A Caution on Civil-Military Relations

This brief post represents only a few quickly dashed thoughts in the hope of getting something on paper that might morph into a longer and more useful essay on civil-military relations. I believe that civil-military relations in the United States are deeply troubled. The issues are lurking mostly in the background right now. On the surface, our leadership—civilian and military—has been able to negotiate some relatively complex rapids without any of the major drama that has cropped up in the past. The falling out between Truman and MacArthur comes to mind. Nonetheless, there are serious background issues that will only get worse in 2014 and beyond.  There are several reasons for concern. 

The all-volunteer force has fought two brutal wars for over a decade while a (guilty or thankful) American population has stood by with very little involvement. There have been no war bonds, no victory gardens, no bandage wrapping drives, no air raid drills—nothing to make them feel a part of the conflict other than the human interest stories about killed and wounded veterans and the once-nightly footage of shattered HMMWVs and burning convoys.  This has created an inequality in experience and sacrifice that the public has generally attempted to repay through extreme deference and ever-multiplying shows of thankfulness, the likes of which have never been seen in American society. Part of this is as a corrective to the disgraceful treatment of our Vietnam veterans, to be sure, but it has consequences nonetheless. In the face of such an inequality of experience and service and in such a deferential environment, public criticism of the military is all too easily dismissed as unpatriotic. Not only is this foil used to deflect criticism, but its threat deters many from bringing up much needed commentary and dissent. Likewise, unquestioning support of the military plays no small factor in making any discussion of rationalizing military budgets and targeting wasteful military spending difficult, if not impossible.

Late addition: This dynamic plays out in media coverage of the military, as well, leading to an insufficient criticality, or at least a lack of perspective, in much coverage. At worst, the media becomes a propaganda arm or engages in a cult of hero worship that perpetuates the dynamics above. As this coverage creates narratives that impact critical national security decisions, it likewise skews civil-military relations. The media is a central part of any civil-military dynamic in a democracy, providing the information that informs public discourse and shapes the decision-making space. If the media is incapable of being a relatively objective arbiter, this contributes to a flawed civil-military dynamic.

The military, itself, has internalized much of this adulation.  When ushered to the front of boarding lines at the airport, offered discounts at a myriad of establishments, proffered all sorts of swag at any number of appreciation venues, and even venerated daily on cable news with the incredibly self-centered practice of surprise homecomings, it is difficult for members of the military not to fall victim to a culture of creeping narcissism. Faced with lengthy, rapid fire deployments that placed some military members away from the stabilizing influences of family and normality for years of their lives, the military itself had to play up a narrative of sacrifice and exceptionalism to help keep the trains running. This narrative was drummed into the military and reinforced by its members who saw themselves deploying again and again as society stayed home and placed them on a pedestal. This is not to say that the sacrifice was insignificant, but to acknowledge that there were second order effects of the adulation. Even within the military, there was a significant inequality in hardships faced, from “FOBbits” with daily access to all the comforts of home to infantrymen living in squalor and under the constant threat of not only death, but horrific dismemberment. This additional dynamic, as an aside, has led to a significant insecurity on the part of some (but surely not most or all) of those servicemembers who operated in support roles. You can see it in those who make cryptic references to their “special operations” background or play up training that they never rightfully received. You see, even within the military there is a distinct hierarchy of who has truly “been there and done that” and those who feel they must insinuate that they did. I may be wrong, but I get the sense that the post-WWII culture just assumed that everyone had done their part and little need be said about it.

In all, this adds up to a military that at least in part feels it has earned entitlement, that it deserves the deferential treatment it receives, and that America needs to sacrifice to provide for the military—whether that be benefits or budget outlays. This is an incredibly dangerous cultural artifact, especially in light of the coming period of adjustment. As America’s involvement in Afghanistan winds down and as the nation is forced to adjust to new fiscal realities, the military will face a time of significant adjustment and likely austerity. A military with an entitled culture and an inability to countenance searing introspection will be unable to properly adjust to these new realities and will fail to make the necessary reforms, corrections, and resets that the strategic situation demands. More critically, the prospects for an unfavorable outcome in Afghanistan, coupled with significant budget cuts, will open the door for a “knife in the back” narrative that might argue that the civilian politicians and the American public “lost” the conflict by giving up on the great sacrifice and heroic efforts of the American military there and, furthermore, the government then slashed the military budget (and perhaps restructured some entitlements) betraying a military charged with facing a plethora of threats around the world. Such a narrative would be dangerous—poisonous—for civil-military relations.

In this it is important to recognize that our political institutions are undergoing a crisis of their own. Trust in government is at its lowest ebb in recent history. Political polarization is at its highest mark since the Great Depression. Demographic and economic pressures will multiply in coming years not only on the US, but more significantly on its key allies in Europe. The world will see a significant transformation of its power structure in the coming decades, all of which will put great strain on the country’s civil-military relations. Thus, it is of critical importance that we discuss, address, and correct any flaws in this dynamic now before they reach crisis proportions in the years to come.

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There is a term, "military service." The emphasis is on "service." A member of the military "serves" the State - and in the case of our democracy, we define this as the People. The soldier is a servant of the People - with all that entails - to include the inherent requirement to sacrifice, to place the needs of those for whom service is offered over those who offer the service. Period.

As with most service (as opposed to slavery) there is generally remuneration and compensation in terms of pay, benefits, and in the case of the military, law enforcement, first responders, and the like, a certain amount of social status. But, at its base, military service is an ethical and moral contract between the citizen offering service and the society receiving it. This contract asks that the citizen give up a certain amount of freedom, in turn, society promises that the citizen's service will not be taken lightly, and that if their life must be risked, it will not be done so lightly or fruitlessly.

Society upholds this contract by participating - directly - in the issues of the age. In this case, the military it desires to create, the resources it chooses to give the military, the manner in which the military is employed. If a society is silent on these matters, it is not upholding its portion of the contract - it is NOT ensuring the value of military service or the value of a soldier's life.

Society truly honors and validates its military, not with parades and greater pay packages, but by taking an active part in how the military is recruited, husbanded, and used.

It is ironic that a society, in which even fewer people have served as police officers or firefighters than have served in the military, that the citizenry is quick and passionate in its involvement in the manner in which it is policed or protected. The actions of officers and firefighters, their recruitment policies, their budgets, their training - all are subject to intense and focused debate by citizens who would not be able to explain the science of the fire tetrahedron or the concept of community policing.

But the military gets a pass. I agree with Peter - this is, at best, unhelpful and at worst unhealthy for the state of our republic.

This is quite a complicated subject and I thank you for stirring the dialogue. Another aspect that you may want to ponder is the marked and continued influence of Samuel P. Huntington on the defined relationship of the solider and the state? I believe you alluded to it in your reference to Truman/MacArthur; the quiet denigration of the American soldier as a political animal over the past 50-60 years. For our military to question the role it plays in the formulation and execution of American grand strategy is not contrary to civil rule, rather I contend it strengthens civil-military discourse and allows for a more robust debate upon which our civil rule can make better informed decisions for where, when, and how we utilize the American military. In most instances we don't ask our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Marines to blindly follow orders...as is evident in the conflicts of the past 10 years we're expecting them to think critically in complicated situations where an erroneous round can have massive strategic affects, both positive and negative. When we are ordered into conflicts we honorably go in the defense of our nation...or do we? War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The ugliest are those willing to put our young men and women in harms way where the strategic ends and tangible outcomes in regards to our national security are ill-defined. I believe our brave, all-volunteer force deserves more from our civil and military leadership, especially now as we continue to apply more pressure on them and their families with longer deployment cycles, reduced unit manning, and all the while expecting them to do more with less. We can only do that by being more outspoken and not afraid to engage (and yes, question) our civil leadership in a meaningful discourse regarding the use of our military.

Peter,

You covered a lot of ground in this article ranging from the differences between combat soldiers and FOBits to the lack of civilian sacrifice during the past decade. The difference between FOBits and combat soldiers has been an enduring one throughout the history of most of our wars, so a short comment on civilian sacrifice.

While I can partly understand the logic of tax cut to boost the economy, once our civilian leadership decided to make Afghanistan an enduring mission and then invade Iraq on top of that, we all should have received a tax increase to pay for the war(s). Everyone pays since it is "national security." That would ensure all sacrifice, and I suspect if it was labeled a war tax (politicians would probably call it something stupid like a freedom tax) that would end when the conflicts ended, that the American people would have been motivated to hold their government and military accountable. We all got a free ride in this regard, and that contributed to the economic crisis we're in now.

How our public responded to the Vietnam veterans is shameful, and most of the scorn was generated by leftist propaganda that the universities and media embrassed and propagated. Some of the scorn towards individuals was deserved, but it wasn't sniper like scorn, it was directed against anyone in uniform. Fast forward to 2001 and beyond, now everyone in uniform is a hero. Is it even possible to get the majority of Americans who rely on sound bytes in the media to inform their opinion think critically about their government and the military, to lavish praise on those deserving, scorn on the incompetents, respect for all service members who sacrificed (but not all are heroes), and most importantly to hold their politicians accountable? I don't know the answers, but I suspect their social factors that make this desired goal unobtainable. If that is true, then can we ever truly be a government of the people, by the people, for the people?

Bill,
Yes, the FOBbit/combat troop divide is age old (Bill Mauldin's comics come to mind) and I'm more of a FOBbit as a pilot than the other. That point was tangential to the main argument, but I feel that the incidence of demonstrations of a weird insecurity driven by the confluence of the hero worship, the reality that most troops were FOBbits, and the increasing focus on "me" and "my experiences" is a contributor to the unhealthy cultural dynamic.

I haven't seen it in a while, but "The Best Years of our Lives" is a fantastic post-WWII movie that shows a different dynamic. This is something I'd like to explore more in a longer essay.

A similar pattern of adulation has occurred in other Western Military's involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some quick examples of the change in British attitudes to the forces are that British forces are now regularly referred to as "Heroes", where previously they were servicemen and women. Each returning casket was paraded and clapped through the small British town of Wooton Bassett. Large charities now fill the space between government provided care and service people's needs with names like "Help for Heroes".
In NZ, something similar, on a much smaller scale, is occurring. The Prime Minister and other VIPs attend the return home of each returning fallen solider, with follow-up visits to the service persons family. If not, if attending other business of state, they are questioned to why the fallen hero was not his/her first priority.
This is not to stay that service cannot be heroic, or worthy of praise, but it is not always so. Often being in the services, is just like any other job. Being away from family is standard for many in the civilian economy. It also strikes me that placing service personnel on such a pedestal is to ask for future trouble. All people are fallible and service personnel are often placed in situation where failure has terrible consequences. They are also under great stress. They are also young, fit, and often lethal. These, factors, in whichever part of our society, can lead to actions that will not be seen as heroic.
Speaking to a couple of British officers they are very scared of what may occur if the forces, through actions of service personnel, fall off this pedestal. I have spoken to old soldiers, of other era's, that seem to think that the current emotional responses by politicians, and society, to service peoples injuries and deaths, is damaging to the way military operations are conducted. Officers are increasingly held to account for each and every loss of life on both sides which can restrict their freedom of decisions.
In the UK this view of the service personnel as Heroes has created a civilian feeling that they have been let down by Politicians. This is in regard the wars they are fighting in, the kit they have been supplied with, the training they have, the support they get and the health-care they received when home. This feeling has been emphasized by some senior officers and service personnel. It is a dangerous situation to let develop where the politicians are scared of societies adoration of the armed forces. This fear is combined, often, with politicians having a lack of any military experience, or interest. This leads to the politician being captured by the glamour of the military.
This is definitely a shift in the way we think, as a society, about the mililtary and something that needs further investigation.