Military Worship Hurts U.S. Democracy
Battlefield experience shouldn’t trump the outsider benefits of civilian leadership.
Toward the beginning of the 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a U.S. soldier on leave from the war in Iraq reflects on his encounters with civilians. “For so many of them, this is the Moment: His ordeal becomes theirs and vice versa. … They want autographs. They want cell phone snaps. They say thank you over and over.” The book explores how civilians and military personnel caricature each other and how the admiration on the part of those who have not served for those who have put on a uniform unwittingly puts an artificial distance between them.
The gap in civilian and military experiences in the United States over the 17 years since 9/11 has led to persuasive, persistent, and unrealistic myths that have eroded faith in civilian leadership of defense policy. Among these myths are the superior virtue of military over other kinds of public service; that battlefield experience is the most authoritative source of military policy expertise; and that an exclusively civilian background is inadequate for strategic defense leadership. In the United States, these myths are nurtured and perpetuated by both military and civilian communities and affect general public opinion as well as the attitudes of national security professionals. These myths are also corrosive. Unless they are acknowledged, addressed, and challenged, future civilian leaders may struggle to control the use of force—a profound problem for a democratic system. Downgrading civilian leadership will weaken U.S. national security and the military itself.
The myth with which the majority of Americans are most familiar is the notion that military service tops the hierarchy of civic duties. The Pew Research Center found in 2011 that 83 percent of American adults believe military personnel and their families have had to make sacrifices since 9/11, but at the same time less than half the population believes the American public has shared the burden of war. The kernel of truth underlying this perception has grown into a sense that there is a deficit on the civilian side of U.S. society. Private companies have picked up on the desire for social penitence and run with it. Think of the advertisements around major televised sports events expressing gratitude to those deployed overseas, such as the Hyundai car company ad that connected service members based in Zagan, Poland, with loved ones during the 2017 Super Bowl. In the TV spot, deployed service members sit surrounded by a 360-degree screen that enables them to watch the game as if they were alongside their families.
There are more quotidian examples as well. Veterans are often offered early boarding for airplanes. Harris Teeter grocery stores provide preferred parking for veterans. Veterans’ issues top the list for dozens of major charities and are included among the charitable giving priorities of corporate foundations. On the one hand, this is all as it should be: Admiring and expressing gratitude for military service, especially in wartime, is simply the right thing for a society to do. The problem is that admiration for military service eclipses respect for other national-level institutions and other forms of service. In today’s polarized political environment, the chasm has put those in uniform in the awkward position of embodying civic virtue.
Veterans themselves are uneasy about this role. Many do not relish it, recognizing that the public tends to outsource not just the fighting of war but also the understanding of it to service members. A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll of veterans found in 2013 that nearly half believe the American public doesn’t genuinely respect their service. Writing in 2014, Carl Forsling expressed this frustration. “I don’t want to board the airplane first. I don’t want your first-class seat. I don’t want free admission to amusement parks. … It only allows Americans to assuage their guilt and feeds an outsized sense of entitlement among many veterans.” Talking to a New York Times reporter in 2015, another veteran ventured that when a nonveteran thanks him for his service, it is akin to saying, “I haven’t thought about any of this.”
In their 2016 book, Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military, Kori Schake and now Defense Secretary James Mattis found worrisome evidence that the American public holds unquestioning, and largely uninformed, faith in the military as an institution and a profession. Only 22 percent of Americans are very familiar with the military, and nearly half think the president should “leave the details of military plans to the generals” when the United States is at war. A 2017 Gallup poll found Americans’ trust in the military is more than twice what it is for the presidency and six times higher than faith in Congress.
Put together, these trends mean the military’s monopoly on public confidence may be generating both an abdication of civic involvement on the part of civilians and the establishment of a right to override civilian input on the part of the military. The Trump administration has already used this idea to shut down conversation on defense policy and the use of military force. “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders commented last fall in response to questions about White House chief of staff John Kelly’s remarks on the deployment of military forces to Niger, “that’s highly inappropriate.”
Cultural attitudes that elevate the soldier above the civilian dovetail with the second myth: that policy-relevant national security expertise is best developed with firsthand operational experience in a theater of war. In June, after Jennifer Mittelstadt, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, wrote a piece arguing for the need for more civilians to teach at her institution, she received a slew of criticism. Mittelstadt revealed on Twitter that one (unnamed) critic dismissed contributions to professional military education from anyone who had “not heard the distant roar of cannon.” The assumption is that the combatant’s perspective on war is more important than any other.
To be sure, there is a unique perspective provided by serving in a war zone. But dismissing other perspectives propagates the notion that those in uniform hold a singularly superior understanding of use of force issues. Before becoming defense secretary, Mattis remarked in an interview that there “needs to be a little more humility and a little more modesty on the part of those who may have statutory, legal, constitutional authority over the military, as they listen to NCOs [noncommissioned officers] and junior officers.” This is sage counsel, but taken too far it suggests that good policy is only available at the tactical level.
Military operational experience is unique, but it is not all-knowing. Like all types of expertise—including intelligence, development, and diplomacy—it, too, is riddled with biases and “blind spots,” as the scholars Loren DeJonge Schulman and Amy Schafer recently warned. While those in uniform surely see and understand some issues more clearly than civilians, the same is equally true for those with complementary expertise. Those who serve in conflict are invariably colored by their experience—which may differ from those who serve in that very same conflict but at a different time or in a different place. For example, the divergent operational-level assessments of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade and a half are entirely affected by when and where a person served. Civilians who have spent time in these conflicts as policymakers, researchers, or nongovernmental organization staff can also offer useful perspectives and broaden out the picture. In Syria and Yemen, where for years the United States has waged conflict both through direct military force and via proxies, civilians have offered different—and essential—assessments of these conflicts compared with the assessments of those waging war there. There are also plenty of areas, cybersecurity and space among them, where civilian industries and technical experts lead the way in capabilities development. In artificial intelligence, for example, the U.S. Defense Department is trying hard to learn from and keep up with Silicon Valley. In fact, experience in these fields has shown how constructive civil-military (not to mention public-private) partnerships can be. One example is the Defense Innovation Board, a cohort of esteemed private citizens who advise the defense secretary on national security challenges and provide outside-the-box solutions, which is (slowly) shifting the Pentagon’s culture to get it more comfortable with talking to entrepreneurs, scientists, and others outside of the national security bubble.
Although combat experience cannot easily be replicated, that does not mean judgment cannot be developed off the battlefield or that civilians are not competent to question operational decisions. Indeed, operational judgement and critical thinking may also be developed in the classroom, as demonstrated during the interwar period at professional military education institutions, where students learned from professors such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Marshall—which contributed to the overwhelming U.S. success in World War II. Moreover, broad strategic judgment must rely on more than just operational matters. The containment framework that contributed to America’s success in the Cold War was a comprehensive strategy incorporating military, economic, and diplomatic lines of effort—and was conceived by George Kennan, a nonveteran civilian.
Nevertheless, these ideas—that time in uniform represents superior civic virtue and time on the battlefield generates superior policy judgment—help underwrite the final myth: that civilian experience alone is simply inadequate preparation for both the substantive and ethical dimensions of strategic national security leadership. These roles include cabinet positions, members of Congress, even the presidency itself—all crucial positions that deal with national security affairs and use of force questions. Substantively, civilians with a career limited to politics and policy are often perceived as having missed a critical step in the education necessary to understand strategic choices and the implications of defense and security policy. This is a contention that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, neither of whom served in uniform, may have disputed. Nevertheless, civilians and military officers alike lament that a mere 101 members of the current Congress have served in the U.S. military, suggesting that nonveterans are less able or willing to exercise effective oversight of national security matters. And the service record of presidential candidates, while perhaps not always essential to the success or failure of a campaign, is always an issue for those who have not spent time in uniform.
The fierce and growing competition for political endorsements from retired generals and flag officers is one of the more problematic results of a widespread belief in the military’s unique credibility. Last October, when Sanders rejected journalists’ questions about operations in Niger with the idea that an officer’s opinion was indisputable, she was echoing Kelly’s assertion that Americans without a veteran background had no right to judge military matters. His comments included a reference to a member of Congress speaking “in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise.”
The idea that civilian politicians are “empty barrels” in contrast to substantive, hardened warriors undergirds the argument that officers and veterans must also fill moral vacuums in strategic leadership—and defy what they deem civilian mistakes when necessary. This problem is not simply an artifact of personalities in the Trump administration. Writing on the U.S. Army website in 2010, Marine Corps officer Andrew Milburn argued that a member of the military has a “moral autonomy” that “obligate[s] him to disobey an order he deems immoral.” He referred not to questions of an order’s legality but to errors in strategic cost-benefit analysis. This argument assumes that those in uniform are positioned to make superior political calculations, rather than entertaining the idea that political calculations may be driving the direction politicians give to the military. The uses and ethical limits of power are not something the American people should rely on military professionals alone to define and defend, unless wider social influence over the use of force is no longer a goal of U.S. democracy.
Military service should be venerated, but it is not the only type of service to the nation, and it does not monopolize civic virtue. One of the enduring strengths of the U.S. defense analytic community is its population of operationally knowledgeable yet politically seasoned civilians, able to contextualize military objectives within national purpose. This capability is widely admired and actively sought out by other countries, as shown by the popularity of U.S. defense institution-building programs around the world. In just one example, in fiscal year 2016 the Naval Postgraduate School trained personnel from 170 countries on how to approach civil-military challenges.The author Phil Klay recently wrote in the New York Times, “[I]f I have authority to speak about our military policy it’s because I’m a citizen responsible for participating in self-governance, not because I belonged to a warrior caste.”
That can be hard to remember right now. The last two decades of grinding war and the present unresolved foreign-policy crises provide sufficient reasons to doubt the competence and judgment of political and policy leaders. Writing in the Armed Forces Journal in 2009, retired Navy Cmdr. Pat Paterson complained of “a broken interagency system and a dysfunctional civilian leadership.” Such complaints have not subsided in the intervening nine years. By the end of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the title character wonders, “To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war?”
U.S. society is disappointed in itself and disappointed in its political leaders. Americans are desperate for heroes. But no service member can be a real-life Superman, and U.S. society must build better politics and politicians, not simply outsource nonmilitary roles to military professionals. Simply put, giving up on civilian leadership means giving up on democracy itself.
Mara Karlin is an associate professor of the practice of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She worked for five U.S. secretaries of defense.