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Failed Expectations: The Crisis of Civil-Military Relations in America

How much longer will it be before the American people awaken to the realization that we are confronted today by a crisis in civil-military relations? How many more unseemly and embarrassing incidents and abuses of public trust involving the military will it take to make us see that the failings of the military, egregious enough in themselves, are simply the most telltale signs of a larger crisis that has enormous implications for our national security?

No single incident of late—not the highly publicized dismissal from the Air Force of Lieutenant Kelly Flinn, or the adultery-related withdrawal of General Joseph Ralston from consideration as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the multiple charges of sexual misconduct against the sergeant major of the army, or the ongoing series of court-martial trials of army trainers for massive sexual abuse at Aberdeen Proving Ground and Darmstadt, Germany—constitutes a crisis in and of itself. But these events are not isolated aberrations. They are part of a far larger pattern of institutional misbehavior that includes the security and intelligence lapses that produced the Khobar Towers truck bombing in Saudi Arabia, the safety and equipment failures that led to the deaths of the secretary of commerce and 34 others in a plane crash in Croatia, the suicide of a chief of naval operations who faced allegations that he had been wearing unauthorized combat decorations, white supremacist elements in one of our most “elite” combat divisions, the rapes of young girls by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa and Australia, general officers misappropriating military aircraft for personal and family use, the profligate procurement of gold-plated weapon systems that have failed major performance tests, revelations that the Pentagon may have withheld and distorted information dealing both with the exposure of perhaps thousands of soldiers to depleted uranium munitions and chemical agents and with the performance of expensive armaments in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and countless other breaches of the public trust.

At one level, such recurring incidents typify a military institution that (as distinct from the individuals who constitute it) is seriously diseased—characterized not by an ethos of duty, honor, and country, but by parochialism, a steady undercurrent of chest-thumping machismo, and a disturbing degree of self-serving advocacy and duplicity.

At a deeper level, these events reflect a breakdown among the three parties to the triad of civil-military relations: the military itself; the civilian officials who ostensibly control the military; and the people, who bear ultimate responsibility under republican rule for overseeing the military’s civilian overseers.

It may not be at all clear how—or even whether—to cure the military’s ills. Judging from the feeble response to date of the country’s most senior decisionmakers, both civilian and military, it isn’t even clear that they recognize, much less are willing to admit and deal with, the problem. (Perhaps that is because they are so much the culprits themselves.) The start of a solution, though, must rest with our collective ability as a nation to discover the source of the disease rather than simply acknowledging its most obvious symptoms. And the source of the disease lies deep: in the expectations the three parties involved have of one another and in their uniform failure to measure up.

Civilian Leaders and the Military

What are these expectations? To the practiced observer, they are obvious. For their part, civilian officials, presidents in particular, expect two things above all else from the military. The first is operational competence—the ability to accomplish assigned missions, whatever they may be. The second is sound advice. Of course, there are no clearly objective bases for determining what constitutes either. Both are inherently subjective and depend ultimately on the powers of discernment possessed by those who make such judgments. An uninformed observer—whether political appointee or average citizen—devoid of military understanding, especially of the strategic ramifications of military affairs, is fundamentally ill-equipped to distinguish a military that is doing well what it should be doing from one that is doing either the right thing badly or the wrong thing satisfactorily. We see and hear much of this today from those in authority who, wishing to establish their bona fides, incessantly mouth the platitudes of militarese—”readiness,” “op tempo,” “warfighting”—without having the first demonstrable clue as to what militaries actually do or ought to do, much less how.

Soundness of advice similarly may have much—or little—to do with how broad (strategic) or narrow (purely military) the advice is, whether it reinforces or runs counter to what its recipients want to hear, or whether it truly determines results that are subject to so many other intervening influences. Success or failure, in other words—whether in policy or operations, whether in Bosnia or Aberdeen Proving Ground, whether concerned with NATO expansion or the treatment of homosexuals—may bear little direct relationship to the soundness of advice that precedes action (or inaction).

Beyond expecting operational competence and sound advice, civilian officials give ample evidence that they expect three other things from their uniformed charges. First, they expect generally unquestioning obedience, not merely to legitimate political direction, but to the full range of civilian dictates and desires (however frivolous, ill-conceived, or self-serving). By this line of reasoning, even responsible dissent is considered disobedience. And no task—ushering at the White House, for instance—is considered too inconsequential to direct dutiful military personnel to perform. Second, they expect a measure of political sensitivity that takes the form, if not of outright docility, at least of responsible enough conduct to avoid becoming a political liability. And finally, they expect sufficient affordability not to visibly drain resources from other political priorities.

The military, in turn, expects several things from civilian officials generally and presidents specifically. The most important, executive competence, reflects the degree to which civilian decisionmakers demonstrate the cardinal leadership traits of courage, decisiveness, integrity, and vision in sufficient measure to earn the deference the military expects, and is expected, to give.

No less, though, does the military seek from its civilian masters clear strategic guidance—an unambiguous articulation of national purpose, direction, and priorities that charts the country’s course into the future. Such guidance, when available, transcends and provides an antidote to the momentary imperatives of expediency that pervade the policy process. It also establishes a rational basis for allocating national resources, preventing constant crisis, determining military requirements, and justifying the use or nonuse of the military under particular circumstances. It thereby assures the military and the public that those in charge know what they are doing, understand the complexities of the world around them, and are motivated by something more consequential than self-interest.

Executive competence and clear strategic guidance represent the high end of the military’s expectations of civilian officials and are only rarely delivered. Politics doesn’t ensure competence in actual governing—as many in office regularly demonstrate. Moreover, politicians typically show little inclination, even if they are able, to produce the sort of specific blueprint for action that opponents could use to hold them accountable for their performance.

Accordingly, the military generally is content to limit its expectations of civilian officials to two minimal obligations. The first is appreciation and support—if not understanding—of the military’s purposes and uses, its capabilities and limitations, its needs and concerns, and its value to society. The second is sufficient political acumen to get things done, properly and effectively, in the messy, frustratingly pluralistic worlds of domestic and international politics.

The military’s expectation that civilian officials show appreciation and support is, in a deeper sense, a desire that the civilians who command its allegiance display enough reciprocal loyalty and familiarity with military affairs to give them empathetic license for exercising the martial prerogatives of the state. And if the military, socialized as it is to prize order and efficiency, is rightly to stay out of politics—at least of the low, partisan variety—the least politicians can do is to practice the requisite statesmanship to make the system work the way civic indoctrination has convinced us it can and should.

The Military and the People

No less telling in their impact on the attitudes, comportment, and performance of the armed forces are the military’s expectations of the people. Though hoping for true appreciation, the military expects the support of the citizenry—if only as psychological recompense for the sacrifices the military sees itself making—but seems willing to accept mere noninterference in its professional affairs as a minimal reflection of public trust. The military also seems to expect civic commitment and public order from the people as essential signs of the public’s willingness to meet the obligations of citizenship (preferably of the compliant, deferential kind).

The people seem to share with civilian officials the expectation that the military provide operational competence and sound advice—although the public’s powers of discernment and judgment, as well as the concomitant good-faith willingness to forsake the rights to know about and speak out on allegedly sensitive national security matters, vary widely. Thus given to more-or-less blind trust in those who profess to serve them, the people therefore also implicitly ask that their military maintain strict political neutrality—distancing itself from partisan politics, staying out of domestic affairs—and that military personnel conform to the highest standards of ethical and legal conduct, even if the international environment in which they may have to operate is the Hobbesian jungle realists tell us it is and must be.

Civilian Leaders and the People

What is not so clear is what civilian officials and the people expect of one another and, moreover, where Congress fits in the equation—whether as extension and voice of the people, as representative of an elitist political class that consorts with executive branch officials over the heads of the people, or as an independent force with its own agenda, perspective, and expertise. One would like to think that the people (including Congress) expect civilian officials to demonstrate executive competence, provide clear strategic guidance, and serve the public interest unconditionally; and that civilian officials, in turn, expect active, knowledgeable civic participation for the common good from the people. A more cynical view, tempered by experience, suggests that what both parties ought to seek from the other is quite the opposite of what they actually do expect or want.

Today precious few of the mutual expectations the three parties to the civil-military relationship have of one another are being met. From these failed expectations flows the crisis that now afflicts us. Ideally the military would be a useful, usable instrument of national power that facilitates the attainment of the country’s strategic goals, as well as a socially, politically, and economically responsible institution that contributes to the preservation and functioning of civil society. Civilian authorities would establish definitive strategic purpose and direction for the country, effectively manage events and circumstances, and exercise responsible military oversight. The people would be civically engaged and employ reasoned judgment to rigorously oversee the military’s overseers.

Reality has fallen well short of this ideal. Civilian officials, increasingly devoid of firsthand or even derivative military experience (a general portent of the future that has been especially pronounced in the Clinton administration), have shown commensurately little faculty for critical discernment in military matters. Having further been consistently less than adroit in the larger conduct of international affairs, they have failed to engender the minimal credibility necessary to compensate for their military illiteracy. Instead they have feigned understanding and support—first, by invariably deferring to established military practices and preferences; second, by shamelessly invoking insider rhetoric, not only to mask their substantive shortcomings, but also to counter prospective criticism and to ingratiate themselves with potentially restive military elements.

At the same time, under the guise of urgency and national self-defense, these civilian officials have perpetuated the practice common to all recent presidencies of repeatedly circumventing—or at least outmaneuvering—Congress in committing U.S. troops abroad. Bosnia, and the accompanying promise—deceitful and unfulfilled—to pull U.S. troops out within a year of their deployment, is but the most glaring recent example. The result has been a progressive, largely subliminal diminution of effective civilian control of the military. The military—parochial to a fault, insatiably greedy for resources and the expensive appurtenances of its craft, disturbingly politicized at the top, and beset by a largely unrecognized but nonetheless real and pervasive civic illiteracy within its own ranks—has made the most of its practiced bureaucratic and political survival skills. While ostensibly accepting a variety of nontraditional assignments that its core true believers consider extraneous and burdensome—peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and the like—and while zealously trumpeting itself as the revolutionary vanguard for a new age of third-wave, fourth-generation cyberwar, the military has remained mired in a hidebound conception of war and self whose central tenets are only too familiar: war is inevitable; peace, never but a temporary respite, is a function of one’s readiness for war; war is traditional combat; victory in war goes to the party most proficient in the application of violence; the military exists solely to prepare for and wage war; the profession of arms therefore occupies privileged standing and subscribes to a superior ethos which should be immune from the meddling scrutiny of unworthy amateurs.

Such beliefs, deeply ingrained in the thinking of uniformed professionals and their most ardent acolytes (including more than a few on Capitol Hill), have led the military to continue preparing, as always, for the wars of the past; to deny the relevance of—and therefore to be generally unprepared for—the many contemporary contingencies that do not conform to the traditional model of war; and, accordingly, to give experience-impaired civilian officials little strategic maneuver room in responding to emergent crises between the equally unpalatable options of inaction and failure. These same beliefs, because they reflect something deeper about the types of individuals the institution attracts and rewards in fulfilling its sense of mission and self, also have contributed materially to the military’s incessant incident proneness. Such incidents constitute a form of collective institutional disobedience apparently too subtle for most of us to recognize for what it is—the outgrowth of an institution that has lost its identity, that no longer has confidence in or respect for those it is supposed to serve.

The people, finally—increasingly disenchanted, cynical, and alienated, and captive still of the Cold War mentality that convinced them they endanger the republic by knowing too much about or questioning the methods or motives of their military and its civilian masters—evince varying degrees of apathy, hostility, and distrust, all of which undermine national will, societal civility, and the very life of democracy itself. Congress, in turn, far from fulfilling the republican ideal, has generally set itself above the people and repeatedly shown its cultivated incapacity as a deliberative body, as an effective check on presidential excess, and as a representative voice for popular sovereignty.

In their totality, these conditions call to mind the facetious Cold War aphorism that under communism the workers pretend to work, and the state pretends to pay them. Similarly might it be said that under post Cold War American democracy, civilians pretend to control the military, and the military pretends to be controlled.

The implications of this are profound. In the final analysis, the very viability and vitality of the institutions that make up the civil-military triad—their capacity, that is, to cope with and act purposefully on their governing domestic and international environments—depend fundamentally on their ability to measure up to the expectations they have of one another. When these expectations are met, the social glue of trust and confidence that results produces bona fide moral authority. The attendant mutual credibility, acceptance, and legitimation thus engender the unity—of purpose, effort, and action—so essential to executive energy, able governance, and overall strategic effectiveness.

Conversely, when these mutual expectations go unmet, the result almost invariably is alienation, distrust, disunity—and, ultimately, strategic debilitation. We are at that point today—notwithstanding our self-absorbed, chest-thumping claims to Lone Superpower status. If we don’t act quickly to reverse the situation, we will pay the price in ways that will leave us to reminisce about the glory we once enjoyed.

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