Fog of War

How can we talk about the military if we can't define what it is?

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Just what exactly is the military?

Just what exactly is the military?

On one level, this question has an obvious answer. "The military" is "the armed forces," which in this country essentially means the active duty Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, together with their respective reserves and the National Guard. (Yes, yes, under certain circumstances the Coast Guard could be considered part of the military, and then there’s the Merchant Marine, and the Public Health Service, and even a bunch of uniformed officers with commissions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — did you know that? — but let’s keep it simple for now.)

Sticking with the obvious, if we know who’s in the military, then presumably we know what the military is: the military is what it does. In other words, military functions are those functions performed by members of the military.

This is a nice tautology. (That’s why they pay columnists the big bucks!) Granted, it’s not very enlightening, since military personnel do a whole lot of not-very-military-ish things at Uncle Sam’s behest, but more on this in a moment.

Okay: maybe it’s more useful to define the military as a specialized, hierarchically structured organization that’s legally authorized to use lethal force to protect the state and advance its interests. This dovetails with our commonsense assumption about what our military is: it’s an organization that fights wars. It’s a group of people bearing weapons — whether swords, rifles or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles — who use those weapons to deter, disable, capture, or kill those who threaten U.S. security interests.

Superficially, this seems like a more helpful and precise way to define the military. But is it really? After all, the vast majority of military personnel don’t "fight." Instead, they serve in a myriad of headquarters, logistics, administrative, and support positions: they cook, play in bands, draft memos, file papers, fix computers, write articles for the base newspaper, drive trucks, do archival research, analyze signals data, investigate crimes, build roads, and so on, rather than serving in combat roles.

True, truck drivers and file clerks can drive over IEDs or fall prey to insurgent ambushes. The same is true for civilian government employees, journalists, aid workers, and children walking to school in the morning. Here in the United States, 9/11 reminded us that violence can also come to airline passengers and Wall Street secretaries. But though the distinction between the frontline and the rear has eroded, being targeted and fighting back isn’t the same as serving in a combat role.

Military analysts refer to the ratio of combat versus non-combat troops as the "tooth to tail" ratio (T3R, if you want to get really wonky). In 2007, the Army’s Combat Studies Institute published a fascinating study by John McGrath, who found that the U.S. military’s tooth-to-tail ratio has declined substantially over the last century.

During World War I, for instance, the United States initially fielded about twice as many combat troops as support troops, for a 2-to-1 tooth-to-tail ratio. By 1945, as World War II wound down, that had changed; only about 40 percent of troops in the European theater were combat troops, while the rest were headquarters, administrative, logistics, and support troops of varying kinds (giving a T3R of roughly 2-to-3). By 1953 — in Korea — the tooth-to-tail ration was 1-to-3. By the 1991 Gulf War, it was even lower: McGrath estimates it as 1-to-3.3. During the Iraq War, the ratio of combat to non-combat troops deployed ticked up slightly, but primarily as a function of the increased use of civilian contractors.

McGrath — himself a retired Army Reserve officer — concludes that "combat elements have progressively declined as a proportion of the total force since 1945." And "[A]s the percentage of combat troops deployed declines, it raises the question of whether such a deployment is, in fact, a military deployment at all, or some other type of operation."

That’s a vital question.

Go back to my initial query: just what is the military? If it’s defined formalistically, it’s the Army, Navy, and so on. If it’s defined functionally, it’s a lot less clear.

Let’s complicate matters some more. McGrath’s important study defined combat troops not by whether troops actually engaged in combat, but by rather by job description: thus, for instance, he counts as combat troops all "company size and above units of infantry, armor, cavalry, field artillery, air defense, artillery, attack and assault aviation, and combat engineers…special operations forces" and so on.

But in Iraq and Afghanistan, those combat troops spent a great deal of their time engaged in activities far removed from combat. They engaged the enemy when needed (the high casualty rates for troops in combat-related military occupational specialties make this painfully clear), but also found themselves doing everything from building schools to encouraging women’s participation in economic activity.

The stated rationale for such seemingly not-very-militaryish activities was clear: to "win" in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States needed to win the hearts and minds of the population. As Lieutenant General William Caldwell put it in a 2008 Military Review article, "The future is not one of major battles and engagements fought by armies on battlefields devoid of population… victory will be measured in far different terms than the wars of our past. The allegiance, trust, and confidence of populations will be the final arbiters of success."

Counterinsurgency — all the rage just a few years ago — seems to have officially fallen out of fashion today, but there’s no reason to think that our combat troops won’t continue to engage in non-traditional multi-tasking in the decades to come. The military will always need the capacity to shoot people and blow stuff up. But in a world in which critical threats to U.S. national security may come from airline passengers armed only with boxcutters, from cyberspace or from a virus deliberately transmitted, it’s inevitable — and necessary — that our troops will spend more and more time on activities that don’t much resemble traditional forms of combat. They’ll control drones from hundreds or thousands of miles away; they’ll engage in "offensive actions in cyberspace"; they’ll engage in covert and clandestine activities more traditionally viewed as the sphere of intelligence agencies.

Complicating matters even more, the decline in the military’s tooth-to-tail ratio has been paralleled by a rise in civilian organizations (public and private) engaging in what look suspiciously like traditional military activities. The CIA has gone kinetic, for instance, with paramilitary forces that engage in direct action, often working hand in hand with military special operations forces. And for-profit private military companies increasingly place civilian contractors in jobs that resemble combat positions in all but name.

All this leads me to echo McGrath’s question: When is a military deployment not a military deployment? Or: when does a military stop being a military? Is there some minimum quantum of traditional "combat" that makes a military "military," as opposed to something else, something we have yet to imagine or define?

There aren’t just academic questions. Whether (and how much) the civilian-military gap matters depends greatly on how we categorize what the military is doing. In fact, much of what we think we know about how to run our military — how to sustain it and constrain it, how to divvy up roles and missions, funding and authorities between the military and other entities — depends on our ability to know what it is that we mean when use the term "the military."

If "the military" increasingly performs civilian functions, for instance, then maybe it doesn’t matter that much if the State Department has fewer resources — maybe our focus should just be on ensuring that the military performs those formerly civilian functions well. Conversely, if civilian entities such as the CIA perform "military" functions, then maybe we need to rethink how we hold the CIA accountable for its activities, which are far less transparent than those of the military. More generally, how do we make sense of civil-military relations — and civilian control of the military — when the boundaries between the "civilian" and "military" categories are grow ever more blurry?

In a recent guest post on Tom Ricks’ blog, Mackubin Thomas Owens wrote, "The line between military and civilian is not impermeable. Success in national security requires that civilians have an ongoing say in military affairs," while "the military has to be at the policy and strategy table" as well.

That’s wise advice. But if we can’t define "military affairs" with any clarity, or reliably distinguish it from "policy" or "strategy," can we act on it?

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.