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

Every search for the next technological fix upsets the status quo and provokes ugly intramural conflict. If that conflict becomes public, it is likely to embarrass all concerned. No one is more sensitive to this than military leaders themselves, and no one is more anxious to avoid a return to the internecine feuding of the late 1940s and 1950s. This is a major reason why present-day Pentagon leaders, nominally devoted to acquiring the most advanced technology that the American taxpayer can afford, are leery of the RMA. Senior military officers are skittish about violating the truce that in recent decades has kept interservice rivalry within reasonable bounds. The prospect of tight (and perhaps further declining) defense budgets reinforces this caution because in any wholesale reorganization of the Defense Department, the losers will lose big.

But there is another factor dampening military enthusiasm for the RMA. The promised revolution endangers internal arrangements hitherto central to the military "way of life." To an extent that soldiers themselves are usually unwilling to acknowledge, the daily rewards of military life revolve around ancient rituals of status. In the army or the marines, for example, every officer worth his salt aspires to battalion command, every NCO to be appointed company first sergeant. Subordinates pay homage to the "Old Man" or the "top kick" as part of the rite by which they in turn demonstrate their worthiness for such exalted positions. Yet the information revolution has already sounded the death knell for such middle management positions in the private sector. Lean and flexible "flat" organizations outperform those modeled along hierarchical lines. The new art of leadership lies in articulating a "vision" and developing consensus. Tasks are executed by small teams. Informality reigns.

Grafting these precepts onto highly structured institutions where satisfaction derives from one's status within the unit or the ship will have huge institutional implications. The organizational and leadership principles mandated by the new information technologies defining the RMA are likely to make the military's elaborate hierarchy of rank redundant - and may even see the cult of command eclipsed by mere technicians, analysts, and programmers. Given this prospect, the RMA debate within military circles centers as much on fending off change as on coming to terms with it.

The point is not to suggest that experienced and thoughtful military officers should obligingly acquiesce in the designs promoted by reform-minded visionaries. The fervor of RMA visionaries no more guarantees that they have unlocked the secrets of future warfare than did Billy Mitchell's vehemence in insisting that his bombers had made surface navies obsolete. Whether an RMA is actually underway and what its true character might be are questions that deserve thorough examination. The cases for and against need to be considered on their merits, recognizing, however, that technological dominance - not manpower, access to strategic resources, old-fashioned industrial strength, or willingness to endure great sacrifice - comprises the basis of America's putative edge over any would-be challenger. In short, if the RMA is not for real, U.S. military superiority may prove less enduring than most Americans imagine. Hence, the imperative of joining that debate honestly.

The key to restoring the integrity of that debate is tough-minded civilian leadership that refuses to let soldiers dodge the difficult issues and demands that military practice remain responsive to the needs of policy. This does not imply meddling in the style of Robert McNamara; senior Pentagon civilians should not presume to dictate the answers to questions falling within the realm of soldierly competence. But they must insist that the right questions be asked and answered. As Eliot Cohen has suggested, the model for such leadership may still be Winston Churchill: incessantly challenging, prodding, and needling, driving his generals to distraction, but thereby eliciting outstanding service and sometimes even brilliance from men of no more than passing ability.

In the near term, what are the prospects for improvement in the climate of American civil-military relations? They are poor, the main difficulty being that none of the three factors described above - strategy, culture, and technology - can be addressed independently of the others.

Until the United States acknowledges its strategic purpose, evaluating arguments for and against the Revolution in Military Affairs will remain difficult. (Does the RMA promise the right forces to police the imperium? For such purposes, what mix of capabilities is most appropriate?) Until the United States comes to terms with the RMA, a formula for reconciling the military with society is likely to remain elusive. (How "different" must high-tech warriors be from other citizens? Is greater conformity with civilian norms compatible with military effectiveness in a new era of warfare?) Finally, until civilian elites no longer disdain military affairs, the capacity of the United States to sustain the grand strategic project upon which it has embarked will remain in doubt. (What price hegemony? How much of that price can America's warriors be expected to pay?) In all likelihood, American civil-military relations will remain vexed for some time, a constant reminder of the predicaments awaiting a cocksure and fractious democracy that fancies itself called to bring order to an obstinately unruly world.

A.J. Bacevich is executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at The Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.

Essay Types: Essay