Civil-Military Relations in Democracies Today

The Culture of Military Bureaucracy: Civil-Military Relations in Democracies Today

Gregory D. Foster

Are military professionals unaware of their own civic and strategic illiteracy?

One of the most significant issues facing any democracy today, not least the United States, is the current state of civil-military relations. Why should the relationship between the military and society be of such concern to us? There are two principal reasons.

First, the military’s relationship to civilian authorities and to society more generally lies at the very heart of what democracy is all about. Democracy, Harry Truman suggested, is “based on the conviction that man has the moral and intellectual capacity, as well as the inalienable right, to govern himself with reason and justice.” By the same token, what defines the state, Max Weber observed, is government’s monopoly of the legitimate possession and use of force. The military is the principal embodiment of state-centered and -controlled violence. Thus, in a form of government where the people are supposed to rule, civilian supremacy over the military is essential; it is an ethical imperative. Where this relationship fails or falters, the very end of government–“the common benefit, protection, and security of the people,” as the Virginia bill of rights first enjoined–stands in jeopardy.

Second, the three parties to the civil-military relationship–the military, its civilian masters, and the people themselves–are bound to one another by social contract. “The first principle of a civilized state,” said Walter Lippmann, “is that power is legitimate only when it is under contract.” A social contract is a mutually binding, though a tacit, set of expectations, obligations, and rights. Because it depends on the ability–and, more importantly, the willingness–of the parties involved to live up to their end of the unwritten bargain, it is, in every sense, an ethical compact.

What Society Expects of the Military

What do civilian authorities and the people more generally expect of the military as part of this compact?

Operational Competence

Above all else, they expect operational competence–the ability of the military to fulfill its mission, to get the job done, to accomplish all tasks assigned (even those that are only implied). The generally unrecognized question this raises is how we judge or measure operational competence: whether in terms of strategic effectiveness or mere military effectiveness. The importance of this question lies in the military’s institutional preference–and frequently its insistence–that it be given only purely “military” tasks to perform, that it not be expected to do things that aren’t properly military, and that it be judged accordingly.

Yet in the postmodern, media age in which we now live, we do well to realize that military effectiveness is not synonymous with–and may even be antithetical to–strategic effectiveness. A military, for example, that is structured, equipped, trained, and psychologically prepared to wage war, ostensibly for the purpose of securing peace, but that thereby feeds the insecurity and militarization of others, is strategically dysfunctional. A military prepared only for the conduct of traditional conventional war that thereby can’t (or seeks not to) be used at all when confronted by forms of conflict and violence unlike traditional war, or, when thus used, either repeatedly fails or wreaks casualties and destruction out of all proportion to the stakes at hand, also is strategically dysfunctional. A military charged with maintaining internal domestic security that, in the process, quashes civil liberties, may undermine the state’s ability to act strategically by destroying the public trust and confidence in governmen t so essential to social cohesion and national will.

Is this what we want in a democracy? Is it what we must accept as the price of maintaining a permanent military establishment (what George Washington called a “permanent peace establishment”)? Clearly not. In seeking operational competence from the military, we must ask whether the true purpose of the military–ours or that of any country–is to prepare for and wage war, to prevent war, to provide for the common defense, to secure and preserve peace, or something else even more ambiguously defined. These are fundamentally different aims, each calling for a qualitatively different force to achieve it. And because ours, like most others, is a distinctly war-making military, we similarly must question the deeply ingrained belief that the best, if not the only, way to secure peace is to prepare for war. For too long we have uncritically accepted this classical shibboleth as received truth. The result, arguably, has been the opposite of the permanent universal peace we (knowingly or unknowingly) want.

Sound Advice

A second thing civilians expect of the military is sound advice–rendering the best possible professional judgment to the elected and appointed civilian authorities who are supposed to be accountable for the country’s security. Again, though, are we talking about military advice or strategic advice? Should the military be in the business of providing essentially unbounded strategic counsel–on matters related to national aims, options, priorities, and justifications for action or inaction–or restrict itself to more narrowly circumscribed military matters?

The answer has much to do with the fact that in the United States, to be sure, but also in other mature democracies, the politicians who enter office today–and who are expected to provide overarching direction for the country–are increasingly devoid not only of military experience and understanding but of strategic understanding as well. Were it otherwise, perhaps Congress wouldn’t have considered it necessary to pass a Government Performance and Results Act in 1993 or, before that, to mandate in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act an annual White House national security strategy report. The members of this professional political class frequently can’t answer even the “little” questions of what a military is for, what it can do, or what makes it tick, much less the “bigger” questions of what a military should be for, why, and to what effect. Such willful ignorance logically might be expected to lead to the neglect or abuse of the military. Yet, ironically, in our country the Clinton admin istration and the current Congress have shown that the result may well be an over-indulgence of the military–evidenced by the continued profligacy of defense spending–as well as a cavalier overuse of armed force for nonstrategic reasons of rank political expediency and convenience.

Is it incumbent upon–or even appropriate for–the military to attempt to fill the crucial intellectual void that exists (especially if the military frequently profits from the ignorance and self-interested motives of its overseers)? Certainly conventional wisdom has it that strategy is a natural organic part of the military’s intellectual domain. Then again, perhaps there is an intellectual threshold beyond which many military professionals cannot transform themselves into true strategic thinkers capable of dealing effectively with grand ideas. These are individuals, after all, who have grown up in a hierarchical institution governed by an ethos of obedience to authority, who have been forced to think technically and tactically, and who prize action over reflection to an even more pronounced degree than society at large.

A more commonly expressed fear, frequently (but certainly not exclusively) embraced by those who conflate the strategic and the political, is that permitting, or even encouraging, the military to be too centrally involved in determining national aims and priorities is tantamount to politicizing the military, militarizing society, and creating the equivalent of a garrison state. This, of course, is the enduring fear that shadows all democracies, especially those we might characterize as nascent, transitional, or imperfect–whether Nigeria or Indonesia, Poland or South Africa, even Israel or Turkey.

But anyone even remotely aware of how thoroughly any propensity for the military overthrow of government has been socialized out of the US officer corps will be quick to see that this is an unfounded fear in the United States. Otherwise, we might expect at least an occasional senior-officer resignation over matters of principled disagreement with civilian authorities. Moreover, if we truly had a military that was strategically oriented–a less blunt, more precise and discriminating instrument of power–led by strategically-minded senior officers, the perceived threat would be even less worrisome.

Political Neutrality

Third, civilians also expect the military to be politically neutral–to remain above the unseemly expediency, favoritism, and self-interested deal making of low, partisan politics. Does that mean staying out of the high politics of statecraft as well? It shouldn’t. Let us first concede the impossibility of staying out of politics altogether. Even the public professions that most sanctimoniously trumpet their aversion to and distance from all things political–the military, the foreign service, the intelligence corps–thrive on the cutthroat bureaucratic politics of institutional natural selection. As Theodore White has observed, “Politics in America is the binding secular religion.” It defines who we are as a people; it energizes us; it is, more than we care to admit, our spiritual sustenance. But more importantly, there is a qualitative difference of purpose and orientation between low and high politics, probably best put by the career bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey Appleby, in the former BBC television series, ” Yes, Prime Minister,” “Diplomacy,” he said, “is about surviving until the next century; politics is about surviving until Friday.”

From Washington through Eisenhower and Marshall, Americans have long revered the soldier-statesmen in our midst–uniformed professionals endowed not only with the expertise and virtues of their calling, but with the requisite political sophistication to appreciate the larger ramifications of their actions and to participate as intellectual equals in the highest policy councils. Today, given the convergence that has occurred between the strategic and tactical realms of statecraft–where the seemingly most insignificant incident in the remotest comer of the globe can have almost instantaneous strategic ramifications–the need for diplomats in khaki is every bit as great as that for diplomats in pinstripes.

No longer are there “great wars” that provide a natural proving ground for the emergence of soldier-statesmen. Instead, we have desultory minor wars, whose frequency, persistence, and cumulative effects call for–but don’t as a rule naturally call forth–even greater men and women. What we perhaps now need, therefore, is to nurture a new breed of statesmen-soldiers–individuals in uniform who, as a routine feature of their professional development, are thoroughly schooled in the diplomatic arts, intimately familiar with foreign cultures, and practiced in the principles of statecraft.

Social Responsibility

Finally, civilians expect the military to be socially responsible–to be an institution that not only gets the job done operationally, but that does so in a manner that contributes to, or at least doesn’t undermine, the values and institutions of civil society. This imperative assumes heightened, even overriding, importance when the military is employed in response to domestic emergencies such as terrorism or drug trafficking. Moreover, recent rulings by the European Court of Justice that prompted the lifting of bans against homosexuals in the British military and women in the German armed forces seem to typify increasingly global demands for socially responsible military behavior.

George Washington put things in proper perspective in saying: “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” In this country, none among us are purely professional soldiers. Those in uniform are–or should be–professional citizen-soldiers whose first allegiance, of democratic necessity, must be to the society they represent and serve, not to the institution to which they belong. When the military becomes alienated from–and unrepresentative of–society; when its members talk the talk of moral superiority but fail, in incident after incident, to walk the walk; when they evince a civic illiteracy no less pronounced and troubling than the military illiteracy they decry in their civilian political masters, the stage is set for a crisis in civil-military relations.

A Civil-Military Crisis?

Do we have such a crisis today? There are two schools of thought on the subject, joined for some time now in lively debate. The most forceful arguments that there is a crisis have come from journalists Thomas Ricks of The Washington Post and James Kitfield of National Journal. Ricks contends that the military is becoming increasingly politicized and conservative, that there thus has been a disturbing decline in military professionalism, and that there is a widening gap in experiences and values between the military and society. He quotes retired Admiral Stanley Arthur, who commanded US naval forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War:

Today the armed forces are no longer representative of the people they serve. More and more, enlisted (men and women) as well as officers are beginning to feel that they are special, better than the society they serve. This is not healthy in an armed force serving a democracy.

Kitfield has echoed this position in referring to the “nearly unbridgeable cultural divide” between America’s military and civilian leaders. “By nearly every measurement–recruitment, retention, equipment modernization, morale, readiness to fight–the all-volunteer force,” he claims, “is in trouble…and those troubles can best be traced to the increasingly uneasy intersection of the military and mainstream American society.” He quotes former Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) chairman, General John Shalikashvili: “I share deeply the concern that we are living though a period when the gap between the American people and their military is getting wider.”

On the other side of the argument, current JCS chairman, General Henry Shelton, has stated: “There is a bond–mutual respect–between our citizens and the military that few other nations can match.” “There has been a great deal written recently,” he continues, “about the military becoming isolated from society. While I understand the concerns, I do not believe the people who wear the uniform of the United States are disconnected from the rest of American society or are in danger of becoming isolated.”

Similarly, John Hillen, an analyst formerly with the Council on Foreign Relations, has taken the position that “the so-called gap between American society and its military…has been misidentified and highly oversold.” He asks the question, “Is there really a fundamental, irreconcilable, and ultimately dangerous gap in values between America and its military?” To which he replies:

No doubt the values, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that define the culture of military organizations are different from the culture of society in general. But I believe that most of America appreciates that difference, recognizing that the unique values and attributes of military culture are an occupational necessity for an institution tasked with winning under the unnatural stresses of war.

There obviously are defensible, well-reasoned arguments on both sides of this debate. What we should not do is reject out of hand the proposition that there is a gap between the military and society, or that we have a crisis on our hands. It could be that there is a crisis that demands our attention, but we just haven’t been perceptive enough to recognize it for what it is. In other words, this may not be a crisis in the conventional sense–not, that is, a sudden occurrence of potentially catastrophic proportions that creates public alarm and commands urgent response from anxiety-ridden decision makers at the helm of government. On the contrary, it may be rather more like a barely noticed lymphoma or termite infestation that feeds on itself and destroys silently from within.

Needed: Strategic Leadership

Managing this gap between the military and society, to the extent that it exists, is a task for strategic leadership at both the institutional and national levels. Strategic leader-ship, in contrast to normal, garden-variety leadership, is a distinctively intellectual enterprise. It is not about position or those intangibles that otherwise invest one with authority–charisma, presence, eloquence, expertise, and the like. Its defining characteristic is vision–“the art of seeing things invisible,” in Jonathan Swift’s words. Vision is more, though, than just an ability to see what others can’t or won’t see, more than just discernment and imagination. It is every bit as much about courage and initiative–the willingness to go out on a limb, to step outside established norms, and to do so ahead of the herd, without prodding, when it isn’t the accepted thing to do.

Precisely because prophets–heretics, iconoclasts, mustangs–are so often without honor in their own land, where acceptance, recognition, and respect mean the most to most of us, the person possessed of new ideas or different ways of thinking or acting must have courage if she is to take the initiative of speaking out and trying to raise the consciousness of the intellectual and spiritual sheep who surround us. Thucydides, in “The Funeral Oration of Pericles,” drew this link between vision and courage: “But the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it.”

An Ethical Danger and Challenge for Democracy

The greatest danger ahead for the United States, if the strategic leaders among us fail to recognize and manage whatever gap may have developed between the military and society, is that uniformed professionals will become more estranged and progressively less responsive to the broader needs and aims of the county; that the military, complacent in the misplaced belief that the future necessarily must be a continuation of the past, will fulfill its own unprophetic prophecy and flounder in self-induced entropy; and that its members, thinking themselves morally superior to the rest of society and technically superior to civilian decision makers who do not understand them, yet unaware of their own civic and strategic illiteracy, will equate the national interest with the self-interest of the institution. The flip side of this–a danger of no less consequence–is that the military’s civilian overseers, increasingly devoid of military experience and understanding, will defer unquestioningly to military judgment, thu s turning the democratic ideal of civilian supremacy into a political reality of civilian subjugation and strategic incapacitation.

The challenge before us as Americans, therefore, is to demand the cultural reformation of the military–the displacement of the bureaucratic ethos that now defines the institution by one that nurtures strategic thinking, responsible dissent, and the development of strategic leaders who possess the intellectual wherewithal to prevail over the complexity, uncertainty, and turbulence of the world we now face without sacrificing democracy in the process.

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, Washington, DC, where he previously has served as George C. Marshall Professor and J. Carlton Ward Distinguished Professor and director of research.

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