Do our generals and admirals like war too much?

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley arrive to the 19th annual September 11 observance ceremony at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., September 11, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott

President Trump recently accused the nation’s military leaders of having a collective proclivity to want to perpetuate endless wars. Even if his degree of nastiness is uniquely Trump’ian, he is not the only one to express similar fears of late. Others worry that the real problem today in civil-military relations is that the armed forces are becoming too close to Trump, especially as seen in the Washington, D.C. protest controversy following the tragic killing of George Floyd. Still others worry that generals and admirals are becoming too powerful or too political in the modern era.

It is always important to ask such questions in a democracy built in part on the firm principle of civilian control of the military. That said, I do not believe that we have lost control of our military or that modern military leaders have become such a strong, cohesive, and tendentious group as to bias the country toward an overmilitarized foreign policy.

In understanding the military’s role in policy debates, it is crucial to recognize that, in complex wars of the type we have generally experienced in recent decades, politics and military issues are interwoven. That has been true in places including Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan where nation-building was part of the mission. In such situations, and numerous other types of wars, the relationships between acceptable military costs and preferred political outcomes must be constantly scrutinized and reevaluated. Because of these interrelationships, there is no clear bright line between technical military decisionmaking and political decisions about whether and how to fight wars. Officers and civilians will inevitably step on each other’s toes in the development, implementation, and evaluation of policy. Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s ideal of the professional, technical soldier who is left to win the nation’s wars provided that he or she stays out of strategic decisionmaking therefore does not seem truly realistic.

Fortunately, today there are no modern Douglas MacArthurs or Curtis LeMays pushing the limits of what the armed forces should do in the policymaking realm, as when the former advocated threatening China with nuclear attack in the Korean War or the latter advocated bombing Soviet positions in the Cuban missile crisis. Consider a few more recent examples.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell publicly disagreed with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright over whether to intervene in the Bosnian civil war in the early 1990s. But given the absence of any compelling plan for how to intervene successfully, Powell’s reservations were understandable, especially coming from a military that had been through the terrible experience of Vietnam only two decades before. Nor did Powell ever imply the military would fail to obey orders if and when they were issued by President Bill Clinton.

In the next decade, General David Petraeus commanded the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan but did not, of course, force them on anyone. Nor did the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen. In fact it was President George W. Bush, with the assistance of National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and others, who truly devised and owned the policy — not only legally and constitutionally, but intellectually as well.

General Stanley McChrystal asked for more forces for Afghanistan only after he himself was tasked by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates with doing a zero-based assessment of what the mission there might require when McChrystal took command in 2009. And again, it was President Barack Obama, not any military officer or organization, who had decided that Afghanistan should become a higher military priority for the United States. Military commanders (and ambassadors and other senior officials) in Afghanistan gave hopeful narratives about what new strategies there could perhaps accomplish over the years, but they were not deceptive in how they reported the facts. The Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” got this central fact wrong, in my view.

Military leaders like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford asked for more budgetary resources for the military from time to time — but acknowledged that the nation’s fiscal deficit needed to be viewed as a national security concern as well.

When Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten was commander of Strategic Command, and was asked in 2017 what he would do if President Trump gave him an illegal order to launch a nuclear attack, he wisely retorted that he would talk to the president and they’d figure out a legal option and then the military would execute that. The previous year, before Trump was president, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey said that “if an order is illegal or immoral, we should and would resign” — exactly the right answer, once such an order is given. Retired general Jim Mattis was careful not to invoke his military credentials when playing the role of civilian secretary of defense in the Trump administration and was careful to be deferential to the president — and to resign when he felt he could no longer do so in good conscience. These are the kinds of roles that senior military officers should play in a democratic constitutional order in which they are rightly subordinate to the nation’s civilian leaders.

Retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn was wrong to appear at Trump campaign rallies and wrong to support the anti-Hillary shouts of “lock her up.” But he was an extreme outlier in modern times.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper both made mistakes in the early days after the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. General Milley (rather inadvertently) wore combat fatigues to accompany President Trump in a cynical push through peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square, outside the White House. Secretary Esper talked publicly about the need to dominate the country’s urban “battlespace” during that same period of unrest. But both were called to account by numerous critics — Democrats as well as Republicans, civilians as well as retired military leaders. It appears they learned their lesson. Both opposed invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops to quell protests in the spring of 2020, even when the president appeared to favor such an option, and Milley later publicly apologized for his role in the Lafayette Square episode.

We would be wrong to put our military leaders on pedestals and assume that they can solve the nation’s problems on their own. But I see no evidence they are trying to hoodwink the country into following some predetermined and overmilitarized foreign policy. President Trump has that one wrong.