Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Civil-Military Divide: Interesting but not Dangerous (UPDATED)

There has been a growing chorus that the divide between the U.S. military and the American people is widening and this is bad for our nation. Yesterday, Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added his voice to this cause as the keynote speaker for the National Defense University's Conference on Military Professionalism. The transcript is somewhat hard to follow - being quite literal - and it seems his remarks were driven by bullet points, not a script. But there is no mistaking his main point: there is a divide between the people their military, that divide is growing, and that is a bad and dangerous situation.

I would agree with the Chairman that there is a divide of sorts between the people and the military. The population of our all-volunteer force is a relatively tiny percentage of the nation's populations, a case made by ADM Mullen. This is exacerbated by the military's recent and intensive experience in combat in South and Southwest Asia. So yes, less than 1% of the population is bearing the brunt of these wars, often with extreme physical and mental damage to the participants. But the reality is that we couldn't afford to send more troops to these war zones, so what does it matter that only 1% experience them? This is the type of statistic where I nod my head and say, "Noted. So what?" There doesn't seem to be much of a solution there to rope in the rest of the populous into the effort, save a draft (which you know I'm against) and increasing taxes (a solution that rests with the Congress and is a hot political topic).

Is the divide growing? That is debatable, because it unmeasurable. Military posts are usually somewhat secluded from main populations centers (other than all the places in and around DC) - mainly because the land was cheap to purchase and not for security reasons. You can't physically move the military further from the population and in fact with overseas base closures, more will be brought back to the U.S. If the divide is measured by the percentage of the population in the military, in the course of force resizing, then the divide would grow. On the other hand, we'll begin to withdrawal from wars that have been the primary fissure between those under arms and those not, so that may stem any growth in the divide. I don't think that a growing divide has been or can be proven.

Which gets to my main point. If there is a divide and it is growing (or not), what makes that so dangerous to either the military or the nation? There are plenty of discrete populations of Americans who are essential to the maintenance of the nation who by the same standards of ADM Mullen would be considered divided from the nation they support. The first that come to mind are police (roughly the same percentage of the population as the uniformed services and charged with maintaining the law and order of a 300 million-person country) and the Congress. With a small share of the population and important and unique functions (often dangerous for the latter and apparently also for the former), why is no one talking about the divide with the police and Congress and how dangerous that is?

To me, there is a divide. It exists and it may or may not be growing. But I do not believe that it is dangerous for our nation or its survival. The military will always maintain its appropriate subordination to the government which is formed by the people. I do not see, nor have seen legitimate arguments, how a small professional military that does its job separate from the public at large will upset that arrangement. What other dangers could there be? I, for one, cannot identify any others. The military has always borne the brunt of wars - it is their job after all - and I've yet to see how that is dangerous for our society. It seems to me that it is as it should be.

UPDATE: While I've been thinking that isn't much recourse or point to connect the general population with military more than there already is, I left out the most important part of the discussion: the Guard and Reserves. True civil soldiers (and Marines/Airmen/Sailors/etc). And they're in just about every community in the country. For those of you that suggest that people need to be in touch with their military in order to be better informed on the conflicts in which the U.S. engages (the utility of which I do question for the most part), I come back to a comment I made yesterday. If you don't want to deploy the Guard and Reserve to a conflict, you shouldn't be in that conflict. To my mind, that's where the connection is: in the Guard, Reserve, and their communities - and I don't see how or much need to expand beyond that.

This is my current line of thinking. I need we to have a serious debate about this beyond the normal vacuous statements usually made and really think about what the problem really is (or if there is one), what can be done about it, what the aims of those actions would be, and if the costs are worth it. Otherwise, to be perfectly frank, I'm just hearing platitudes.


  1. Whatever New Year's resolution you guys cooked up, this sudden burst of posts has been a nice thing to see. Hope you keep it up.

  2. I think it more a generational thing and the polarizing times. My son (E4) has a whole different attitude than I did at his age. The whole pay thing bugs him as he works with civilians doing the same job getting 2x to 3x the pay. Plus he is the junior man in the shop. Plus the increase in God, Guns and the Constitution just adds to that feeling of divide. Maybe ADM Mullen is creeping to many FB pages.

  3. I think an argument can be made that the civil-military divide is dangerous in that it is leading (at least in my opinion) to placing political correctness as a higher priority than combat readiness. The McChrystal firing, DADT repeal, and the sacking of the USS Enterprise CO are all examples of this tendency. Since Murphy's Law rules in war, this is probably going to lead to more people getting killed in combat and, in a worst case scenario, the U.S. losing a war.

  4. @ Pol-Mil FSO - I have to say that's quite a stretch of logic in causation. The firings of McChrystal and CAPT Honors was because their commanders had lost faith in their ability to command because they acted in ways that commanders at that level shouldn't have. As for DADT repeal, you see it as political correctness and other see it as civil rights and have the benefit or retaining or recruiting highly qualified individuals who otherwise would have been turned away. I'm probably not going to convince you that these were all perfectly acceptable actions that kept combat readiness in mind, but there it is.

    So no, I'm not convinced that "political correctness" is given high priority to combat readiness - it's a priority but I don't believe for a second that it's anywhere near readiness. Second, I'm not convinced at all that the military conforming to American societal norms in they way that it has would lead unnecessary casualties or losing a war. You haven't made either case.

  5. To piggyback on what Jason's written here, I think Pol-Mil FSO is looking at this in a really dangerous way: that politics should be subordinated to "combat readiness." You're not talking about "political correctness" so much as you're talking about the social priorities of our civilian government and body politic. You're saying that military mission effectiveness should trump civilian control of the military, basically.

    THIS is the really huge problem in civ-mil relations: that there are people who actually believe this. I just blasted off about a thousand words on this subject in an email to Jason, and hope to post on the broader idea soon.

  6. I think you make very good points concerning the divide in terms of exposure to conflict, as you rightly point out that the alternatives (draft ect) are not viable.

    One thing that I think singles out Iraq and Afghanistan from past conflicts is that because it has been paid for almost entirely through deficit spending, the economic costs felt by the general population have been close to zero. Taxes have not been raised (in fact, they have been lowered) goods have not been rationed, and life for 95% of Americans has not changed at all.

    Now the question is what effect will this have in terms of civil-mil relations and I would say that it is going to be low, mainly because it will be trumped by the divide that is created by the "I'm a soldier, I'm at war, and you aren't" effect. I would argue that the effect will be seen going forward in terms of the way the public views war and the sacrifice that is necessary to wage it. If this civilian generation does not link war with any personal economic hardship than it will be more willing to wage war than it otherwise would have in the past. Costs go down, demand goes up. The assumption has been that after Iraq and Afghanistan this country will not be willing to fight resource intensive nation building type wars, but without any individual hardship connected to this philosophical belief, how long before it gives way to more deeply held interventionist tendencies?

    This was always going to happen, no matter how deep a sacrifice the public had to make the US would eventually wage another interventionist war. But since the public does not have to make itself whole again in peace time, the turnover after these conflicts may be especially short. So in summary, the danger is that without spreading the cost of conflict around society, society will be more willing to send its military to war.

  7. @ Jason - We obviously see things from a significantly different perspective but I'd like to further discuss the three examples I cited. Starting with the firing of GEN McChrystal, is the state of civilian control of the military so shaky that the President and Secretary of Defense had no option but to fire the military commander in a combat theater because of comments made by his subordinates that were exploited by an unethical writer practicing ambush journalism? Comments, which by the way, were less scathing than those made by Washington leadership to Bob Woodward in his latest expose (nor revealed classified information as did the Woodward book). On DADT, I understand that not allowing homosexual persons to openly serve in the military is a social injustice, but my instinct and experience do not let me accept the intellectual arguments/studies that claim that repealing DADT ban will have no effect on unit cohesion. It also appears to me that some of the strongest advocates for repeal have a political agenda that has no allowance for concepts like unit cohesion and combat readiness; I would note the recent call by a Washington Post columnist for firing of the Marine Corps Commandant as an example of this mentality. Finally, while you characterize CAPT Honors' relief as a loss of confidence in ability to command, I see it as throwing him under the bus. The Navy leadership apparently were aware of the videos, told CAPT Honors to stop, and then gave him command of the USS Enterprise. Now the videos are completely unacceptable and proof of his lack of fitness for command? I don't see how this about face can be explained as anything more than a caving in to political pressure and I suspect that any O-6 and O-7 that was on the Enterprise when he was the XO (i.e. the CO, Air Wing Commander, and Battle Group Commander) is now going to be punished if they are still on active duty.

    @ Gulliver - the primary duty of a government is to provide security for its citizens so yes, civilian control of the military should not be the highest priority if the civilians pursue policies that will lead to defeat in war and thus endanger the survival of the nation. As Americans, and as Westerners, we believe that civilian control of the military is an absolute requirement for any society. What we seem to overlook is that civilian control of the military only works if certain conditions exists, namely: strong civilian institutions; a civilian cadre that understands defense issues; and, a certain level of professional autonomy for the military. There are many third world countries where these conditions do not exist, and where civilian control of the military can be downright harmful. To cite one example I know well, civilian control of the military in Guatemala that was established in the 1990's has primarily served to corrupt and politicize the only strong national institution in the country. This has had dire consequences for a government that faces a greater threat from drug trafficking organizations than does the Mexican government.

    @ Jason and Gulliver - what makes this debate more than academic is my belief that we have become lazy, complacent, and bureaucratically hidebound. We have never lost a war that constituted a threat to our national security and we believe that we will continue to enjoy superiority in the future. We are in love with our technology and use this crutch as a substitute for imagination. As you have incisively pointed out in your own blog entries, we have lost our ability - if we ever had it - to employ thinking about grand strategy in our policy deliberations. When I think about the future I worry that we are going to be surprised by another Kasserine Pass or Task Force Smith-type debacle, but at a much higher and more serious level.

  8. I hope this thread hasn't died while I've been away, because I find this last comment by Pol-Mil FSO remarkable.

    I'm not going to get into your examples of "political correctness," mostly because they've been discussed extensively elsewhere and I'm not all that interested in getting into politics (which is what all your examples are about).

    the primary duty of a government is to provide security for its citizens so yes, civilian control of the military should not be the highest priority if the civilians pursue policies that will lead to defeat in war and thus endanger the survival of the nation.

    This is ballsy. You know you've just given justification for a coup, right? I wish I had your confidence in the wisdom and selflessness of a military junta. Let's leave aside the fact that we rarely see a war these days whose result impacts "the survival of the nation" and just go back to re-emphasize the point you've made: you think that elected and appointed political leaders who make decisions that military officers believe not to be in the best interests of the country ought to be ignored and/or disobeyed by those military officers.

    That's pretty much it for me, full stop. How am I supposed to have a conversation about civil-military relations with a guy who doesn't believe in civilian supremacy over the military? To be clear, your philosophy on this is anti-Constitutional. Civilian leaders who endanger the survival of the nation will be replaced by the electorate, not the Army.

    what makes this debate more than academic is my belief that we have become lazy, complacent, and bureaucratically hidebound.

    You're entitled to this opinion, of course, and it may even be justified. But that's America, win, lose, or draw. It's not the prerogative of society's servants to select a more efficient government. I'd prefer national extinction to rule-by-junta, which so far as I'm concerned would herald an America no longer entitled to exist.

  9. @ Gulliver - you need to go back and reread my post. I said that civilian control of the military does not work in practice in some third world countries because they lack a) strong civilian institutions; b) a civilian cadre that understands defense issues; and, c) a certain level of professional autonomy for the military. My fault for not explicitly stating that these conditions are present in Western democratic societies. I think you are putting words in my mouth by claiming that I am advocating coups or any other unconstitutional actions. I fully understand that civilian authorities who endanger our national security should be replaced by electoral decisions, not illegal actions. The principal point that I was trying to make is that our conceptions of civil-military relations do not always function well when applied to foreign societies, and that we need to recognize this when formulating policy. That is the point that I wish that you would address rather than accuse me of being an anti-democratic coup supporter.

  10. Re my last post - I was shocked to be characterized as someone who might support military disobedience to legal civilian authorities so I was more concerned with responding than I was with examining how my comments might have been misconstrued. Looking at it again, I was responding to what Gulliver stated as an absolute - civilian control of the military is sacrosanct - by saying (in a somewhat clumsy way) that this may not be true in third world societies. My mistake was in taking it for granted that the audience understood that I was only referring to foreign societies, not to our own domestic situation. An obvious error on my part since I was switching from referring to our domestic situation when voicing a complaint about political correctness to referring to foreign countries when discussing civilian control of the military. The reason why I was being provocative in my comments about civilian control of the military is that 20 years of dealing with foreign policy issues has left me with the strong belief that one of our major weaknesses as Americans dealing with the world is that we do not engage in sufficient examination of how our belief system and values can lead us to have erroneous perceptions about foreign societies.

  11. Pol-Mil FSO -- Glad to see you clarify your earlier comments. I didn't mean to suggest that you were advocating for a coup in present circumstances or anything, but this is a really helpful explanation.

    You're right that I didn't make the jump from the CMR issue in American society to the question of alternative models in foreign societies. But on that note, I very, very much agree with your last bit re: examining the way our belief system and values impacts perceptions of foreign societies. It's a serious challenge for third-party COIN, FID, and SFA. A whole other subject to what we were talking about here, I think, but an important one.

  12. Pol-Mil FSO -- Just came across this interesting piece on the role and calculations of the Tunisian military in the recent unrest. Relevant to the line you took on understanding CMR at the micro level.

  13. Gulliver -- a good article and a demonstration of why I think that comparative civil-military relations is such a fascinating area. The tutelary role that the author speculates may fall on the Tunisian military has had many precedents in countries outside the Middle East, Thailand being one example. Another interesting phenomenon is the "Creator and Guardian of the State" self-image of the Turkish, Indonesian, and Pakistani militaries that has been used to justify civilian subordination to the military. The parallels between the Turkish and Indonesian militaries are particularly strong, including the identical set of historical enemies: Communists, regional separatists, and Islamic fundamentalists.