Americans’ Blind Faith in the Military Is Dangerous
U.S. citizens show deference to the armed forces regardless of their political persuasion. Their willingness to let the generals decide is a threat to the democratic tradition of civilian oversight.
In a Nov. 18 interview with Fox News, U.S. President Donald Trump rekindled his periodic feud with retired Adm. William McRaven, who designed the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 and who has been a prominent Trump critic. But this time, Trump went further than just accusing his longtime nemesis of partisanship—“a Hillary Clinton backer and an Obama backer.” Trump now seemed determined to undermine the highly decorated Navy SEAL’s professionalism by questioning his signature accomplishment: “Wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that?” he said.
The renewed row is just another sign that Trump’s love affair with “the generals” may be coming to an end. In mid-October, in a 60 Minutes interview, he signaled that the secretary of defense, retired Gen. James Mattis, may be on his way out. Rumors continue to swirl of the imminent departure of White House chief of staff John Kelly, another retired general. But no one should be distracted by Trump’s ups and downs with the military’s top brass. This administration’s militarism runs much deeper and is far more dangerous. It has launched an assault on democratic norms of civil-military relations.
One could be forgiven for not having noticed. While some scholars, civilian defense officials, and military officers have wrung their hands and gnashed their teeth, the general reaction has been deafening silence. At one level, this is hardly surprising: The public is typically oblivious of the details of governance. But our research has discovered that, even if the public were aware, they would not share the anxieties of these elites, because deference to the military is widespread among all Americans.
The classic model of civil-military relations insists that civilians define the nation’s interests and goals, set the strategy, and decide when force will be used. Ultimately, it is civilians who have the right to be wrong. In exchange, civilians leave to military officers the matters over which they have expertise: fine-grained operational and tactical decisions. This division of labor has been regarded as the ideal since Samuel Huntington wrote The Soldier and the State over six decades ago, and it has been drummed into generations of military officers ever since. When there is criticism of the traditional model, it calls not for less intervention by civilian officials but for more. Eliot Cohen—one of the nation’s most distinguished scholars of civil-military relations and, as a former George W. Bush administration official, no lefty—has made the case for civilian control even at the tactical level.
The Trump administration has not just loosened Obama administration fetters on military force; it has refashioned civil-military relations and undermined civilian oversight. Last year, Trump empowered Mattis to set troop levels in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and he gave commanders in war zones more freedom to launch raids and airstrikes without prior authorization. His then-chief strategist Steve Bannon justified these moves as “let[ting] the warfighters fight the war,” but critics warned that doing so could divorce the military’s battlefield operations from civilian-determined strategy. This past summer, Trump freed the military to launch cyberattacks without higher-level approval or interagency discussions.
The Trump administration’s willingness to dilute its own authority is puzzling—especially for a White House that has generally sought to vastly expand its authority relative to other power centers in the government. One explanation lies in its populist instincts and inclinations. We have long known that Americans hold very favorable views of the military and trust it more than they do other institutions. Past surveys have not established whether, and to what extent, Americans also believe that civilian leaders should defer to the judgment of their counterparts in uniform. Our research shows that deference to the military is so common among Americans as to be virtually a consensus position.
Between September 12 and 21, nearly 2,500 Americans completed a survey we disseminated via the Lucid platform. This sample was largely representative of the nation with respect to gender, age, education, race, income, Hispanic origin, state, and region.
We asked two related questions. The first sought to gauge respondents’ deference on strategic matters by asking them how strongly they agree or disagree with the following statement: “When considering the use of military force abroad, we should first and foremost trust the judgment of U.S. military leaders regarding whether to deploy U.S. forces.” The second emphasized more tactical decisions: “When considering the use of military force abroad, we should first and foremost trust the judgment of U.S. military leaders regarding how to use U.S. forces on the battlefield.” As we expected, respondents were more likely to disagree with the first statement than the second. But we were surprised by how small these differences were and by how high the overall rates of agreement were with both questions.
We found that nearly 70 percent of Americans agreed to some extent that the country should defer to the military on whether to use force (strategy), and just 17 percent disagreed to some extent (the rest were in the middle). Around 75 percent agreed to some extent that the country should defer to the military on how to use force (tactics), and just 11 percent disagreed to some extent. Overall, respondents who were deferential on questions of tactics were very likely to be deferential on questions of strategy: Respondents’ views were in agreement 71 percent of the time. These sky-high levels of deference suggest why the Trump administration’s military moves have met with little public outcry and why their critics have been greeted with silence. If the public knew about the administration’s approach, it would probably think the administration was righting a wrong.
Trump’s position seems designed to resonate with his base. According to our statistical analysis, with respect to both strategy and tactics, conservatives were more deferential to the military than liberals, older respondents were more deferential than younger ones, hawks were more deferential than doves, and men were more deferential than women. Wealthier respondents were also more deferential, as were veterans of the U.S. armed forces. In short, the respondents most likely to endorse deference to the military shared traits in common with the most likely Trump voter: male, more conservative, more Republican, older, not poor, military veteran.
Support for deference to the military was strikingly broad across all demographic and ideological groups. While 71 percent of self-identified Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) endorsed strategic deference, so did 64 percent of self-identified Democrats (and Democratic-leaning independents). Merely 15 percent of Republicans rejected strategic deference, and only 18 percent of Democrats did. Some 70 percent of men endorsed strategic deference, but so did 65 percent of women. Around 75 percent of respondents over 60 supported strategic deference, but so did 60 percent of those under 30.
Americans today have never been more divided over politics, but they are united in their deference to the military. Our research presents just a snapshot, and we cannot say much about trends over time, as past surveys have regularly asked only general questions about the topic. But it is possible that civilian deference is higher than ever. Trump supporters may favor deference to the military because they are supremely loyal to this president and because he has often suggested that he loves men in uniform. Trump opponents may favor deference to the military because they distrust this president’s judgment and hope an empowered military—a “benign junta”—might curb his pugnaciousness and impetuosity.
Trump’s verbal assault on McRaven met with widespread pushback, especially after the Republican National Committee echoed the president in criticizing the admiral. True, some noted that Trump seemed confused about McRaven’s role, as it was not his job to locate bin Laden. But the far more common publicly expressed reaction was deep offense. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that, regardless of McRaven’s views, “I do know that few Americans have sacrificed or risked more than he has to protect America & the freedoms we enjoy. His military career exemplified honor & excellence. I am grateful for his service.” Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, a nephew of former President George W. Bush, also jumped to McRaven’s defense, calling him “an American hero.”
The president’s attack on McRaven was troubling, but so too was the reflexive genuflection to the military among Trump’s critics. Their response was hardly unusual. Locating themselves on the safe ground of what historian Andrew Bacevich has called “the new American militarism,” they were simply enacting a time-honored American public ritual. Politicians in particular, and Americans in general, routinely honor soldiers for their sacrifice and heroism, hail them for their patriotism, and express gratitude for their service. They often imply that military veterans, especially top officers, are more virtuous than other Americans. The U.S. public consensus on civilian deference to the military grows out of that same militaristic soil.
This consensus is dangerous. It allows presidents who surround themselves with generals to tap into public admiration for the military and bask in the military’s reflected glory and thereby seek to silence civilian critics of their foreign policies. At the same time, it weakens civilian officials’ claim, under the normal model of civil-military relations, that they have the right to be wrong and undermines civilian control over defense policy. Even more worrisome, the top brass may come to believe these militarist myths: Persuaded of their own superiority, and confident of the public’s trust, they may come to prefer their own judgment to that of elected officials. That may seem appealing now, given the current president’s impulsive nature, but it is a treacherously slippery slope.
The public consensus on civilian deference to the military is, finally, deeply un-American. The nation’s Founding Fathers feared overweening state power in general and military authority in particular. They did not have much faith, however, that the masses would resist the lure of militarism. They seem to have been right.
Ronald R. Krebs is the Beverly and Richard Fink professor in the liberal arts and a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is writing a book about the effects of violent conflict on democracy, including in Israel.
Robert Ralston is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota.