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.

Furthermore, the civilian leadership after World War II faced military problems unprecedented in scope and complexity. Military issues now assumed great prominence in American politics, if for no other reason than their impact on the government's expenditures. Reigning economic theory warned against massive deficit spending, which for most of the 1940s and 1950s put the military under great budgetary pressure, thus pitting the military leadership against successive presidential administrations. War was now a joint enterprise requiring the cooperation of land, sea, and air forces, but how to organize them and how to divide responsibilities while still insuring trained, effective, ready forces, under one responsible commander, was unclear.

The services themselves--fully formed, coherent, and cohesive bureaucracies with comprehensive doctrines, many powerful friends and constituencies, and enormous prestige and credibility from the winning of World War II--fell into vicious internal fights over roles and missions, exacerbated by the President's insistence on severely limiting the funds available for defense. The worst battle over roles and missions the country ever experienced occurred between 1946 and 1949. When civilian leadership in the Pentagon and the White House could not contain the services' struggle for survival and resources, the disputes boiled over into Congress and the press, the Navy leadership erupted into open revolt over purchase of a new class of aircraft carrier, and the strain drove the first Secretary of Defense from office and contributed to his suicide a few weeks later.

Another new factor affecting civil-military relations was atomic weapons. It was now imperative to take authority to use these weapons away from the military, lest operational commanders displace Congress and the President in determining whether the country would go to war. Special procedures were instituted to insure presidential control over their use, but this, combined with worries about U.S. and Soviet forces coming into conflict during normal operations in hot spots around the globe, now required civilians to invade traditional military operational authority. During the 1950s and after, the line between civilian and military was increasingly blurred, the military having to learn business management and other civilian skills and values, while civilians had to become versed in military strategy and operations.

The tension worsened with the advent of limited war, first in Korea, then in Vietnam. No longer could civilian authorities afford to allow commanders in the field to make the broader operational decisions concerning when, where, and how to fight an enemy, since control of operations might prevent the widening of war, or prevent regional confrontations from escalating, or stop the use of atomic and nuclear weapons. This circumscribing of traditional military prerogatives burst into open crisis in the Korean War in 1950-51, when the legendary Douglas MacArthur resisted the restrictive rules of engagement, attempted to control policy, and was fired by President Truman. Other controls over military authority less than fifteen years later in Vietnam, in many operational and tactical areas and in far more intrusive and restrictive ways, caused enormous stress between military leaders and their civilian masters, with consequences still felt today.

The effort on the part of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations in the early 1960s, in the person of Robert McNamara, to regain control over the military establishment--over not only its use in conflict but every aspect of military policy and affairs--marked the most important turning point in the postwar history of civilian control. The significance of the McNamara years was really the re-imposition of civilian control through bureaucratic procedures and structures, the traditional method for exercising presidential authority over the military in peacetime. McNamara's Programming-Planning-Budgeting System, his "Whiz Kids" operations analysts, his "management by objectives," all attempted to link policy with military strategy and then force structure, so as to produce a military establishment that would achieve America's Cold War objectives at affordable costs.

Essay Types: Essay