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis. He is the recipient of the 2012 Andrew Goodpaster Prize awarded by the American Veterans Center for excellence in military-related research for his 2011 book, U.S. Civil-Military Relations Since 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain. These remarks are from his Goodpaster Lecture of June 12.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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