President-elect Donald Trump’s announcement that he intends to nominate retired Marine General James Mattis as his secretary of defense has drawn criticism from those who fear that installing a retired officer in the Pentagon would jeopardize civilian control of the military. Those critics are mistaken. Previous service in uniform shouldn’t disqualify nominees, and, as the Iraq war demonstrated, civilians with no military experience are perfectly capable of making catastrophic mistakes themselves.
It is a mystery how a phrase that is both as ungrammatical and incorrect as “civilian control of the military” has become so widely accepted. First the grammar—“military” is an adjective, not a noun. The institution is the “armed forces.” When used correctly, the adjective raises real issues—“the military mind,” or “the military-industrial complex,” for example. Used in sloppy fashion as a noun, the word evokes a somewhat sinister blob of an institution, attitude, culture, and pressure group.
The more important misconception is “civilian control.” The principle worth defending is “democratic political control.” The armed forces are one of the most powerful institutions in any country—they are armed, organized, and powerful. In all dictatorships, they are used not just to deter or fight external threats, but to protect the government from and often to oppress the country’s citizens. In some weak democracies, they have deposed governments. One of the most essential characteristics of a democratic government is the ability to ensure that the armed forces are used only for the purposes ordered by democratically elected leaders. Democratic political control is achieved not by certain officials wearing suits rather than uniforms, it is assured by constitutional and legal processes ensuring that elected leaders in the executive and legislative branches have the ultimate authority over how the power of the armed forces is used.
Within the executive branch, it is the president, the senior elected official, who is the commander in chief, giving overall direction as well as specific orders for the use of military force. The Congress provides or withholds the funding both for the maintenance of the armed forces and for their specific employment. Congress confirms the appointment of top officials of the Department of Defense, as well as the promotion of every single uniformed officer, from ensigns and second lieutenants through four-star generals and admirals. The judicial branch even plays a role, as suits can be, and often are, brought in local, state, and federal courts against individual and official actions of members of the armed forces.
It is these constitutional and legal processes that ensure that the American armed forces serve the best interests of American citizens, not the work experience of the elected or appointed officials themselves. Some of America’s finest presidents and congressional leaders and their appointed staffs have had extensive military experience themselves; some have not.
The most egregious and tragic military mistake of recent years was invading Iraq in 2003 without a robust plan for restoring its economy, government, and social structure. This mistake was made entirely by civilians who were in firm control of the armed forces, had little to no military experience, but had unwarranted self-confidence in their own judgment. The uniformed military leadership attempted on numerous occasions to develop a plan to rebuild Iraq, but the secretary of defense and his appointed civilian staff refused to consider it.
Beyond the constitutional and legal processes, another democratic American safeguard is the ethos of the American officer corps. American officers are drawn from all socio-economic classes of society. They have advocated and actively carried out programs to widen the participation of minority groups in the armed forces. They are widely and deeply educated, and they are generally (the Iraq war decisions were an exception) actively and privately involved in the major political-military decisions of the country. They know the importance of popular support for the armed forces, and they know the penalties in blood and treasure that are paid when the armed forces go into combat with unclear missions, and with thin and mistaken popular understanding and support.
An experienced, thoughtful, respected retired military leader is an excellent candidate for the important position of secretary of defense. The job is a broad one, requiring instincts and skills in areas of management of large organizations, budget, social issues, technology, congressional and public relations, and working with international allies and partners. No single individual, whether a retired military officer, businessman, or congressional leader, will know all these areas well. It is up to him or her or to recruit and lead a team with the collective ability to lead and manage wisely the millions of military and civilian workers in the Department of Defense, spend the hundreds of billions of defense dollars, and cooperate with the rest of the government to protect and advance security of the United States. A nominated official for the position of secretary of defense should be judged on the basis of potential to play that role, and should not be disqualified for having served as a military officer.