President Joe Biden walks with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, left, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Vice President Kamala Harris at the Pentagon on Feb. 10.

President Joe Biden walks with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, left, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Vice President Kamala Harris at the Pentagon on Feb. 10. Lisa Ferdinando, Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs

US Civil-Military Relations Are Complicated, But Not Broken

Through the sturm und drang, it is possible to see four core truths.

A recent article in Foreign Affairs carried this shocking title: “Crisis of Command: America’s Broken Civil-Military Relationship Imperils National Security.” The piece explored the relationship between the American people and its military on many levels, citing serious problems in every area. Without “robust civilian oversight of the military,” the piece concluded, democracy and the U.S. status as a world power will be in peril. Its authors, Risa Brooks, Jim Golby, and Heidi Urben, are among the best and most prolific authors on the subject. Their thoughtful effort deserves a critical look. 

Crises come in many forms, but like the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cuban missile crisis, or the Iran-hostage saga, we generally know one when we see one. There is no crisis of command, though the civil-military relationship, fraught with friction, is often stressed. And through the sturm und drang, it is possible to see four core truths.

The first is the heavy influence of the policy environment in which civil-military relations take place. There is the perennial Article 1-Article 2 struggle between Congress and the president over the management of military affairs. Inside the Pentagon, the tides of interservice rivalry affect policy. Legal and organizational reforms can help or hinder decision-making. For example, in 1986, a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, scholars and legislators came to see the Joint Chiefs as an ineffective committee. Then-Maj. H.R. McMaster in his book, Dereliction of Duty, famously characterized them as the “five silent men” of Vietnam decision-making. In response to Vietnam and other failures, Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Among other things, it mandated a strong Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a vigorous Joint Staff to improve military advice to the Defense Secretary and input to national security decision-making. From U.S. law, high levels of friction in civil-military decision-making are not an anomaly, but a design characteristic.

Compounding all of this, we have been at war for 20 years. The long war has stressed our small, volunteer armed services and forced civilian and military leaders to make decisions measured in blood and treasure. Neither senior civilians nor high-ranking military participants are perfect. Both work where behavioral norms are often unclear. Both represent complex bureaucracies that are at odds with other parts of the government. Senior military officers are often blind to political nuance; senior civilians, often unaware of the complexities of the military planning process. Some civilian officials are not sure about where they fit into the concept of civilian control of the military. Some military officers are often wary of interacting with Washington civilians, even for routine exchanges of information.

Adding to the complexity, national security decisions today take place in an age of mass telecommunications and powerful social media. Soldiers and citizens alike are bombarded by tidal waves of information and disinformation. Scrutiny of civilian and military officials is intense and often dysfunctional. Off-the-record comments go on the record. Confidential information becomes public immediately, the most sensitive often a few days later. Executive-branch civilians and military seniors often grumble about the other leaking information, and both complain about the Congress, whose members return the favor. 

The second, related truth is that the most important aspect of civil-military relations is where presidents, cabinet officers, and the senior-most military officers come together to make the most critical decisions. The authors of “Crisis of Command” have overstated the military’s aggressiveness and power in these decisions. The article says, for example, that the officers boxed in Presidents Trump and Obama and “forced them to grudgingly accept troop surges they did not support.” 

Actually, after a contentious decision-making process, President Obama dictated the exact terms of the Afghanistan surge. He defined his decision, put it in a memorandum, and ordered his principals to accept the document. Less than 18 months later, he rejected the recommendation of his commanding general to extend the surge and began to methodically drawdown U.S. forces from 100,000 troops to 8,400 by the end of his second term. The military here can be faulted for initially providing an inadequate set of options, but in the end, President Obama sorted it out and shaped the policy he wanted. 

The authors noted that President Trump promised in his campaign to withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria “but backed off when military leaders told him that they couldn’t be done and that the policies would harm national security.” That reads like a president taking prudent military advice, not coercion. Sadly, President Trump later ordered a precipitous withdrawal from Syria with little coordination with the cabinet or the Joint Chiefs. 

As Eliot Cohen noted in Supreme Command, the civil-military conversation is an “unequal dialogue,” in which presidents should ask hard questions and have the final word. The notion of haughty, brass-hatted, senior officers demanding autonomy in military strategy or operations does not match the record of the last few decades. Presidents rightfully draw the lines between executive authority and the military’s strategic and operational freedom of action. They decide whether to grant wide freedom of action, as President George H.W. Bush did during the first Gulf War, or whether they should approve individual bombing targets, as President Lyndon B. Johnson did during the Vietnam War. 

Two more examples further support this conclusion. In 2006, President Bush overruled every senior officer in the chain of command when he insisted on the surge in Iraq, a highly successful move that helped to turn the tide of the war and facilitated U.S. withdrawal four years later. In recent months, President Joe Biden matched Bush’s decisiveness and directed the full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, again over considerable opposition from various defense, diplomatic, and intelligence officials.

The third core truth in contemporary civil-military relations is that the relationship depends on the quality of the senior military and civilian players. Poor behavior by ignorant civilian or military leaders can throw the whole civil-military relationship into disequilibrium and distrust. For example, there is no exaggerating the damage done by President Trump who trashed norms across both the domestic and foreign aspects of national security affairs. He chose James Mattis, a recently retired Marine general, to run the Pentagon. Compounding matters, Secretary Mattis reportedly favored the Joint Staff, led by his former comrade, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, over his own Policy staff. Secretary Mattis and later his successor, Mark Esper also entered into sustained bureaucratic conflict with the White House.

The White House attempted on many occasions to use the armed forces for partisan political purposes. For their part, Trump’s two confirmed defense secretaries, Mattis and Esper, tried to slow-roll or game the White House to prevent damage to traditional policies, especially in regard to U.S. allies. Both were forced to resign after resisting Trump initiatives at home or abroad. 

Late in his administration, many former senior officers who were close to Trump were also nominated for senior civilian positions. One retired Army brigadier general, Anthony Tata, who was nominated to be the Under Secretary for Policy, had his nomination pulled by the White House when his intemperate statements, unsupportable opinions, and alleged personal indiscretions came to light. Compounding his regrettable nomination, Tata was later kept on in the Pentagon in a senior civilian position in OSD Policy that did not require confirmation. Indeed, much of the current angst on civil-military issues appears to be baggage from the Trump years.

President Biden also annoyed civil-military relations experts by choosing a recently retired general, Lloyd Austin, to be Defense Secretary. Biden and Austin, however, have not repeated Trump’s violations of civil-military norms. Biden appointees are a diverse group of civilians, all with vast experience in the Pentagon. The neglect of civilians in OSD Policy has apparently come to an end. Three former Policy officials have been appointed to the highest billets: Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, Under Secretary for Policy Colin Kahl, and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. President Biden has also restored regular order to the national security decision-making process that under Trump was more honored in the breach than in the observance. Much of the frantic atmosphere in national security policy has disappeared under President Biden’s leadership.

The dramatic rise in dysfunctional partisanship in our society has created a fourth core truth in contemporary civil-military relations. When society suffers from maladies such as racism, drug abuse, and hyper-partisanship, those ills will be reflected in and around the armed forces despite the need for good order and discipline. Good civil-military relations require effective congressional oversight and for the normally conservative military to stay above partisan politics. In recent years, some members of congress and retired officers, following President Trump’s lead, have clearly attempted to politicize the military in different ways. 

Some military veterans lead this forlorn effort, stressing their uniformed service, all in an attempt to capitalize on the relatively high approval ratings of the Armed Forces. Among the most obvious is Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, whose campaign commercials and printed materials stress his status as a combat-wounded Navy SEAL. Crenshaw’s latest target is what he calls the “woke military,” the one devoted to diversity and fair treatment of all military personnel. Candidates from both parties stress their military background, and proclaim a devotion to the troops and high levels of military spending. Effective congressional oversight is drowned in partisan politics, and senior officer accountability has suffered in last two decades.

In a similar vein, the authors of “Crisis in Command” highlighted the decades-old problem of retired officers openly participating in electoral politics. Despite high levels of partisanship, they recommend that retired senior officers should behave like active duty officers, restraining their constitutional rights and refraining from political activities that “damage the military’s non-partisan ethic.” Since the 1980s, hundreds of retired senior military officers have disagreed. They have advised and publicly endorsed candidates of both parties. 

In 2016, partisan antics at party conventions reached an absurd level with Michael Flynn, a retired Army three-star, leading a chant to “lock up” Hillary Clinton. In recent days, more than 120 retired, pro-Trump, one- to three-star generals and admirals —- with an average age of 80 years of age —- signed a bitter letter criticizing President Biden over a wide, mostly non-military set of partisan political issues. 

The area of retiree behaviors needs high-level attention, but not a heavy hand. The military’s bipartisan ethic must be balanced by common-sense and careful handling of the civil rights of all concerned. To help fix this problem, however, the authors of “Crisis of Command” endorse the idea that active duty officers should levy public criticism against retired officers associated with campaigns. It is not clear how intra-military bickering would support the non-partisan ethic, but the next step they recommend would be a greater mistake. The authors also recommend—apparently setting aside the First Amendment—a law that would “institute a four-year cooling off period that would prohibit generals and admirals from making partisan endorsements immediately after retiring—similar to what it did with the lobbying efforts.” 

The antics of Flynn and company aside, it is difficult to document harm to the nation done by the participation of retired senior officers on the margins of electoral politics. Would we better off if the experience and wisdom of retired senior officers were kept from candidates vying to become the next president? Surely, there must be ways that retired officers can participate in electoral campaigns without damaging the non-partisan ethic of the current force. In my view, responsible citizenship demands sensible participation by retired military personnel in civic affairs. 

There are any number of sane policies that can improve civil-military relations without violating the Constitution. As noted in “Crisis of Command,” the participation by active and retired service members —- from admirals and generals to junior enlisted personnel —- in social media and political affairs is crying out for better guidance. On higher-level concerns, this guidance could come in the form of a Joint Chiefs of Staff publication on professionalism, essential values, civilian control of the military, and the non-partisan ethic. A code of conduct might be too strong of a characterization for this document, but an authoritative paper defining the non-partisan ethic and behavioral recommendations would be helpful, especially for those at the top of the profession. The use of social media by active duty personnel can raise problems and merits separate guidance documents.

In the end, these policy recommendations will help civil and military participants define expectations and refine behaviors. They will not change, however, the nature of civil-military relations at the highest levels of the government. Those relations will continue to be complex and contentious. This was true under the last three presidents, and it will remain so, even in the calmer policy atmosphere fostered by President Biden. 

For serving and retired officers, there may be no better civil-military advice than Elihu Root gave at the dedication of the Army War College in 1908: “Do not cease to be citizens of the United States. The conditions of Army life are such as to narrow your views. Strive to broaden your sympathies by mingling with those outside of the service and learning from them the things they can teach you. As you are good soldiers, be good citizens.” 

Joseph J. Collins is a retired Army officer with over 25 years in Washington, including service on the Army staff, in the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and two tours in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Policy. From 2001-04, he served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations. He has taught strategy and international relations at West Point, the National War College, and Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. A life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he holds a doctorate in political science from Columbia University. 

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