Americans Have Faith in the Military, But They Don't Understand It

September 11, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas

Americans Have Faith in the Military, But They Don't Understand It

The American military is an immensely complicated, capable, expensive and at times even fragile institution.

Adding to the muddle are the additional oversight responsibilities assigned to the civilian-led Military Departments. All of this obfuscates where civilian control resides in the Department of Defense, and how it should be exercised at the cabinet level and below. As a result, civilian control has become a fluid concept, and one that could be manipulated by civilian or military leaders when debating contentious issues. Academics interested in organizations, organizational culture, as well as defense policy and decisionmaking, could bring objective approaches to these issues in their research and in the classroom. In the process, they would foster greater clarity about what constitutes true civilian control, and how best to exercise it.

In a democratic country, how to provide for the common defense—and thus build and sustain the military—needs to be a broad conversation. This requires encouraging students to learn enough about the American military to engage competently and comfortably on such issues. Conversely, those who have devoted their professional lives to defense issues, also need help stepping back to look afresh at how their expertise shapes and limits their own understanding. 

The academy should be central to both educating the uninitiated and challenging the experts. But for that to happen, university presidents, deans and department heads must embrace that role and stop leaving it to the military and a few specialized graduate programs. By incorporating the American military into existing, undergraduate lessons and graduate-level analysis, professors in the humanities and social sciences would help students—and the nation—better understand and control  the “powerful influence” of the military that Tocqueville first observed over 175 years ago.

Paula Thornhill, the author of Demystifying the American Military, is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. She previously taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, served as the Dean of Faculty and Academic Programs at the National War College, and is an adjunct professor in the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Image: Reuters