Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil-Military Relations

Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil-Military Relations

Mini Teaser: The U.S. military is now more alienated from its civilian leadership than at any time in American history, and more vocal about it.

by Author(s): Richard H. Kohn

THE U.S. MILITARY is now more alienated from its civilian leadership than at any time in American history, and more vocal about it.

The warning signs are very clear, most noticeably in the frequency with which officers have expressed disgust for the President over the last year.

When Clinton visited the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, the Atlantic Fleet commander had to arrive at the ship beforehand to assure a proper reception. The Air Force Chief of Staff had to issue an open demand to his service to respect the President and for proper behavior to be accorded him--and still had to retire a two-star general for disparaging remarks made in public. At the Army's elite Command and General Staff College, a respected Congressman was "jeered" by the class when he "repeatedly lectured officers" about Congress's role and powers--and was greeted by "catcalls" at the mention of the President (Kansas City Star, April 17, 1993.)

But the problem goes much deeper, sometimes manifest in small symbols. When Senator Strom Thurmond was introduced for an award at the Association of the United States Army last fall, and the speaker noted Thurmond's change of party from the Democrats to the Republicans in 1964, the audience burst into applause, an open sign of just how partisan the military has become in the last generation. There was, in the wake of the Somalia disaster, a concerted effort to undermine Les Aspin, fed by criticism from within the Pentagon's uniformed ranks, aided and abetted by a steady stream of rumors and leaks in the Washington Times. (Ten years ago when I asked that paper's first editor what the perspective of the new newspaper was, she replied, "Pro-military.")

An Air Force legal officer wrote a thesis at the prestigious National War College hypothesizing the conditions that could lead to a coup--something officers never mention in public and barely ever whisper in private--and won the top writing prize, and publication in the Army's leading professional journal.

Last year one of the senior commanders from the Gulf War described a mistake in combat that, he believed at the time it happened, would bring down restrictions on his operational freedom of action. After reporting the problem up his chain of command, he said, he waited to hear that the "the Deputy Undersecretary for Sewage Disposal and Family Housing" had recommended the limitations. It never happened, but what was striking was the attitude of that commander toward civilian control.

WHILE THESE incidents have put the problem in high relief, the roots of the crisis go back to the beginning of the Cold War, when the creation of a large, "peacetime" standing military establishment overloaded the traditional process by which civilian control was exercised. By the end of Eisenhower's presidency, the situation had so deteriorated that the only soldier-president of the twentieth century left office warning of the danger to democracy of a "military-industrial complex."(1)

During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara restored a degree of civilian control, but for a generation after, in response to his heavy-handed efforts and the rending divisions of Vietnam, successive Republican administrations weakened these controls. Military affairs became highly politicized in more partisan ways. Simultaneously, and for partly the same reasons, the professional officer corps also became politicized and partisan. Divorced now from broad parts of American society, the military, increasingly Washington-wise, was determined never again to be committed to combat without the resources, public support, and freedom on the battlefield to win.

By Bill Clinton's inauguration a year ago, the military had accepted "downsizing" and reorganization, but not changes that invaded too dramatically the traditional functions of each of the individual armed services, or that changed too radically the social composition of the forces, or cut too deeply into combat readiness, or otherwise undermined the quality and ability of the military to fulfill its functions. In Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin L. Powell, the military had its most formidable leader since the Second World War. And in Bill Clinton, the administration had a president with less experience, interest, understanding, and credibility in military affairs than any since the 1920s.

The Consequences of Growth

THE BREAKDOWN in the peace-time balance between civilian and military began in the late 1940s, when the military establishment grew so large, warfare so complex, and the threat to the United States so unprecedented that neither Congress nor the Secretary of Defense had the staff to determine the proper policies, strategies, size, structure, and budget for national security, or even to administer the defense establishment and decide upon an appropriate division of function and authority between civilian and military.

By the 1950s the new standing military establishment had begun to penetrate into every aspect of American life. Because of the draft, every able-bodied American man was eligible, for the first peacetime period in American history, for military service. American military forces--land, sea, and air--were now deployed around the world and allied to foreign establishments, again for the first time in American history. This gargantuan establishment consumed weapons and food and other material in such quantities as to require a network of arms producers and business suppliers that touched every community in the nation. Its very size gave the military unexpected influence over the nation's foreign policy and domestic affairs. The institutions were simply too large, their activities too diverse, and their influence too pervasive for effective oversight by the normal legislative or bureaucratic procedures traditionally used by civilians on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch.

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