Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Book excerpt: To best understand the American civil-military relationship, look at lines of trust, not of authority

American strategic civil-military relationships are haunted by an inability to diagnose whether they are pathological or healthy.



By Maj. Dan Maurer, U.S. Army

Best Defense author excerpt


By Maj. Dan Maurer, U.S. Army
Best Defense author excerpt

American strategic civil-military relationships are haunted by an inability to diagnose whether they are pathological or healthy.

Neither the parties themselves nor the public can accurately and objectively unravel whether certain actions or inactions are symptoms of a diseased interaction, or whether they are sure signs of a proper and well-ordered immune system, a proper — if nuanced and unequal — collaboration. The phrase “crisis” is too often tossed around, despite a dearth of evidence pointing toward the much-feared coup, and no unambiguous “winner” or “loser” in the resultant clash. That is, unless we have an objective and neutral framework for understanding what those relationships actually are in form and function.

By looking at case studies and “fingerprints” of those actually serving in these strategic leadership roles — Secretaries of Defense (e.g., Rumsfeld, Gates, and McNamara), Presidents (Lincoln, Jefferson Davis of the CSA, Bush, Clinton, and Obama), Chairmen of the JCS (Powell, Taylor), combat commanders (MacArthur, McChrystal, McClellan, Grant) and others — and by closely reviewing all that the law has done to structure these relationships, we have seen how closely aligned they really are to common and well-known principal-agent relationships.

Just as lawyers and clients have published norms and codes of conduct that guide these principal-agent interactions and establish expectations that are used by both parties, and the public, to gauge their health, so too can we imagine existing legal structures like the Goldwater-Nichols Act as means by which to reinvigorate civil-military relationships with norms and expectations. Duties of candor, confidence, loyalty, confidentiality, and clear but necessarily tailored “scopes of responsibility,” permit us to not only enter into these relationships with mutual assurances, but allow the public a means by which to judge and hold accountable these parties when their conduct violates those principal-agent standards, customs, and norms.

With publically-pronounced fiduciary duties like these, it is possible to relook old examples of supposed civil-military crises through a new grading scale. Assessing President Kennedy’s choice to distance himself from his senior military advisors after the Bay of Pigs, and later inserting General Maxwell Taylor as his a quasi-civilian chief military counselor rather than his Joint Chiefs, illustrates how one principal chose to erect unconventional barriers between himself and his military agents, but did so based on principles of trust and confidence. These, in turn, entailed scaling back one agent organization’s scope of responsibility in the favor of ballooning another agent’s authority.

Reviewing Lincoln’s patient reaction to General McClellan’s obstinacy and General Grant’s supposed intoxication, or Truman’s reaction to General MacArthur’s arrogant attempt to shift war-time policy, illustrates various ways by which civilian principals reign in their wayward agents, either curtailing their grasp for too much authority at the expense of the principal’s larger aims, or helping to ensure their loyalty and fidelity to the mission for which that agent was chosen to execute.

Excerpted with permission from Crisis, Agency, and Law in U.S. Civil-Military Relations (New York: Palgrave, 2017), by Major Dan Maurer, who is a judge advocate in the U.S. Army, and former combat engineer officer, with two deployments to Iraq. He is also the author of a forthcoming monograph from the U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, titled The Clash of the Trinities: A Theoretical Analysis of the General Nature of War. He is a contributing writer at West Point’s Modern War Institute, and as a captain was the first lawyer selected as a strategy fellow on the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group (the lessons of which formed the basis for this line of research). He can reached at

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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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