September 1, 2011  

Growing up

Toward a new maturity in civil-military relations

What if U.S. troops were used — and acquiesced in being used — to conduct extrajudicial targeted assassinations inside the sovereign territory of another country without prior congressional approval or even consultation?

What if U.S. military personnel, weaponry and munitions similarly were used — again with uniformed acquiescence — to conduct aerial bombing of another sovereign country, with at least the partial intent of killing a head of state, also without prior congressional approval or consultation, and the president then openly flouted the legal reporting and troop-withdrawal requirements of the War Powers Resolution?

What if the dramatically expanded size, use and global presence of U.S. special operations forces — operating as they do in extreme secrecy, blurring the boundaries that normally separate military operations from police, intelligence and internal security operations, and subject to minimal congressional oversight — were to pose unseen and unknown challenges to civilian control of the military?

What if the military were involved in operating and maintaining secret prisons — so-called black sites — abroad for the purpose of detaining, interrogating and perhaps torturing enemy combatants outside the bounds of the (treaty-specified, constitutionally sanctioned) laws of war?

What if the overweening political, economic and military influence of a mammoth military-industrial complex were to intrude itself into the political process, produce pronounced distorting effects on the economy, essentially dictate military technology, doctrine and force structure choices, feed a militaristic appetite for war and reap gluttonous profits from the conduct of war?

What if largely uncountable and unaccountable private-sector contractors were to so expand in size, use and influence that they regularly assumed critical, inherently governmental missions and functions more appropriately reserved for regular military personnel subject to the accountability of congressional oversight and the constraints of domestic and international law?

What if repeated failures by the U.S. military to defeat the adversaries and conclusively resolve the situations it faced were largely attributable to the military’s rigid persistence in trying to impose its preferred way of war on such now-permanent “unconventional” — asymmetrical — contingencies?

What if, notwithstanding its supernal watchdog mission, a fawning, gullible, uncritical press, largely devoid of military experience and expertise, consistently allowed itself to be manipulated by and become cheerleader for the military?

What if the military’s systematic foot-dragging on the legislated repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (a reprise of its foot-dragging on racial desegregation during the Truman administration); or the continuing prevalence of sexual assault within the ranks; or the enduring avoidance of action to integrate women into combat assignments; or the growing presence of ill-restrained evangelical religiosity among many in uniform were to be become the object of intense criticism — from, say, frustrated and angered citizen-action groups — for the deleterious effects such social mishandling was having on institutional morale, integrity, credibility and performance?

What if the president, presumably as commander in chief, persisted in using military personnel and installations as wholesale public props for blatant political purposes and was regularly abetted by military commanders in doing so?

What if U.S. military personnel, increasingly disaffected and resentful over having endured multiple combat deployments for highly ambiguous purposes and seeing no signs of impending relief, became increasingly alienated from an American society they viewed widely as ungrateful, apathetic and even morally decadent?

What if literally hundreds of incidents involving acute institutional failures and behavioral deviance by military personnel occurred each year and had for at least the past two decades with little public notice, much less concern?

These aren’t, of course, hypothetical questions. They are very real; and in their realness, they say much about the current state of U.S. civil-military relations, but also about the current state of discourse on the subject. Unfortunately, the reputed experts and commentators on civil-military relations who shape public understanding of the subject rarely consider this full range of matters to fall within their proper ambit of concern. Rather, their focus is almost exclusively on the narrower, admittedly sexier, high-visibility situations involving generals and admirals, active and retired, who speak publicly on policy matters and thereby raise questions (and alarms) about the two interrelated issues that dominate discussion of the subject in this country: civilian control and politicization of the military.

This unduly narrow focus on civilian control and politicization is both the bad news and the good news. The bad news is that such narrowness, if perpetuated, will continue to blind us to the totality of concerns that define the true state of U.S. civil-military relations today. That, in turn, will inevitably retard our ability to achieve a more mature posture attuned to the future.

The good news is that recognizing this narrowness of focus forces us to realize that there also is an underlying shallowness and parochialism that attends many contemporary treatments of civilian control and politicization. And rectifying that is the place to start in achieving the truly mature state of civil-military relations worthy of the self-proclaimed world’s only superpower and worthy as well of emulation by others.

One could say that civil-military relations in this country already are relatively mature — if by relatively, one means compared with others (at least regimes with fewer years of democracy, putative or real, under their belts) and by mature, one means generally stable, predictable and democratically nonthreatening. But if by relatively, one means compared with what we could and should be, and by mature, one means having achieved an ideal state of civil-military relations — a strategically effective military, whose leaders provide strategically sound advice, to civilian officials who are themselves strategically competent and answerable to a strategically aware and civically engaged public, all of this undergirded by a critical free press, a vibrant civil society and a properly subordinated military-industrial complex — then we are a far cry yet from adulthood.

Getting there — growing up — will require several things. The first is that we face up to a governing environment that differs materially from the one that has underwritten traditional thinking on civil-military relations. For one thing, there is absolutely no bona fide, plausible threat today of a military overthrow of government in this country, any such martial temptation having long since been socialized out of those in uniform.

Second, the U.S. no longer faces (if, in truth, it ever did) wars of necessity, only wars of choice. Accordingly, concerns about urgency, imminence and clear and present danger that have underlain traditional justifications (or rationalizations) for silencing the military in the apparent interest of forging national unity — and, no doubt, quelling the anxieties of insecure politicians — no longer warrant the weight they once may have.

Third, in a related vein, we no longer wage war against serious foes who are legitimate peers militarily and thus able and likely to exploit perceived divisions between the U.S. military and its civilian masters to our life-threatening disadvantage (as arguably may have been the case vis-à-vis China and the Soviet Union during the Korean War Truman-MacArthur controversy).

Fourth, as an outgrowth of globalization, we live today on what might be considered a global battlefield in which there has been an almost total convergence of the tactical and strategic domains of action. There no longer is anything purely tactical or narrowly military that is without almost instantaneous strategic consequence or ramification. Thus, there no longer exists any meaningful boundary circumscribing the proper purview of the military and demarcating it from a pristine civilian domain of strategy.

Finally, though we profess to be a democratic society and embrace the intrinsic goodness of democracy, we continue, unthinkingly and unquestioningly, to embrace the internally contradictory notion that the military — because of the life-threatening dangers it ostensibly faces — rightfully deserves to be an autocratic institution free of the inefficiencies, indiscipline and sometimes entropic opinion-mongering of democracy. How in good conscience, we might ask, can we expect an institution that won’t tolerate democracy to defend democracy? And how can we expect those who have been deprived of democracy to be able to step outside their acculturation and rise to the challenge of operating effectively in senior policy settings where democracy is absolutely essential — as in interagency and multilateral undertakings?


In light of such considerations, 10 propositions follow that are designed to heighten our understanding of the cardinal democratic precepts of civilian control and political neutrality and to thereby hasten our passage from where we are to where we need to be if we expect to enjoy a truly healthy state of civil-military relations in this country.

1. Civilian control isn’t civilian supremacy.

Civilian control of the military is a minimalist condition — or imperative — in democratic society. It places oversight, direction and final decision-making in the hands not of the military itself (even, perhaps especially, a professional military) but of properly constituted — elected or appointed — civilian authority, both executive and legislative. It answers the question of who’s in charge, who by right has the final say, though without providing clear, uncontestable answers about whose prerogatives should govern on particular matters (e.g., doctrine, force structure, war-making, war termination).

In the final analysis, civilian control exists where the military — by its deeds, arguably by its words — can be said not to be a threat to society. To overthrow, or even threaten to overthrow, properly constituted authority would be a clear, uncontestable breakdown of control. To question authority is not. To operate outside the bounds of effective civilian oversight — as in the conduct of unacknowledged covert operations — would be a failure of control. To expose or blow the whistle on such activities is not. To mutely or blindly comply with direction that is arguably unconstitutional would be a failure of control. To demand that the constitutionality of such direction be confirmed as a precondition for action is not.

Civilian supremacy is something qualitatively quite different and more robust than mere control. It exists where there is public oversight of legislative oversight of executive oversight of a willingly accountable, self-policing military (complemented as well, perhaps, by a judiciary committed to stringent judicial review of matters on which it heretofore may have elected to defer — e.g., war powers). This ideal, if it were to be realized, would represent a reaffirmation of both popular sovereignty and republican governance — two cherished precepts of our chosen form of government more fundamental even than civilian control itself — and bring into question the sanctity of traditional conceptions of the chain of command: Is Congress part of the chain of command in a representative democracy? Is the public part of the chain of command where popular sovereignty presumably reigns?

2. Civilian subjugation isn’t civilian control.

If civilian control is a minimalist democratic condition, then what we might call civilian subjugation to the military is subminimal. Civilian subjugation exists where civilian authorities are (a) more militaristic even than the military itself; or (b) advocates for, rather than overseers of, the military; or (c) militarily illiterate (to the extent of being incapable of making discerning judgments about military capabilities and limitations, uses and abuses); or (d) politically afraid of, and thus unable or unwilling to stand up to, the military. Such subjugation is the condition that has existed, for varying reasons, throughout the presidential administrations of Barack Obama (d and c above), George W. Bush (a and b) and Bill Clinton (c and d).

Where civilian subjugation exists, invariably unrecognized or unacknowledged by both the public and public officials themselves, the effect is for an ostensibly dutiful, obedient, responsive military to have its way — doctrinally, operationally, technologically, budgetarily and in other ways — largely uncontested or unconstrained by measured, responsible oversight.

3. Policy isn’t politics and political neutrality isn’t policy neutrality.

Politics is the practical struggle for power and prerogative. It is about partisan, ideological posturing and maneuvering for the express purpose of gaining and holding public office. By its nature, politics always has an ethical dimension because it involves human acts, with all that suggests about motive and consequence. This ethical dimension is underscored by the cynical manipulation that is so much a part of contemporary politics. It is this very politics that the cherished civil-military precept of political neutrality importunes those in uniform to avoid — by not, in other words, being involved in or influenced by politics (and, by association, ideology, religion and culture) to a degree that would compromise objectivity and integrity in fulfilling the public trust.

Policy is simply a position — formal or informal, expressed or implied, in principle or in practice — on an issue (be it Libya or Sudan, women in combat, closing Guantanamo or the scope and pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan). To be sure, policies have political consequences, and politics has policy implications. But in matters of civil-military relations, the prevailing tendency has been to conflate the two by suggesting that openly taking a position on a policy is a political act that affects the successful prosecution of the policy and inappropriately advantages or disadvantages the policy and its patrons.

Where policy neutrality is substituted for political neutrality as a normative ideal, it takes the form of suppressing or silencing the expression of one’s views (in this case, the military’s). This has the effect of undermining civic engagement by the military, even as it also undermines government transparency, accountability, and checks and balances (as with a military that justifiably checks civilian impetuosity and balances civilian ineptitude, where such conditions exist). If it is now widely accepted that those in uniform should be permitted, even expected, to vote, then why shouldn’t they also be permitted and encouraged to express their policy views in public without fear of retribution for somehow, illogically, threatening the republic?

4. Low politics isn’t high politics.

The politics that is familiar to us, that we see most commonly practiced, is low politics — where partisanship reigns and individual self-interest is the motive force. High politics is something qualitatively quite different. It is — or ought to be — the realm of strategic thinking, deliberation and dialogue, where the focus is not on who holds power, who gets what, when and how, but on national aims, interests, priorities and wherewithal.

To conflate the two is, in the search for political neutrality shallowly conceived, to diminish the military’s ability and willingness to render sound advice and to undermine the robustness of civilian decision-making, all at public expense.

Whereas those in uniform rightly should, in the public interest, eschew and be insulated from low politics, they have a right and a responsibility in a self-respecting democracy to be integrally involved in the high politics of statecraft. In fact, in an ideal state of civil-military relations, the military’s senior leaders in particular should be expected to be a source of sound strategic advice — to civilian officials and the public alike.

5. Civilian direction isn’t inherently strategic.

In the ideal state of civil-military relations, the military’s leaders are expected to provide sound advice to strategically competent — yes, strategically competent — civilian officials. Many who fashion themselves experts on civil-military relations insist that military advice to civilian authorities be strictly that — military — and that anything beyond that exceeds the bounds of the military’s proper station, authority and expertise.

What these experts invariably fail to acknowledge is the implicit quid pro quo that is part of the social contract of civil-military relations. If the military is to “stay in its lane” by restricting itself to purely military advice, and thereby in essence subordinating itself intellectually, then the expectation must be that the civilians who oversee the military be strategically competent and that the guidance and direction they dispense be strategically sound. Too often — more often than not, in fact — that is not the case. Throughout the past three administrations in particular, strategic amateurism and illiteracy have been the prevailing norm: a lack of vision, a failure to take the long view, an unwillingness to focus on underlying causes, an inability to grasp the bigger picture or appreciate the strategic ramifications of U.S. action or inaction in various situations and locales — from Somalia to the Balkans, from Iraq to Guantanamo, from Afghanistan to Libya, from torture to gays in the military.

Where civilian authorities fail to fulfill their obligation to be strategic, the social contract is broken, a strategic vacuum results that begs to be filled, the American people suffer the consequences, and any presumed justification for restricting or inhibiting military advice becomes irrelevant and strategically counterproductive.

6. Civilian direction isn’t inherently constitutional or legal.

Just as there is an implicit quid pro quo that civilian authorities be strategically competent and provide strategically sound direction to the military in return for the military’s keeping its advice narrowly military, so too is there a quid pro quo that if the military is to live up to its oath of office — to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic (not least including those within government who seek to subvert or circumvent it) — civilian authorities who expect unquestioning obedience from the military are in turn expected to act constitutionally and legally. The problem — a problem of overriding import — arises when the military assumes, unquestioningly, for reasons good or ill, that civilian authorities are doing so.

Why would the military consent to being deployed to invade another sovereign country without a declaration of war — or, at a minimum, a priori congressional authorization? Why would the military carry out targeted assassinations in violation of domestic and international law, especially without apparent congressional consultation? Why would the military subject a U.S. service member to inhumane treatment for allegedly passing information it itself had classified to a news organization — the democratic free press — before that individual is accorded due process of law? Why would the military torture (or “coercively interrogate”) enemy combatants (or “prisoners of war” if we in fact are at war) and imprison them indefinitely while denying them habeas corpus? Why would the military engage in domestic surveillance and secretly infiltrate citizen groups exercising their rights of assembly and free speech? Why would the military suppress or deny public access to information it possesses for the purpose of nothing more elevated than protecting civilian political sensitivities?

These are examples of where the military acts dutifully at the behest of civilians and assumes, often wrongly, often for reasons of convenience or expediency, that the latter are responsible and accountable for the constitutionality and legality of their actions. Such frequently misplaced assumptions by the military exemplify an over-obeisance to civilian authority, represent an abrogation of responsibility for questioning authority and guaranteeing constitutionality and legality, and demonstrate more than a modest measure of civic illiteracy on the part of those in uniform.

7. Dissent isn’t disobedience.

Dissent is an expression of sentiment: questioning, disagreeing with, standing in opposition to a policy or statement (presumably official, presumably from higher authority, presumably in the chain of command). Dissent is in the proudest American tradition, a tribute to pluralism and diversity, codified alongside consent (of the governed) in the famous second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the underlying philosophical foundation for the Constitution those in uniform are sworn to uphold.

Disobedience, in contrast, is an act — in purest terms, an act of refusal or defiance. Such purity of meaning is decidedly absent in the law that most directly governs such behavior for the military — Article 92, “Failure to obey order or regulation,” of the Uniform Code of Military Justice:

Any [uniformed military person] who —

(1) violates or fails to obey any lawful general order or regulation;

(2) having knowledge of any other lawful order issued by a member of the armed forces, which it is his duty to obey, fails to obey the order; or

(3) is derelict in the performance of his duties;

shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

These words are instructive in at least two respects. First, on the one hand, the threshold of tolerable behavior the military has established for those within its ranks who might be tempted to challenge authority or step outside the bounds of lockstep conformity is insultingly and stiflingly low: not demonstrable refusal or defiance, only negligence or failure to obey. Second, on the other hand, disobedience requires the issuance of an order — expressed direction that is of general applicability and in compliance with the law, issued presumably by legitimate, responsible, accountable higher authority.

The prevailing assumption has long been that anything emanating from higher authority is, ipso facto, lawful and thus not subject to refusal or disputation, especially on grounds other than legality (i.e., stupidity, incompetence or ethical impropriety). Moreover, while it should be obvious that an expression of dissent isn’t equivalent to an act of disobedience, the intellectually lazy, cover-your-posterior, bow-to-the-winds-of-politics practice has been that verbal disagreement signals an intention to disobey and signifies disloyalty, disrespect and insubordination.

8. An implied or assumed order isn’t an order.

It certainly isn’t an overstatement to say that for a culture such as the military that subscribes to an ethos of obedience, virtually everything emanating from higher authority is received and acted upon as if it were an order, even if such direction is only suggestive, implied or assumed. But an order, to be an order, must be expressed — explicitly, preferably in writing. Where there is no order, there can be no disobedience (though the courts, frequently given to military deference, might ultimately differ if they were to weigh in on the matter).

Thus it is that those charged with dutiful compliance — the military — have every right to expect that those seeking to exact such deference — civilian authorities — fulfill their obligation for responsibility and accountability by issuing and acknowledging orders for what they want done. Common though the practice may be, it shouldn’t be considered an acceptable basis for military obedience for civilian minions not in the chain of command to invoke authority by association: “The president wants this” or “The secretary wants that.”

And though there are those who would argue that deniability — plausible disavowal or refusal to admit to something — is a politically and strategically intrinsic good for those in power, the fact remains that deniability comes into play only when politicians seek to stretch the bounds of international law (as in the case of covert operations) or political honesty (as with the dissembling, parsing and message management that are so much an accepted feature of contemporary political discourse). The desire for deniability, because it represents a conscious choice by civilian authorities to avoid responsibility and evade accountability, and because it is therefore a subversion of the tacit contract between those who direct and those who do, deserves not to be honored by the latter, the uniformed doers.

9. Speaking out isn’t the same as speaking up.

Speaking up is what one presumably does to one’s superiors within the chain of command. Predicated on a legitimate need for candor and confidentiality, it is for private, not public, consumption. Considering that an important feature of an ideal state of civil-military relations is that senior military leaders provide sound advice — however distasteful, however controversial, however wanted or unwanted — to civilian officials, then speaking up is a moral imperative for those in uniform. It is a noble ideal that should be the expected norm for an institution that propounds such cardinal virtues as courage, honesty and integrity. But because the institution is an inherently hierarchical, authoritarian one, in which a career can be ruined by a single superior, speaking up occurs less often than uniformed professionals would care to admit. Recall the so-called “revolt” of the retired generals who, in 2006, their pensions safely in hand, called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — after, to a man, they had declined to speak up in opposition to U.S. policy (and performance) in Iraq while they were still in uniform.

For some, speaking up — or, more accurately, the pretense of speaking up — is an idealized rationalization for not speaking out. Speaking out — whatever the underlying motive — means going public, exposing to public view the dirty laundry of internal disagreement, contradiction and inconsistency that conceivably could create an appearance of fragmentation, disunity and even indiscipline.

Speaking out is generally verboten, perceived by institutional defenders as disloyalty, indiscretion, insubordination, treachery, even sedition. But this parochial, largely self-justifying perspective tends to ignore or reject the central importance of popular sovereignty (as reality, not rhetoric) and subscribes to the perverse notion that the public, having neither a need nor a right to know what its representative government is doing, must therefore invest blind trust in a congenitally secretive institution (the military) to do what is right and to make the right choices for it.

In the final analysis, the guiding rule for outspokenness by military personnel must be this: If speaking out is to be forbidden, then speaking up must be demanded (and rewarded).

10. Openly opposing policy isn’t the same as openly agreeing with policy.

It is irony become hypocrisy that whenever someone in uniform openly opposes or expresses misgivings about policy, cries of alarm erupt everywhere. Yet when uniformed personnel openly express agreement with (that is, endorse) policy, the deafening silence in all quarters suggests widespread, unequivocal acceptance from all parties involved: policymakers and pundits, reputed civil-military relations experts, and the uninitiated and trusting general public.

Politicians in fact — of every political and ideological persuasion, from both the legislative and executive branches, in office or out — welcome, encourage and actively solicit open military support of policy while abjuring any hint of military opposition (not as a matter of civil-military principle, cynics might suggest, but as a matter of raw, exploitative politics). Because of the military’s general stature in society and its presumed professional expertise, politicians regularly use those in uniform to endorse and give added legitimacy to policy preferences, while military personnel shamelessly allow themselves to be used, deluding themselves in the process into thinking that they are acting on principle rather than willfully shilling for politicians.

In the final analysis, the guiding rule here must be this: If open disagreement with policy is to be forbidden, then so too must open support of policy be.


“To exist,” said French philosopher and Nobel laureate Henri Bergson with surpassing insight, “is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.”

A healthy state of civil-military relations, if it is to be and remain healthy, must — in the manner of any individual, institution, regime or society that expects to survive — adapt to and seek to shape the inevitable change that confronts it. It is not just change, but positive change, that prefigures maturity — a higher order of being attended by learning, growth and a measure of acquired wisdom. Maturity provides the wherewithal — intellectual, emotional, bureaucratic, political — to refashion and reorient oneself in ways that enable this regenerative cycle of viable existence to continue.

With due apologies to George Bernard Shaw, it is an enduring truism that those who can, do; while those who can’t, teach. To which experience commands us to add: Those who can’t do or teach, preach. Given its penchant for preaching to others about the proper conduct of civil-military relations in a democracy, the U.S. can ill-afford not to practice what it preaches. What it practices and preaches, and no less what it thinks and says, must reflect a new level of maturity attuned to a future that is already upon us, not to a past that has passed. AFJ

GREGORY D. FOSTER is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, where he previously has served as George C. Marshall professor and as J. Carlton Ward distinguished professor and director of research. The views expressed here are his own.