The Dangerous Civilian-Military Chasm In America

Photograph Source: Matt Hecht – Public Domain

Several weeks ago, the mainstream media carried a statement from eight former secretaries of defense and five retired four-star generals that stated the obvious: military officers have a duty to support and defend the Constitution.  The statement credited the “civil-military system” with the ability to “respond quickly to defend the nation in times of crisis.”  On January 6, 2021, however, the civil-military system deliberated for hours while a seditious mob attacked the Capitol, the citadel of freedom in the United States.  We still do not know who was responsible for this failure to act.  Nor do we know who was responsible for deleting messages from the cell phones of high-ranking officials at the Secret Service, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security.

The statement mentioned above was particularly weak in view of the fact that a year ago more than 100 retired U.S. general and flag officers signed an open letter that accused President Joe Biden of installing “a Marxist form of tyrannical government.”  This partisan invective was signed by retired military officers who violated the norms of their profession and contributed to the erosion of healthy civil-military relations in the United States.  It is particularly shocking that, at a time when American society is reeling from extreme partisan polarization, members of the retired military community have fallen prey to conspiracy myths.

One of the greatest weaknesses of presidential leadership over the past 60 years has been the lack of presidential experience in the military and the inability to control the military.  Several weeks before his seminal Farewell Address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told his senior advisers in the White House, “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.”  His successors have been deferential to the military and too many of them have used military force to bolster their credentials.  This has been a major factor in the expanded power of the military establishment.

As far back as 1997, senior Defense Department officials, including then secretary of defense William Cohen, warned about a “chasm developing between the military and civilian worlds, where…the military doesn’t understand…why criticism [of the military] is so quick and unrelenting.”  Others have noted a “gap” in values between the armed forces and civilian society, which threatens civil-military cooperation as well as the military’s loyalty to civilian authority.  The increased influence of the Department of Defense has been at the expense of civilian agencies, particularly the Department of State that has seen a decline in its international responsibilities.

We dodged a bullet at the end of the Trump administration, which conducted a campaign of “American Carnage” (the central theme of Trump’s inaugural address five years ago).  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley, belatedly realizing it was wrong to take part in a grotesque stunt for Donald Trump on June 1, 2020, informed the congressional leadership that the Pentagon would not take part in any effort to subvert the 2020 election.  Milley had walked in his battle fatigues to St. John’s Episcopal Church with Trump and Attorney General William Barr after peaceful protesters were forcibly cleared from nearby Lafayette Square.

Recent books from the New York Times’ Peter Baker and the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward have juicy leaks from Milley that seem designed to rehabilitate his reputation. Ultimately, Milley turned out to be a guardrail against Trump’s seditious behavior in the last days of his administration, but the threat to the republic remains extant.

Meanwhile, the continued growth of the U.S. military and the defense budget translates into a more militarized nation.  The public’s willingness to accept twenty years of military futility in Afghanistan points to our unwillingness to challenge military policy, particularly the inability to criticize our misbegotten wars.  Military policy demands congressional and public debate, but there is very little discussion in the United States, and bipartisan support for our bloated defense budget points to a particular failure in that regard.

Military failures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan over the past half century have not led to serious congressional debate regarding military reform. (The current statement merely notes that the military ended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “without all the goals satisfactorily accomplished.”)  Four-star generals convinced Presidents Obama and Trump to send additional troops to Afghanistan when the White House was in favor of gradual withdrawal.  The new chairman of strategic forces is already calling for greater spending on nuclear weapons; he has the full support of the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Congressional deference toward the military, moreover, has weakened the constitutional mandate for civilian control of the military.  The number of veterans in Congress has declined almost steadily since the mid-1970s, as the military shifted from a drafted force to an all-volunteer force. In 1973, nearly three in every four members of Congress had some type of military service. In 2021, about one in every six members have had military experience. Fewer than ten percent of Americans have served in the military, but more than ten percent of those charged in the assault on the Capitol in January 2021 had military experience.

The imbalance in civilian-military influence threatens U.S. interests over the long term.  President Nixon’s ending of the draft created a professional military.  The Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 created regional commanders-in-chief who expanded the martial reach of the United States in the post-Cold War world and became more influential than U.S. ambassadors and assistant secretaries of state in sensitive Third World areas.  The Act created a powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs who often ignored the secretary of defense during Desert Storm in 1991.  The Act passed the Senate without one vote of opposition.

It is time to redefine the national security state.  A good place to start would be a reassessment of civil-military relations.  President Eisenhower warned 60 years ago that military demands on U.S. spending would become a “cross of iron” that would limit spending on domestic needs.  The pandemic and climate crises should remind us that it is our non-defense agencies that must be bolstered.

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