Best Defense

Reminder: The biggest danger in civil-military relations isn’t making a coup

It is the duty of military leaders to give their unvarnished views.


Rather, it is letting things slide, and winding up with a poor formulation of national strategy. The focus on the prospects of a coup is a canard. But when the civil-military dialogue is strained, strategy suffers.

It is the duty of military leaders to give their unvarnished views. It is the obligation of their civilian overseers to listen to them carefully, and then to do their best to examine assumptions and explore differences. This may be require uncomfortable moments: “Admiral, that was interesting. . . . General, what is your personal view of the admiral’s plan?”

FDR was very good at forcing these differences to the surface. He did that not to undercut the military, but rather to look into what drove the differing views.

By contrast, a good example of a civil-military failure to probe this was President President George W. Bush’s apparent desire not to ask a lot of questions about what happened once we got to Iraq — and the military’s willingness to let that slide.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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

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