Tradition Abandoned: America's Military in a New Era

Tradition Abandoned: America's Military in a New Era

Mini Teaser: American civil-military relations will remain vexed for some time.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

Overlooked by the general public, resolutely ignored by policy
elites, misconstrued by those few scholars who attend to its study,
the relationship between the United States military and American
society clamors for attention. Despite our best efforts to pretend
otherwise, we have a serious problem on our hands.

At first blush, this may seem an exaggeration. After all, the polls
in recent years rank the military at or near the top of major
institutions that Americans trust and respect. Such polls are
misleading. They mislead because popularity at the level of mass
politics counts for little within the precincts of elite politics
where national security policy is made. Indeed, attributing great
weight to public opinion may exacerbate civil-military problems by
conveying to the officer corps an inflated view of its status and
political clout.

That contentiousness, disharmony, and pervasive mistrust characterize
present-day American civil-military relations at the elite level is
all too clear. A bill of particulars would include the following
evidence: the overt disrespect to which active duty military officers
subjected President Bill Clinton after he took office; the
controversy generated by the role of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff--especially pronounced while General Colin Powell served as JCS
chairman--in circumscribing or pre-emptively vetoing policy options;
the near rebellion in the ranks, apparently condoned by senior
uniformed officers, over the issue of gays in the military; the
refusal of the military to assign accountability for failure (except
by passing the buck upward), spectacularly evident in the aftermath
of Mogadishu and the Dhahran bombing; the recent army scandal over
widespread sexual harassment in its training centers; and above all,
Tailhook, with its lingering and poisonous fallout culminating,
however obliquely, in the suicide of the chief of naval operations,
Admiral Jeremy M. Boorda.

Such incidents have given rise to a spate of articles pointing to a
burgeoning "crisis" in civil-military relations. Published analysis
has included loose speculation that the American military may be
careening "out of control." Featuring titles such as "Welcome to the
Junta" or "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012", these
efforts to assess the current state of U.S. civil-military relations
have portrayed the issue chiefly in terms of an ominous erosion of
military subordination to civilian authority. Yet none of these
efforts has put civil-military relations on the national political
agenda. Few informed observers can imagine circumstances in which
American soldiers might directly threaten the republic. Most military
officers, meanwhile, consider the entire line of argument to be
deeply insulting. To suggest that the institutions they serve might
mount a constitutional challenge is, in their eyes, to impugn their
own personal loyalty and patriotism.

Indeed, the more lurid the forecast and the more provocative the
language, the easier it has been to dismiss the entire subject. If
anything, the well-intentioned efforts of members of the "out of
control/coup over the horizon" school have proven counterproductive.
However inadvertently, they have foreclosed serious public
consideration of civil-military relations, and reinforced the popular
inclination to consign such matters to that realm in which myth is
served neat, undiluted by facts. No coup? No problem, and no further
discussion required.

A Revealing Episode

Yet the alarmists are correct in suggesting that Americans can
ill-afford to take healthy civil-military relations for granted.
Paradoxically, their failure stems not from an excess of imagination
but a dearth of it. In advancing the case for more attention to
civil-military relations, they have spent themselves in a futile
attempt to resuscitate a paradigm--the uniformed military as a threat
to the constitutional order--that has long since breathed its last.
In doing so they have missed other, more important kinds of evidence
that something is fundamentally amiss. Take this example: General
gets dissed by White House staffer; outraged at the affront, military
officers instantly leak incident to the press, triggering a furor; to
make amends, President invites general to go jogging; general next
surfaces escorting First Lady to State of the Union address, where he
is lauded as new drug czar; during re-election campaign, President
cites general as proof positive of his administration's vigorous
opposition to illegal drugs.

What are Americans to make of President Clinton's deft deployment of
General Barry McCaffrey to shore up a vulnerable political flank?
Should they be troubled by the unseemly exploitation of a highly
decorated career officer for blatantly partisan purposes? Does it
matter that the Clinton administration remains, by all indications,
oblivious to the implications of politicizing the military? These are
questions to which the alarmists give short shrift.

Yet beyond those questions is one larger still: Who manipulated whom?
Skillfully orchestrated by Pentagon apparatchiks, the public
humiliation of Clinton's staff at the very outset of his term
signaled unmistakably the dangers awaiting the White House if it
failed to treat the military and its views with appropriate respect.
The deference subsequently accorded General McCaffrey is only one
indication that Clinton got the message. Perhaps more than any other
incident, the McCaffrey episode established the parameters of the
President's relationship with an officer corps that viewed him and
his entourage with ill-concealed antipathy.

Viewed in that light, the episode suggests that the real problem in
civil-military relations is not that the military might jump its
traces, but that the boundaries between the civilian and military
camps--delineating prerogatives and responsibilities, protecting
certain practices and proscribing others--have lost much of their
salience. Indeed, among civilian elites and in the officer corps as a
whole, awareness that such boundaries ought to exist is itself fast
disappearing. In addition to the McCaffrey episode, the egregious
Republican effort during the 1996 convention in San Diego to identify
the GOP as the "pro-military" party provides the most noteworthy
recent example of civilians violating previously recognized norms of
civil-military behavior.

Worse, the blurring of civil-military distinctions once widely
recognized and respected is manifesting itself precisely at a time
when American military policies have been cut loose from the moorings
to which they were traditionally tethered. Two points highlight this
disjunction. The first concerns the role of military power in
enabling the United States to fulfill what are now commonly called
its "global responsibilities." The second relates to the size and
character of America's post-Cold War military establishment.

In the heady days after the Persian Gulf War, when the extent of the
American conventional military dominance first became fully evident,
expectations that the mere display of great military power might
enable the United States to preside over the creation of a "New World
Order" were commonplace. But Americans had hardly finished
congratulating themselves on their desert victory when events gave
lie to those expectations. The ordeal of the Kurds in northern Iraq
forced the first, abrupt departure from the triumphal script.
Interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Bosnia, a war scare with
North Korea, confrontation with China in the Taiwan Straits, and
recurring clashes with Saddam Hussein followed in short order, making
clear that the use of armed might rather than its possession had
emerged as a staple of American post-Cold War policy.

If the tempo of activity has been unexpectedly brisk, the immense
military capacity maintained to undertake such activities on a global
scale is altogether without precedent in American history. This is
the second major departure from the traditional pattern of
civil-military relations. The fact that the United States has chosen
to retain a large and powerful standing military force in the absence
of any proximate threat to its own security violates principles long
held to be integral to the American experiment. The Founding Fathers
would have looked askance at such a development. Expressing in his
Farewell Address sentiments that once lay at the core of American
political thought, George Washington counseled future generations to
"avoid the necessity of those overgrown Military establishments,
which under any form of Government are inauspicious to liberty, and
which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican

Generations of Americans took Washington's warning to heart. Indeed,
they needed little convincing. As a result, despite expansionist
foreign policies and the progressive growth of American interests,
the United States made it a habit to retain only minimal military
forces in peacetime. Threats foreign or domestic and the imperatives
of destiny might (and frequently did) impel the nation to raise great
and powerful armies, but once the emergency passed Americans quickly
dismantled those forces. Perverse, wasteful, and even reckless, this
practice embodied the American system of civil-military relations.
Following the precedent established at the conclusion of the
Revolutionary War, the United States adhered to this routine in every
subsequent military crisis up to and including the Second World War.

With the end of the Cold War, however, the United States has
abandoned that pattern. A disparate but apparently real consensus of
elite and popular opinion has rejected the view that in
non-threatening circumstances a large military establishment and
political liberty go ill together. In this matter (and others), the
warnings of Washington and the other Founding Fathers now strike us
as overdrawn, hyperbolic, even slightly paranoid. We have persuaded
ourselves that such antique considerations no longer apply. Thus,
although efforts to identify an adversary worthy of the appellation
"peer competitor" have proven futile, both the Bush administration,
conservative in its basic outlook, and the Clinton administration,
supposedly liberal, have agreed on this point: The United States must
maintain a military establishment explicitly designed to dominate.
There is every reason to expect that future administrations will

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