America's Enduring Military

November 12, 2013 Topic: DefenseState of the MilitarySecuritySociety Region: United States

America's Enduring Military

The United States remains a model for healthy civil-military relations.


The first sentence in the latest report on the U.S. military by the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project reads as follows: “Americans continue to hold the military in high regard with more than three-quarters of U.S. adults (78 percent) saying that the members of the armed services contribute ‘a lot’ to society’s well-being.” Another 15 percent say that the military contribute “some,” and only 5 percent “not too much/not at all.” These ratings are higher than any other of the ten occupational groups included in the early 2013 Spring survey. An earlier report by the Pew Research Center summarizing the results of a survey of 1853 military veterans and 2003 civilians found the same high percentage of approval with the military being the highest regarded profession. The American population holds these very positive attitudes towards the military despite two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where the United States has left (or is in the process of leaving) without having achieved much of the initial promise. The military is not blamed for these foreign-policy fiascos, as the American public believes that the elected and appointed civilian leadership make policy decisions related to entering or leaving a conflict, and the military does what the authorities direct them to do.

Unlike many countries today, including Egypt and Pakistan, the question of who controls the military is not at issue in the United States. In these two countries, as was the case not so long ago in countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea and Spain, the question of democratic civilian control has yet to be decided and institutionalized. Although it is not a significant issue in the United States, the mainstream scholars, who continue to be influenced by Samuel P. Huntington and his 1957 classic, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, would have us believe that the issue of democratic civilian control is at the center of the political agenda. What Peter D. Feaver calls “the civil-military problematique” is simply not relevant in the United States. As it is not an issue, consequently a series of other related issues such as “the civil-military gap,” “civil-military tensions,” the all-volunteer force (AVF), and the fact that there are today few members of Congress who have served in the military, are also not significant issues. These mainstream authors use terms such as: “erosion,” “decline,” “fractious” and “bad” vs. “robust,” “harmonious,” “healthy” and “good,” without ever defining the meaning of the terms, let alone providing empirical evidence.


To follow my argument requires that we look beyond the possibly distant personal relationships between the president, or even the Secretary of Defense, and a few top generals or admirals, and include the political institutions created over time to exercise control as well as the supportive culture and mechanisms demonstrating respect for the U.S. military.

With the founding of the American Republic at the end of the eighteenth century, there was indeed concern regarding establishing and guaranteeing democratic civilian control of the armed forces, largely based on the colonial experience. Consequently, there is extensive guidance regarding civil-military relations in the U.S. Constitution in which eleven of the eighteen articles specifying the powers of the Congress deal with security. Between the late eighteenth century and today, the United States has created a large and all-encompassing array of institutions to ensure the control of the military as individuals and as an entity, which in all cases are directed by civilians that both exercise control and conduct oversight to ensure compliance. Among the most important institutionalized civilian control mechanisms are those that concern budgets, promotions and education—that is, money, careers and culture.

The key control components of the budget process include, at the executive level, both the Office of Management and Budget and agencies within the Department of Defense. At the legislative level it includes the authorizing and appropriating committees of both houses of Congress. Extensive oversight is conducted at the executive level by inspectors general and by Congress with oversight committees, the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office and specialized inspectors general like the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

The three services have responsibility for recruiting, organizing, training and equipping the military. Military promotions begin with boards of military personnel, but the recommended promotions must then be vetted by the military and civilian leadership within Department of Defense, passed on to the President, and finally approved, or not, by the Senate. In sum, the responsibility for promotions is shared among the military services themselves, the executive, and the Congress. The “precepts,” which define the numbers and priorities for the military promotion boards, are provided by the civilian service secretaries. These secretaries, down to the level of Assistant Secretaries, are nominated by the President and approved, or not, by the Senate.

Military education is also a shared responsibility. Each of the services has service academies, at Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and West Point, as well as intermediate and senior staff or war colleges. Funding is provided in the same manner as budgeting discussed above, and the Congress, using its budgetary powers, can impose new priorities in military education, as it did in the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. The members of Congress have further roles in nominating the individuals who will attend the three service academies, which ensures both regional and political diversity. The service academy degrees are accredited by regional accreditation bodies, which are composed overwhelmingly of civilian academics. Of course only a minority of the officers attend the service academies. Some 70-80 percent attend civilian institutions in reserve officer training corps programs. Although the executive branch manages education at the academies and the ROTC program, no individual becomes an officer or increases in rank without the advice and consent of the Senate.

In short, following from the original base established in the U.S. Constitution, the United States has developed a comprehensive set of institutions that are ingrained in the thinking of the U.S. military and all of civilian society, including the political decision makers. And the U.S. media, its think tanks and its nongovernmental organizations are extremely active in highlighting any real or imagined independence of the military.

It is clear in the October 2011 Pew study that whereas the military is the most highly regarded institution in the United States—and the only institution in the survey showing an increase in confidence since the surveys began in the 1970s—the population makes a distinction between the military and the wars it fights. “The public makes a sharp distinction in its view of military service members and the wars they have been fighting. More than nine-in-ten express pride in the troops and three-quarters say they thanked someone in the military. But a 45 percent plurality says neither of the post–9/11 wars has been worth the cost and only a quarter say they are following news of the wars closely. And half of the public say the wars have made little difference in their lives.” In short, the public distinguishes between the U.S. military and the wars that their civilian leaders have sent them to fight.

It is significant that in the October 2011 Pew study the veteran sample are overwhelmingly happy with their lives and would encourage others to join the military. The esteem and appreciation of American society is demonstrated in a concrete manner. The esteem is manifested in very competitive (with civilian equivalents) salaries, housing allowances, health insurance and educational opportunities while the military are on active duty. The most complete analysis of annual military compensation compared to civilian equivalents, by James E. Grefer of the Center for Naval Analyses, found that “the total compensation packages, including both cash and benefits, are on the average about $13,365 more for enlisted personnel than their civilian equivalents, and an average of $24,875 more for officers than their civilian counterparts.”

Probably more important than annual compensation while on active duty are programs available when members of the military retire. Unlike other countries, where options after retirement are minimal, causing great anxiety and unhappiness, the United States takes good care of its veterans. No other agency in the U.S. government has what is termed a “float.” That is, there are sufficient officers to allow many of them to pursue a graduate degree program during their careers, often fully funded by the U.S. government. Advanced degrees, of course, make a great deal of sense in a modern military that must deal on equal terms with an increasingly educated group of civilians, and where the demands for policy and technical proficiency are high priorities. Advanced degrees are also an incentive for promotion and retention; few are promoted beyond the junior-officer ranks if they do not have a graduate degree. And the military is indeed a meritocracy where individuals can be promoted regardless of socioeconomic background and race. Retirement is possible after twenty years, at which time the retiree receives 50 percent of his or her base salary; for civilian employees of the Department of Defense after twenty years it is less than 25 percent. Upon serving thirty years, a military member can retire with 75 percent of base pay. After retirement, which according to the Pew study is probably by the age of forty-one, the retiree can very easily—and with the U.S. military and government support—begin a whole new career. There is also the possibility of the GI bill for further education.