Small Wars Journal

The Slow Motion Coup: Militarization and the Implications of Eisenhower’s Prescience

Sat, 08/11/2012 - 2:06pm

The Slow Motion Coup: Militarization and the Implications of Eisenhower’s Prescience[1]

Wm. J. Olson

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea….  This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.  President Dwight Eisenhower, Farewell Address, 1961.

President Eisenhower made these observations on the eve of leaving office in 1961.  Close on fifty years ago he warned of the dangers to America—heart, body, and soul—of a threat from the militarization of US social, economic, and political life.  Little heeded, the concern he raised then has had two generations to work its work ever more surely than he foresaw.  The consequence today is the militarization of our foreign policy and the dominance of the military in planning and implementing broad areas of domestic policy as well.  It is, in effect, a slow motion coup in which increasingly military officers and military counsel dominates strategic thinking and significant parts of the political agenda, in a reversal of Clausewitz’s dictum that war is an extension of politics.  Unlike most military coup d’etat, however, this is not the result of a small cabal of military officers plotting, ala Seven Days in May, to seize the government in a bold, overnight military take over.  Instead, it has been years in the making and is the result of contributions from a broad spectrum of politicians, businessmen, think tanks and lobbyists, a complacent public, and the military responding to real and genuine threats to national survival for over 70 years.  This is not a story, yet, of sinister conspirators.  The question is, is there any way to undo what is done and walk back from a situation that so concerned Eisenhower for the fate of the country he served so long and so well.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion of a ‘military takeover’ is the phantasmagoria of the radical fringe that sees conspiracies and plots everywhere.  This fever-swamp mentality makes it possible to lose sight of the slow-motion trend that does exist and is undermining civilian control of the military as well as militarizing large parts of policy and policy formation.  This is a critique also taken up by more mainstream observers, such as Andrew Bacevich, who writes in The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War that the whole American system is corrupt and its politics corrupting.  These arguments, along with academic running-off-at-the-mouth about American imperialism—a supposed analytical term that is never defined—make it difficult for any sober assessment to make headway, as it is easy to dismiss such arguments as extreme, self-serving, partisan, or in some cases merely crazy.[2]

Or, to return to Bacevich,  arguments based on analytical over-reach for which there is little evidence to sustain the weight of the argument; or, rather, there is too much evidence where everything signifies: in his view new American militarism (‘new’ implying that there was an ‘old’) is compounded of military officers trying to rehabilitate their profession and self-esteem after Vietnam (fair enough); religious leaders dismayed by collapsing moral standards; politicians fearful of the decline of American power in a global struggle with communism; pop culture gurus out to make a fast buck; strategists (presumably civilians in think tanks) concerned to retrieve their image after the failures of Vietnam; access to oil and the consequent oil politics; an engrained ‘Wilsonianism’ that became the ideological mantra of successive US presidents, each more ‘Wilsonian’ that his predecessor, to make the world more like America; and a complacent or complicit public all of whom saw in their own image a resort to military programs to solve their respective concerns or anxieties.  Certainly there are broad trends at work, there always are in human affairs.  Whether those trends are the ones recognized and whether they explain, if recognized, the facts of the case in question is the question.  When everything explains nothing explains.  Bacevich tries to do too much with too much, which is better than many of the other arguments, which try to do too much with too little or nothing at all.  And yet. 

And yet, the fact of militarization is plainly indicated, whatever the whys and wherefores, the over-reach or inadequacies of the various arguments attempting to limn the details.  Eisenhower warned about the trend well before any of the elements, excepting Wilsonianism, singled out by Bacevich and others; and the trends making it a possible outcome for American engagement with the world predate or anticipate the arguments of modern enthusiasts determined to see militarization or imperialism in everything.  One is tempted to enlist George Washington in warnings of militarization and the inherent dangers of foreign entanglements that encourage them.  In his farewell address, Washington warned against political factions—parties—permanent foreign alliances, and a threat from an overgrown military establishment.  On foreign entanglements he warned, ‘As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot.   How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils!’  And it was in avoiding those potential foreign engagements that, ‘likewise, they (the United States) will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty.’    

Concern for militarization is not, then, a new theme in American thinking.  It is a recurring one.  It was a concern when there was virtually no military, so it should come as no surprise that it is a concern when we have such a large defense establishment.  It is a concern that certainly predates Bush 43, although much analysis seems to start history with his election, as if that explains.  But concern is not necessarily an indicator of a real problem; and a concern of such long standing and that runs so deep is not explained by listing candidate trends from our present context for which it is near to impossible to display a causal link.  It is more direct to attribute the concern to a longstanding prejudice in the American psyche to an established military, traceable back to at least the Revolution and then to the consequences of Reconstruction following the Civil War.  In that case, present concerns can be discussed as either lingering prejudice determined to see problems where there are none or as a concern no longer valid because time has effaced its meaning.  And yet.

The concern remains.[3]  Whether the analysis is inaccurate or crazy, what it displays is an awareness of something going on, an awareness that transcends the mode of analysis or idiosyncratic symptomology.   To understand it, to grasp its role and meaning, one does not have to resort to warmed over Marxist analysis, which was wrong about everything; some academic preoccupation with imperialism, whatever that means and which itself is warmed over from Marxism; or to some conspiracy theory involving the Trilateral Commission, neo-conservatives, or an evil cabal of militarists.  The interesting point is the similarities in the concern not the perspective from which it derives.  When you find Eisenhower and Chomsky agreeing on something, that is more than just a curiosity.

American Anti-Militarism

Americans have historically not been anti-military.  What concerned Americans about the military for much of their history was the role of an established military in a democratic society.  The Constitution provides for a military, a commander in chief, and the mechanisms for maintaining a national defense.  The country owed its independence to a resort to arms that in part depended upon raising, training, and maintaining an army as well as soliciting international armed support.  The Founders were not naïve about the need for some degree of military capability, and even so anti-military a figure as Thomas Jefferson was responsible for creating West Point and dispatching military expeditions abroad.  At times of need, and there have been not a few in the 221 years of the republic, the nation has turned to the military to defend its shores, expand the country, suppress rebellion, protect the frontier, or comfort people in distress.  The traditional concern has been for the proper relation between the military and the people and government that it is answerable to.  The common way this is discussed today is to speak of civilian control of the military, but this in itself reflects a shift in the relationship or way that things are understood.  The issue, as it was once framed, was not how civilians might control a military but how a military performed its function in a democratic, civil society; and how, given that understanding, a military was to be trained, used, maintained, and, most important, understand its own role.

For most of American history, the military was a small, insignificant factor, especially in comparison to virtually all other contemporary countries.  And, outside a small range of issues, was not present or heard from on the councils and in the counsels of government.  While there was a standing army, it was miniscule and almost invisible in normal life.  In need, the country relied upon the small standing forces to constitute the cadre around which citizens would be mustered to arms in whatever numbers were deemed necessary for the duration of the emergency and then released.  Citizen soldiers.  Temporarily armed civilians.  This was the pattern in even so great a national crisis as the Civil War, was repeated in World War I, and looked like being the case following World War II.  The change occurred with the Cold War and the existential threat posed by a remorseless adversary with the bomb bent on our destruction. 

That seemingly permanent, certainly dramatic, threat was chiefly responsible for creating the permanent defense establishment that is now of concern and that Eisenhower was among the first to outline as a concern in and of itself.  The Cold War necessitated a break with American practice in that it forced the creation of a large, standing army, something unknown in American experience and not accounted for in any understanding of how to deal with such a change.[4]  But more than that, it created a large, expanding domestic base for sustaining it—the military-industrial complex.  While the Cold War did not create a permanent wartime economy or emergency planning structure—indeed, the Cold War was won without military means—it effectively created a permanent presence in the mind of planners, lobbyists, strategists, and policy makers while it accustomed the public to paying for the arrangements.  A public and private defense bureaucracy with an interest in maintaining its roles and missions, even if such roles and missions lost their main reason for existing.  One does not need to import Wilson or fundamentalist preachers or neo-conservatives or pop culture opportunists or scheming imperialists to explain this systemic reality.  Nor will importing such explanations help in trying to understand how deep this reality extends into the national life or what, if anything, can be done to walk us back from it.

The Vietnam Watershed

The essential, shared, understanding of the Cold War—among American policy makers and with their Soviet counterparts, enemies though they were—was that the war had to be fought and won without resort to fighting and winning.  That is, because of the destructive power of nuclear weapons, the logic of human history up to that point could not apply to thinking about conflict after that point.  The problem for American and Soviet leaders was how to win a war without fighting one to its logical conclusion.  Certainly, given the depth and degree of animosity between the Soviet Union and the United States, the historical culmination of such rivalry based on any reading of human history since before records were kept is that the two adversaries would settle their differences on the battlefield sooner or later.  Such wars had winners and losers, this time, wait for the next time.  Nuclear weapons, however, fairly guaranteed that the loser would not have a next time and the winner would have nothing left to show for winning.  ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ was the quaint phrase and it haunted all strategic thinking.

Given the Soviet determination to destroy the United States and everything it stood for—a fundamental fact that many now seem to wish away or pretend was not the fact, such is the role of thinking in human affairs—but given the limitations that nuclear holocaust placed on the logic of conflict, that determination and the resort to the means of conflict to operationalize it had to take on a host of alternative mechanisms, warlike in their intent but not military in their means, at least not directly.  Similarly, the United States had to devise responses in defense that protected key interests, promoted others, and promised, however, to limit conflict to levels below mutual destruction.  That led to three key efforts. 

The first was a theory of containment.  Based on one of most salient pieces of political analysis in modern history, George Kennan outlined a strategy for defeating the Soviet Union by containing its internationalist pretentions and letting the inherent contradictions in the communist system bring about a largely bloodless victory.  This idea, adopted by the Truman Administration and confirmed as national policy by Eisenhower, became the basis for US Cold War policy and formed an essential feature in a national, bi-partisan consensus that sustained American efforts for over 50 years.[5]

The second element was a theory of limited war, largely the product of civilian analysts and politicians.  This thought process recognized that all-out war was out of the question but that smaller struggles, testing the margins if you will, were inevitable and had to be fought but not allowed to escape limits that carried the conflict into direct, suicidal war.  This view helped to produce a burgeoning class of limited war theorists to provide the knowledge base and theoretical constructs for this as an element in Cold War non-war fighting.[6]   The essential principle was that war could not be allowed to follow the logic of war as it had hitherto been understood.  That way disaster lay.  Yet, such a necessity did not eliminate the possibility of conflict.  It meant trying to find ways to respond to conflict without losing control over escalation.  The theory of limited war also drew upon notions that war can be ruled governed, that is, it is subject to control and limitation and is not some independent phenomenon that determines its own rules of extremism as it unfolds on ideas it has of itself.  A separate metaphysical force.

The third approach, an outgrowth of containment doctrine, was to create a military capable of waging all-out war to convince the adversary that waging all-out war was crazy.  It meant creating an establishment with the hopes of never having to use it and of developing plans and policies to ensure that it would not be used, its existence and capability being the guarantee that it would not be used.  Deterrence.  The dominance of political logic over military logic, or the logic of history, for that matter.  Implementing this idea required a major, peacetime expansion of the military unprecedented in American experience.  It did not mean fighting a total war with limited means but fighting it within limits.  Along with this developed the idea of creating a limited war capability, best reflected in the creation of special forces units, to conduct operations short of major conflict.  This was the Cold War architecture.  A result of the particular circumstances following World War II and the confrontation between what became, because of that confrontation, two superpowers.  These three approaches came into conflict in Vietnam, a struggle over Asian geography that still has a presence in American mental landscapes.  It also precipitated a struggle over the role of war and thinking about war in American strategy, a struggle over the role of the political and military in dealing with issues of war and peace.

War Is Too Important to be Left to the Politicians

Vietnam precipitated a crisis of conscience and consciousness in military circles quite apart from the domestic political crisis that it also inflamed.  The Korean War actually opened for inspection some of the basic tensions and contradictions inherent in American strategic thinking but it did not last long enough to bring the struggle over strategy into stark relief.  But the confrontation between President Truman and General MacArthur over control of the war provides a synecdoche for what will follow and in some ways illustrates an on-going tension between the ‘American way of war’ and the demands of war in the nuclear age.  A circumstance ripe with potential political-military dissensus. 

In his classic The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy, Russell Weigley provides a useful background to traditional American thinking about strategy, both by politicians and by the military.  While it covers a multitude of issues, the one to single out here is the US military view of strategy for much of its history.  As Weigley demonstrates, ‘…it is true that during 1941-45 and throughout American history until that time, the United States usually possessed no national strategy for employment of forces or the threat of force to attain political ends, except as the nation used force in wartime openly and directly in pursuit of military victories as complete as was desired or possible.’ (xix) 

The military’s idea of strategy was limited to the application of force on the battlefield to achieve success on the battlefield and what training and equipment was necessary to do that.  The concept was to win enough battles until the other side quit and admitted defeat.  This view contained within it the unspoken, at times made explicit, assumption that when war started politicians, having started it and set its terms, would retire for the duration and let the fighting proceed until victory was secured on the battlefield, supplying the necessary men and material until then.  One of the indirect advantages for the nation in this, as Weigley notes, is that it reduced the temptation for and the reality of military men dabbling in national policy making.  But it also meant that the military lacked any idea or experience of ‘political warfare’, the reasons for which wars are fought, and viewed politics as usual as an unwarranted interference in military matters until the fighting stopped.  Politicians started wars the military ended them.  That was the division of labor.  This will eventually be a fateful division.

Although WWII, the single most influential moment in modern American military experience, was a most political war, the fact that America defined its war aims as the unconditional surrender of its enemies, which meant unconditional victory, the political aspects of the war surrendered place until the fighting was over, thus never challenging the essential military understanding of war and politics.  By the end of the war, the United States, based on military necessity, engaged in the fire bombing of Dresden and numerous Japanese cities and the ultimate use of nuclear weapons on civilian targets.  Understandable in context but controversial still.  These practices, however, fit well with US military thinking as derived from its own understanding of conflict and influenced thinking as the Cold War began.  This is seen most clearly in the confrontation between President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.

Lost now is how dangerous than confrontation was to the idea of civilian control of the military when an unpopular president dismissed a very popular military leader for stepping outside traditional bounds and publicly advocating a war policy in Korea at complete variance with government policy.[7]  President Lincoln, no stranger to troubles from political generals, made clear to his greatest general, Grant, ‘You are not to decide, discuss or confer with anyone or ask political questions; such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. ‘[8]  Grant was able to follow orders.  MacArthur thought he knew better. 

Addressing a join session of Congress after his dismissal—itself an unprecedented event—he would note that the Administration was tying the military’s hand in Korea by not allowing it to win the war the way America had won WWII, by going for unconditional victory against its enemies—China, and unstated, the Soviet Union.[9]  Although MacArthur did not advocate an outright invasion of China, by the US, he called for an economic blockade, a naval blockade of Chinese ports, unlimited aerial reconnaissance—with presumably the means to defeat Chinese air interdiction capabilities—and freeing Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist forces from Taiwan to invade mainland China with US logistical support.   The essence of MacArthur’s position was that political considerations had to yield to military necessity until fighting ceased, or rather he called for political decisions that supported military necessity to end in victory, there being no substitute for winning.  Limited wars were anathema. 

Fortunately for Truman, the Joint Chiefs did not support MacArthur, and the much respected Chairman, Omar Bradley—with George C. Marshall behind him as Secretary of Defense—made it clear that MacArthur’s idea of going to war with China, directly or indirectly, was the wrong war with the wrong enemy.  Although MacArthur, as in a famous line from his speech, eventually faded away, the confrontation highlighted an important clash of cultures—the political and the military—and suggested a potential problem in civilian control of the military on issues of war and national security; and its denouement did nothing to alter underlying realities.  All of this before the growth of the military-industrial complex limned by President Eisenhower or the crisis of conscience generated by US engagement in Vietnam.  

It is important to bear in mind, despite all the experience that US political and military leaders had and could bring to bear on the international situation as it developed after WWII, that none of them had any experience in responding to that situation.  The nature of confrontation was unprecedented in American experience, largely a different situation in international politics heretofor, and the policies and institutional arrangements it called forth wholly outside anyone’s understanding, especially for the long term.   In responding to the exigencies of the moment, little sustained thought went into examining how decisions on the means necessary to wage a protracted conflict without resorting to war would play out.  Given the existential nature of the threat, immediate concerns precluded such second guessing in any event, or made it problematic if it interfered with perceived necessity.  It is important to keep this in mind to keep from falling into the conspiracy theories that accompany much of the discussion of Vietnam, militarization, or issues of American power and presence.  In addition, fighting a war meant winning it in American minds.  Limited war smacked of a type of realpolitik alien to Americans’ understanding of the country’s role and mission.  Truman faced having to sell a policy of engagement alien to American experience as a whole and to the political and military establishment in particular.  A problem his successors, particularly Eisenhower, shared.  A problem that troubles still.

On Vietnam

America won the war in Vietnam.  That is not the common understanding but it is a simple fact.  The war ended with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, which at its outset made it clear that ‘The United States and all other countries respect the independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Viet-Nam as recognized by the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet-Nam’.  The problem lay in the fact that the United States believed it had signed a peace while the North Vietnamese only signed a ceasefire.  The North’s invasion of the South in 1975, with American response as provided for in the Accords prohibited by a US domestic political crisis, revoked the peace and created a new situation.  The loss of Vietnam that followed, the complicated reasons for the failure of a US response, and the domestic political turmoil in and around the war have mudded and troubled all understanding of the war then and now.  This is not the place to revisit old fights or misunderstandings about the war itself.  But it and its denouement play an important role in trying to understand the unfolding of the militarization of US foreign policy and much besides.

Vietnam brought to the surface all the inherent tensions in American thinking—political and military—about  war, Cold War, limited war, and sustained engagement.  It was the real test of a concept of engagement that sought to contain communist expansion without resorting to all-out war, a political concept, into conflict with long-term US military concepts of war being fought to win.[10]  These tensions had surfaced over Korea but that ‘police action’ ended before the full meaning of the differences could play out on battlefields and conference rooms.  The protracted and escalatory nature of US engagement in Vietnam, however, provided the context for the incipient disaccord to prosper.

Although this debate was conducted in multiple forums across many years by many hearts and hands, the quintessential encapsulation of the struggle can be uncovered in a seminal work by Colonel Harry Summers, his On Strategy: A Critical Summary of the Vietnam War.[11]  The work is a curious amalgamation of the American way of war and Summers’ selective reading of Clausewitz’s classic On War, consciously reflected in Summers’ choice of title.  Curious it may be, but it became the standard US military understanding, which remains in effect today, and because of its wide distribution and longevity influential in ways no longer directly connected to the original argument.  Its main thrust is that there is no such thing as limited war, there cannot be, and any attempt to conduct one is an illusion born of ignorance—an ignorance wholly the province of civilian strategists and political leaders who do not grasp what war means, its essence.  The unwritten message is that only the military understands war and Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means.  As Summers reminds his readers, ‘As limited-war theorists had prescribed, the U.S. was sending signals to the enemy.  Unfortuantely the signal was that the U.S. was not serious about waging war.  But the North Vietnamese were playing by the old rules, where the object of war is victory.  And those old rules proved decisive.’ (xiv).  Clausewitz’s long, subtle, and often obscure text is deployed repeatedly to make this point, much of the text taken up with long passages from On War.   

Unfortunately, Summers’ view, and consequently the military’s view, of Vietnam and American purpose there was singularly myopic.  While it might be possible to accept his claim, just, that the insurgency in South Vietnam was a mere illusion and that North Vietnamese main force units were the real threat, it is less realistic, in accepting that notion, to subscribe to the view that the United States could engage in a total war to unconditional victory in what was a sideshow of the Cold War without consequences.  Summers, however, dismisses the idea that going for victory—which would have meant full-scale invasion of North Vietnam and heavy doses of strategic bombing—would widen the war in any serious way that needed to be taken into account.  It is, in effect, MacArthur’s narrow view revisited and reflects what the US military wants if it is expected to fight, that is, a war it wants and knows how to fight.  

Drawing on Summers, drawing on Clausewitz, the repeated mantra became ‘war is politics by other means’, which in this use meant war must be free to fight without political interference until peace is restored, war having an inexorable logic of its own—which only the military understands—that will not be denied without dire consequences.  Leaving aside that Clausewitz was a career military office in a militarized state with no experience of any sort of politics, much less politics in a democratic society, it is hard to know what this phrase is supposed to mean, beyond a banal observation.[12]  What Summers and others use of the term meant, however, was an attempt to return to the American way of war reasserted against the essential elements of US Cold War containment strategy.  In case anyone misses the point, Summers then presents the Army’s Principles of War, that tried and true list of what the Army believed and believes are the essentials for fighting, which do not mention political aspects as a consideration.[13]  This effort was, is, a reversal of Clausewitz, making policy subordinate to war fighting considerations.  In short, it meant the military did not buy into the main political element of American post-WWII strategy and offered its substitute, war freed from politics.  What flows through On Strategy, and because of its influence and distribution, runs through US military thinking is the need to get civilians out of the mix on war fighting.[14]  Once limited to the idea that politicians should step aside once war started, having set the terms and goals, the idea migrated into the need to control strategic thinking itself in all its forms, and to settle once and for all that the US would only engage its military to win as defined by the military.  No limited wars.  No more Vietnams.

The problem is, the single most important element in strategy is its political dimension.  The one area that the military is singularly unable to understand or comprehend or include in its calculations, apart from mouthing the importance of non-military means, is the political dimension.  Thus, its expanding control of all forms of strategic thinking excludes its most critical component.  And civilians have increasingly been relegated to approving this approach not directing it.  Reflected in the Weinberger Doctrine and in the so-called Powell Doctrine, and endorsed de facto if not de jure by successive presidents and Secretaries of Defense and Congress, US strategy and as a consequences its foreign policy has been progressively militarized and denatured of genuine political insight or control, alien to Lincoln’s admonition to Grant noted earlier.  


There are two convergent mechanisms whereby this reality is effected.  The first is the evolution of the military-industrial complex and the creation of a large, self-perpetuating civil-military defense establishment.  As noted, this creation was an essential and necessary feature of US Cold War strategy and the confrontation with the Soviet Union.  The underlying logic was to create a permanent war fighting capability—which meant a permanent sustainment base—in order to make ultimate war fighting as unlikely as possible.  A political logic.  The systemic consequences of that, however, created a situation unanticipated.  Over the years it has meant the steady growth of the defense budget to its present $600bn plus demand on the federal budget.  As a proportion of GDP, that is less than many countries, although growing.  But size does not matter.  Or it matters in unexpected ways. 

What the Pentagon has learned to do over time, assisted by members of Congress and constituent pressure, is to  establish defense-related industries in virtually every congressional district in the country, linking the defense budget to local jobs.  Given the need for a balanced budget and the entitlement-driven parts of the federal budget that sequesters much of it, discretionary spending to finance the government is limited and subject to competition.  Agencies like the Department of State have no domestic constituency and little ability to generate understanding of its mission much less build the pressure groups to push back.[15]  As a result, here, and in agency after agency with national security responsibilities, budgets are mere fractions, budget dust, in comparison to DoD.  Power in Washington is a function of manpower and money.  The 800 pound gorilla gets its way.  The Department of Defense is only too aware of this and vigorously fends off efforts to trim its funding or repel ‘boarders’ from other agencies seeking to abstract some portion of the largess to their accounts.  This is the conscious part of the effort.  But, again, there is an unintended or backhanded version of this.

Given the nature of maneuvering for access to limited resources—money—DoD has developed into the largest lobbying organization in the country, working Congress and the Executive Branch not so much with finesse as with sheer weight of numbers.  Much of this is overt and necessary.  Business as usual and as needful.  But there is also now the tendency of subcomponents within DoD, to include OSD and the services, to develop back channels to Congress, to key committees and members, in order to promote or protect favorite initiatives, sometimes in opposition to policy as laid down by the Secretary or the President.  But it does not stop with this.  Individual subordinates in DoD—and not just there—have also developed lines of communication to individual staffers or members to promote or protect their own favorite issue—all in the belief that their ‘policy’ or ‘program’ is vital to national security whatever else anyone might say.  In addition, with the growing comfortable relationship between DoD and its many subcomponents and individuals and the burgeoning class of quasi-government organizations—private contractors and contracting firms—the circle of available lobbyists for pet projects has expanded exponentially.  There is now a vast network of informal contacts—essential to doing business—that is beyond the control of Presidents or Secretaries or anyone else.  Relationships and practices that ethics rules cannot begin to touch.  While not new in the history of the Republic, this informal network now exists on an unimaginable scale shot through the entire structure of how business is conducted with tens of billions of dollars at stake.  It works for good but it also has less favorable, unintended outcomes. 

One of these is the long-term effect on mental frameworks and understanding of DoD components, who on the one hand increasingly see themselves as the only agency competent to act effectively, regardless of issues; and on the other hand who bemoan other agencies unwillingness to do their fair share.   This has meant years and years of under-investing in the non-military components of national security and foreign policy.  Components then blamed for not being prepared to help DoD fight the wars it wants and knows how to fight. 

On Strategy

The second major route by which the Department of Defense has come to dominate strategic thinking is through control over virtually all of the government-based strategic think tanks and educational institutions.  Because of immensely deep pockets, this is an influence that extends to many non-government think tanks and certainly to the host of DoD-dependent contract institutes and organizations.  There is no strategic think tank in government outside the Department of Defense, and the few feeble efforts that might play a role are overwhelmed by the sheer number and size of what DoD can deploy.  The Policy Planning office at State is often noted as an exception, but it ceased being a strategic center many years ago.  In addition, the vast supply of former military officers, particularly retired general officers, means that many of the strategic, long-range thinking and planning institutes, organizations, school houses, and offices—public and private--are dominated by military officers reared in the context of understanding war noted earlier. 

Increasingly the intelligence community has fallen under military control, even nominally civilian offices.  Further, nominally civilian policy positions in OSD, and beyond, are being filled increasingly by retired officers.  There are now contracting firms largely controlled by retired officers—and some now created by former enlisted men—advising DoD and increasingly foreign governments; an expansion of the number of former military on staffs and committees in Congress; and, of course, the easy transfer from military service into every sort and variety of contracting firm doing business with DoD and other agencies.  Institutionally, the major instrument of US engagement in the world, the principal means for executing all manner of efforts, is through the Combatant Commands, with commanders now near pro-consuls abroad and increasingly at home, with memories of MacArthur.  Much of the buzz for reform of the ‘whole of government’ now working its way to Bethlehem to be born is based on Goldwater-Nichols thinking—the major instrument for reforming DoD in the 1980s--and is heavily influenced by defense experts.  Much of the discussion is how the interagency community must be reconstructed in order to complement military programs and efforts, from contingency operations to counterinsurgency to stability operations, all the reforms aiming to make agencies DoD compliant.  Goldwater-Nichols increased, as an unintended consequence, the bureaucratic power and centrality of DoD in government counsels, a project once wholly alien to the formation of policy.  Thus, progressively, strategy and policy have become largely subordinate to military concepts and have lost much of the essential political component, politics becoming war by the means the warfighters choose. 

It is now hard to remember that this was not always the case and is only the case now since Vietnam, although the Cold War was a major context for the development of this system.  Even Eisenhower did not foresee this development.  Given that the military is incapable of comprehending the political component—and the non-military elements of national policy—and what this means, increasingly strategy is losing or has lost its political dimension as a controlling and guiding element.  The words are there but the content has lost meaning.  The dividing line, once clear, between advocacy and advice is fading, like the Cheshire cat.  This is on public display virtually every day as senior military officers express opinions carried in major papers on matters of political concern, questioning decisions—or endorsing them to give them credibility—or reassuring the public that this politician or other has their endorsement, or not.  The air waves are now full of retired officers with prestigious pundit/analyst positions pronouncing their views far and wide.  Presidents increasingly now have only military means and options to respond to situations that require something else.  The slow, progressive nature of the change has also meant that it has largely occurred without notice, below the radar screen, everyone becoming gradually accustomed to the changes and without memory of what that change is.  Institutions and practices have adjusted to accommodate the reality, reinforcing the process.   As Mark Twain once observed, ‘Man is an animal that can become used to anything, damn him.’

Where To

Most of the things discussed above are part of a systemic process that evolved.  It was not the result of intent, evil or good, but a natural corollary of necessary decisions in one context that created meaning in another.  What is often lost in analysis of complex events is the complexity of events.  Most analysis enjoys a luxury unavailable to decision makers—time.  It also enjoys a distance and the aura of objectivity denied to those who must act.  When charged with great responsibility in demanding situations, you have to make decisions about what to do before all the facts, even some that are reasonably knowable, are in.  You must act knowing that not everyone agrees and many may oppose and offer contrary views and courses.  You must act knowing that the very fact of taking a course of action will involve responses that generate new, unanticipated outcomes at odds with the best of intentions and that may preclude other courses of action or even success itself.  You must act knowing that you may be wrong, and that many will believe you are wrong and blame you even if you are not.  You must act knowing that people may get hurt or die.  You must be prepared to stay the course and see a decision through even when many are shouting for a different course—generally with no more assurance of being right than you.  You must act knowing that you may never know the outcome or the benefits of success.  You must act knowing you might fail.  You can fail, be wrong, over-estimate your ability and underestimate the opponent or the circumstances.  None of that is a relief from acting or a pardon from responsibility. 

Nothing that I have said above is meant to levy blame.  If blame or censure is at issue, there is plenty to go around.  Nothing here is meant to impugn the honor, integrity, sense of duty, or selflessness of anyone, civilian or military, who undertakes the responsibility of public service and defense of home and country.  But the issues engaged and consequences involved require a sober assessment of what the environment has become.  And there is a more solemn undercurrent that is of more concern, reflecting a divergence in outlook and perception that is unfortunate now but could become more serious with time.

With 9/11 it became fairly clear, if it was not before, that others had declared war on the United States and were willing and clearly able to mount attacks on American soil claiming American lives with devastating effects.  That essential fact led an American president, who had other things in mind, to focus his efforts on defeating an enemy whose intent was plainly indicated in the smoke and ash in Manhattan.  With grim determination the nation went to war.  Is still at war.  But two things need to be recalled.  First, with one exception, Americans have never gone to war with anything approaching unanimity.  Indeed, there has been since the Revolution and including that struggle a significant opposition to going to war and opposition during the war.  It is as recurrent a theme in American political life as motherhood and apple pie.  What else would one expect in a representative democracy, whose existence is premised upon and derived from notions of the legitimacy of difference of opinion on important issues and the need to give scope and means for the exercise of those differences? 

The one exception, WWII, had unique origins and US involvement ended quickly and successfully.  Even so, America delayed entry into the war because of a serious anti-war, isolationist element in the nation at large even though the nation and the world faced an enemy whose menace was unambiguous, direct, and deadly.  And at the outset of that war, given its origins for the US, many charged the President with complicity in the attacks at Pearl Harbor, and some scholarship since has kept that accusation, without evidence, alive ,despite and perhaps because of the lack of evidence.  Thus, opposition to war and wild conspiracy mongering—even George Washington as president was accused of treason and Lincoln accused of being a tyrant—are basic to Americans living with each other.

The second thing that needs to be recalled is that when Americans go to war they generally expect a clear purpose clearly stated based on goals that transcend mere national, political interest.  They generally expect speedy conclusions.  They are uncomfortable with ambiguity.  They are restive in protracted circumstances.  They are impatient of failure.  Being a practical people with, however, a system of government based on abstract principles, what else is to be expected?  Unfortunately, recognizing this, enemies often trade in ambiguity and longevity.  Thus, added to the normal American reluctance to engage in prolonged conflict without clarity where goals are muddy and means unsavory are environments that resist clarity and invite unwelcome actions.  A formula for dissensus.

The military too dislikes ambiguity and wants wars it understands and knows how to fight.  It wants to be left alone to fight the wars.  This leads to a tendency to want to choose ‘comfortable’ wars or to convert conflicts into those it understands—a habit of thought not confined to the United States—and to get politicians out of the way for the duration.  The stuff of politics, however, is ambiguity and how to deal with it, with the necessity of dealing with it, of trade offs, solutions deferred, desires frustrated, outcomes subject to renegotiation and change, of delay, obfuscation, and denial.  If war is politics by other means, then it becomes very much the latter set of realities and not what the military wants war to be.  But many in the military, officers and rank and file, are becoming increasingly impatient with the public and political leaders for not sharing the military’s understanding of war and its demands.  A view accentuated by the events of 9/11.


If the attacks in New York created a state of war, then it is a war of such a character that it falls outside our comfort zone.  War in the past is something that goes on between states—excepting civil wars.  Indeed, the rules of war as currently understood derive from the practices of states and have great difficulty in being translated into circumstances involving non-state actors, whether internal or transnational.  Many of the guiding principles that have been resolved, more or less, in state-to-state relations remain fertile ground for dispute when non-state situations and actors are involved.  For the United States, a great and global power, to regard itself as being at war, and an international war not an internal one, with a non-state actor is sufficiently unique as to deserve more thought than the situation sometimes receives.  The tendency is to think ‘war’ and not ‘difference’ and move ahead.  The legal kerfuffle over the status of ‘global insurgents’, terrorists, or whatever, is only one manifestation of this and the ambiguity it occasions.  Whatever else might be said, the current war is neither World War II nor Vietnam.  It’s not the Cold War either.  It resists easy classification because, while terrorists and terrorism even international terrorism are not new, the environment and the demands of the present are different from what anyone is used to or knows how to deal with.  Yet, we are responding with institutions, idea sets, and solutions drawn from the past, trying to adapt to the present.  And we increasingly are in a situation in which strategy and the chief institutions responsible for it are militarized. 

The model that the military wants to apply is the experience of the nation at war as in WWII.  A nation mobilized and committed as it was 1941-1945.  Not the Cold War model, an engagement of long-duration and considerable ambiguity.  That is not happening, nor is it likely to.  This is the source of increasing frustration.  Although not voiced too often in public, want one hears in private from officers and others is that after 9/11 only the military went to war.  The rest of the country is not committed and does not understand.  It is a war, it must be won, and only the military gets it.  This is a calumny on all the first responders, on the public at large—who not only must provide the means and sustain them but whose decision it is if there is war or not—and on the entire civilian establishment of government, to include Congress, for which the military reserves a special contempt.  No senior civilian or military leader has ever taken anyone to task for expressing such a view.  It is a dangerous impression to allow to linger unchallenged. 

What Next

It is customary at this point in such exercises to offer recommendations.  I have none.  It would be an arrogance to suggest that I have solutions for an issue that has such deep roots and that has been so long in the making.  It is, as Eisenhower suggested, also without offering solutions, for the nation to take seriously and to discuss seriously in order to arrive at answers compatible with the national interest and our character as a free people.  To become aware and arrive at answers collectively with the knowledge that goodwill is not the same as good intentions.

The temptation is to suggest a national commission.  But this would conform to the rule of such commissions, which is the three-part recommendations one knows in advance: this is a serious issue; only the president has the authority to deal with it; we need to reform government—or the ‘whole of government’—in which the process needs a ‘czar’ to manage it.  And then the unwritten rule: the recommendations will be ignored or submitted to the interplay of interests and systemic realities that created the problem, producing a solution that only reconfirms the problem in perhaps some new ways.  The reform of the intelligence community and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 coming to mind.  The drive to reform government to improve interagency coordination is of the same species.  It too directs attention to measures that will not address the basic problems, but it will reassure everyone that they have done something.  As the poet would instruct us: ‘We dance round in a ring and suppose, /But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.’

It is in this mix that Eliot Cohen’s study, Supreme Command, enters the fray, or ought to.[16]  I am not sure that his suggestion, in one context, that presidents ought to be rude to the military is altogether on the mark, but reassertion of civilian control over the military is essential.  But more than this, there is the need to reassert civilian control over the whole strategic policy making process, which goes well beyond any single president or Congress.  The country does not lack strategies—or coordination of strategies for that matter—but it does lack a coherent, national consensus to sustain a strategic vision and national purpose, the means to achieve one, and the political control of the moving parts to give it reality.  There is no shortage of advice, but advice will not help in this situation.

Take just one simple question: Does the United States need a military establishment as large as it now has?  Two simple answers: yes, which is the default position that will be pushed by those with a stake—and they are legion—in the answer; and no, which is the subject matter for an intense and excruciating soul searching that goes all the way down leaving nothing untouched.  But, on what criteria would an answer be based?  Interest in the outcome or concern by itself are not adequate.  And how does one establish any sort of consensus on the necessary criteria?  Or establish convincingly that any analysis arriving at the criteria is not self-interested, biased, or partisan?  And who is the best source to bring such an issue to the table?  There is no shortage of opinion.  But where does wisdom lie?  And how to know it?  It is a simple question.  There are no easy answers.  To ask it is only the beginning.

To take one example.  If ‘small wars’ are the most likely circumstance for the future of conflict, these, of necessity, require ‘small’ responses.  Not just an appropriate force structure but a support establishment short of the scale and scope of the current Department of Defense with all its rococo embellishments.  There is a need for specialized, scaled components specific to the need and not large, general purpose forces.  But if this is the case, then promotion opportunities, justifications for large, regular military formations and the resources necessary are likely to follow the requirements of a much reduced overall force structure.  The system as outlined above, however, is not only not geared to such a need but is designed to resist any effort to reduce the current establishment or to accept missions that suggest such a course.  This is one reason why China is increasingly seen as a military threat.  It putatively offers a threat of a ‘regular’ sort on a scale to justify a large force structure, which, according to the argument, is then more than capable of dealing with ‘lesser’ threats.  Whether this is strategically valid is less a consideration.  And the shift is itself not part of a politically considered strategy but a process driven by the military and its imperatives that now drives the process.

The current military establishment rejects the logic of small responses expect as ‘other duties as assigned’.  Such a mentality, which pervades military leadership, leads to an insistence on wars that will employ large, regular forces or turning lesser circumstances into those wars it is equipped to fight, creating a capability-requirement mismatch.  Thus, for example, although the United States was engaged in Iraq for almost ten years, the military that the US took to war was only trained and equipped for the first eight weeks of the ten years.

Or another simple question: Why do we have Combatant Commanders?  This is a model drawn from WWII, made formal and deeply rooted as the result of the Cold War.  Both are over.  Why does the establishment linger?  And if we are to have a pro-consul per region, why a military officer?  Why not a senior civilian with a military adviser? 

Despite the comment above on commissions, there is one commissioner that needs to engage to follow up on the dialogue that President Eisenhower began.  To echo Cohen’s argument, that commissioner is the President, now and all his colleagues as former presidents.  The immediate demands of the office generally overwhelm the ability of presidents to deal in grand issues, which is one reason why Eisenhower made his observations at the end of his tenure.  It needs to begin the tenure and sustain itself through successive presidents, regardless of party.  It needs presidents to engage members of Congress in the discussion.  It needs leadership and patience and a serious, sustained dialogue with the public.

President Eisenhower, a former military officer, put the issue on the table for our consideration.  It is time to accept his challenge in the spirit in which he raised it.

To all the peoples of the world, I once more give expression to America's prayerful and continuing aspiration:

We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.






My fellow Americans:

Three days from now, after half a century in the service of our country, I shall lay down the responsibilities of office as, in traditional and solemn ceremony, the authority of the Presidency is vested in my successor.

This evening I come to you with a message of leave-taking and farewell, and to share a few final thoughts with you, my countrymen.

Like every other citizen, I wish the new President, and all who will labor with him, Godspeed. I pray that the coming years will be blessed with peace and prosperity for all.

Our people expect their President and the Congress to find essential agreement on issues of great moment, the wise resolution of which will better shape the future of the Nation.

My own relations with the Congress, which began on a remote and tenuous basis when, long ago, a member of the Senate appointed me to West Point, have since ranged to the intimate during the war and immediate post-war period, and, finally, to the mutually interdependent during these past eight years.

In this final relationship, the Congress and the Administration have, on most vital issues, cooperated well, to serve the national good rather than mere partisanship, and so have assured that the business of the Nation should go forward. So, my official relationship with the Congress ends in a feeling, on my part, of gratitude that we have been able to do so much together.


We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.


Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt both at home and abroad.

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology -- global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger is poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle -- with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research -- these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs -- balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage -- balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.

The record of many decades stands as proof that our people and their government have, in the main, understood these truths and have responded to them well, in the face of stress and threat. But threats, new in kind or degree, constantly arise. I mention two only.


A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present

  • and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.


Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.


Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.

Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.

Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war -- as one who knows that anothe[17]r war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years -- I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.

Happily, I can say that war has been avoided. Steady progress toward our ultimate goal has been made. But, so much remains to be done. As a private citizen, I shall never cease to do what little I can to help the world advance along that road.


So -- in this my last good night to you as your President -- I thank you for the many opportunities you have given me for public service in war and peace. I trust that in that service you find some things worthy; as for the rest of it, I know you will find ways to improve performance in the future.

You and I -- my fellow citizens -- need to be strong in our faith that all nations, under God, will reach the goal of peace with justice. May we be ever unswerving in devotion to principle, confident but humble with power, diligent in pursuit of the Nation's great goals.

To all the peoples of the world, I once more give expression to America's prayerful and continuing aspiration:

We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.

[1] The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not reflect an official position of NDU, DoD, or any US government entity.

[2] A few examples: Chalmers Johnson, who must be trying to outdo Noam Chomsky: The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic; Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Repbublic; Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.  Noam Chomsky, who never met a fact he questions if it supports his predetermined conclusions: Hegemony or Survival.  Chomsky has become a cottage industry of vituperation and over-the-edge analysis, and it is not necessary to list more than one of this endless stream of tirades to make the point.  Andrew Bacevich details others in this genre most handily in his The New American Militarism.  As he notes, much of this critique is jejune, partisan, borderline hysterical, and useless for any serious policy purposes.  They are filled with ad hominem attacks, opinion presented as fact, and arguments little better than rants.  The notable exception being Michael Sherry’s In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s.  Even this work, however, is written by someone who never had to make a policy decision, was never held responsible for making a decision, was never charged with protecting the public interest, and never had to fight the policy fights to get anything done in circumstances where a decision had to be made without the luxury of waiting for all the ‘facts’.  Thus, it is possible to make sweeping judgments about why people did things without any real understanding of what they faced in doing those things; or offer opinions as explanations for complicated circumstances for which there is no way to refute since there is nothing but opinion to substantiate the view.  One can argue over facts but opinions are immune to refutation or even meaningful discussion.  In Sherry’s hands, everything related to national security and defense becomes an example illustrating militarization.  This is a common trend in much academic analysis and makes it of problematic value in understanding complex realities.   It is possible to conjecture that the entire concept of the Cold War—of an aggressive Soviet Union based on world domination, an idea inherent in its underlying philosophical and political rationale on its own terms—was mistaken, a paranoid fantasy of overwrought politicians responding to non-existent threats.  There is a whole class of academic analysis based on precisely this view.  But assuming that the political leaders of the time were not wholly venal, evil, and driven by motives for world domination, then one must give some credit to the honesty of  their view that there was a threat and that they were charged with the responsibility of both taking it seriously and doing something about it.  Their motive was not militarization or even guided by some unconscious urge or unseen forces directing their actions towards militarization regardless of their conscious motives.

[3] See the recent piece by Thomas Schweich, ‘The Pentagon is muscling in everywhere’ Washington Post, 21 December 2008.

[4] Engaging in the ‘Cold War’ begs the question of why engage at all.  Having won WWII, why did American policy makers, bent on demobilization after the war, suddenly reverse course and take the nation down the unprecedented path of international engagement as a policy thrust as opposed to economic engagement, the pattern of the past.  ‘Imperialism’ is one of the more common explanations today.  It is, however, an ‘explanation’ that explains nothing.  It’s a pejorative term not an analytical one.  A more convincing interpretation is that after two world wars in which the Europeans dragged the non-European countries into conflicts against their will or better judgment, policy makers were forced to accept engagement to try to preclude a repetition of such suicidal behavior.  Emerging from WWII with its economy intact, in fact enlarged, meant that the United States had a post-war reconstruction obligation unprecedented in human history with the added fact that Americans felt a responsibility to engage in such reconstruction, also fairly unique in history.  In part this was a reading of the causes of WWII lying in the draconian reparations terms following WWI, and a sense that American withdrawal then helped make a bad situation worse.  In doing so after WWII, however, the United States encountered an implacable foe that threatened to repeat that process in another form.   A return to isolation was not an option.  Engagement was not the result of a motive for hegemony, the way many now read it, but a sense, based on some experience, that failure to engage now meant having to engage latter when things were even worse and harder to deal with.

[5] Although Kennan was the inspiration, the document that laid down the policy structure was NSC-68, the product of the State Department’s Policy Planning shop under the direction of Paul Nitze.  Kennan, in fact, objected to NSC-68 because of its emphasis on military programs.  Kennan believed that economic and political means that isolated the Soviets would suffice.  NSC-68, responding to upheavals in Europe the invasion of South Korea coupled with Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons and intimidation using the threat of conventional armed force, argued that a military response was necessary to any realistic policy of containment.  See John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History.  The view also emerged that nuclear weapons alone could not deter aggression, in fact, their presence encouraged adventures short of direct confrontation if the only means to respond was to immediately go to the nuclear option.   North Korea’s invasion of the South brought this rude fact home.

[6] Prominent among the ‘classicists’ of limited war theory were Robert Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Security; William Kaufman, ‘Limited Warfare’ in Military Policy and National Security, edited by Kaufman; and Morton Halperin, Limited War in the Nuclear Age.  Notable by its absence in the emergence of this theory was any major military figure.  Strategic thinking was still largely the province of civilians most not connected with the military apart from the RAND corporation, which was largely a systems analysis agency in its beginnings working for the Air Force and the aerospace industry.  The development also preceded the emergence of think tanks, ala RAND, to ‘professionalize’ strategic thinking, creating a cottage industry.  The evolution of policy and doctrine for the Cold War in its political context is dealt with in John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982.

[7] See Weigley, American Way of War, 382ff, Walter Karp, ‘Truman vs. MacArthur’, American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 35, issue 3, April/May, 1984.

[8] Quoted in Karp ‘Truman vs. MacArthur’.

[9] MacArthur did not advocate all-out war with China just a set of measures that would have produced such a war and a very much increased chance of Soviet intervention beyond military supplies and fighter pilots.  This was an idea the Joint Chiefs understood but never seemed to have figured in MacArthur’s estimations.

[10] This was not only an idea held within the military.  Much of the public frustration over Vietnam was not in support of the so-called peace movement and its noisy demonstrations but over the failure to fight to win.

[11] I have discussed this issue and Summers’ role in greater detail in ‘War without a Center of Gravity: Reflections on Terrorism and Post-Modern War’, in Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 18, Issue 4, December 2007.  Following the success of this work, Summers became a cottage industry marketing himself in a series of books on the same theme and through a syndicated column, thus making his views part of the landscape of interpretation.  His view also expressed the military’s understanding of things Vietnam and the way war should be fought and so his views became the standard interpretation in military school houses, think tanks, and other educational forums, being, along with Clausewitz, the required text and virtual mantra.  

[12] Clausewitz was at least more subtle that many who read him, which is perhaps part of the problem.  Clausewitz did not write a text ‘on strategy’ but On War.  His was not a work of doctrine but a philosophical treatise, and differed dramatically from the standard works of his contemporaries and later, such as Jomini, who wrote on strategy and tactics.  This is important to understand for the difference when Summers comes to reinterpret Clausewitz and why he misses the point.  ‘The political object is the goal, war is the means for reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.’    On War, translated and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, p.87.  Or, ‘The more powerful and inspiring the motives for war, the more they affect the belligerent nations and the fiercer the tensions that precede the break, the closer war will approach its abstract concept, the more closely will the military and the political objects coincide….  the less intense the motives, the less will the military element’s natural tendency to violence coincide with political directives.  As a result, war will be driven further from its natural course, the political object will be more and more at variance with the aim of ideal war, and the conflict will seem increasingly political in character.’ (88)  One of the most subtle discussions of the meaning of Clausewitz, and one of the least read, is Raymond Aron’s Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.  It is also useful to contrast Summers’ view with that of Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971, Brodie being one of those civilian strategists targeted by Summers, but whose short essay on Clausewitz in the Howard/Paret translation is a most useful read.

[13] Perhaps nothing better illustrates the selective reading of Clausewitz than the fact that he was no fan of ‘priniciples of war’.  As Brodie notes in the essay mentioned above, ‘Though he could hardly avoid establishing certain generalizations…he specifically and vehemently rejected the notion that the conduct of war can reasonably be guided by a small number of pity axioms.’  Or, it might be added, that those ‘principles’ would not include the political as the guiding element.

[14] To some degree, this is a chicken or egg question in that Summers reflects as much as he promotes a particular understanding and approach.  His effort, promoted by the Army leadership at the time, was not meant solely as a reinterpretation but a restatement of traditional views and an attempt, largely successful, to make them military doctrine and political reality.

[15] This is not simply a case of departments such as State lacking a domestic constituency.  State, for example, lacks a reliable constituency within the US government as well.  In part this is because of years of defense officials poor-mouthing the Department, Congress acquiescing in the calumny along with others.  Ironically, part of that denigration arises from the fact that what the Department is most singularly charged with providing is political advice on critical issues, often putting into the mix what others outside of the US might think.  Much of this suggests reasons for caution, delay, or reconsideration.  This flies in the face of what might be called the ‘linear temptation’, the conviction that direct action is always what is called for and advice to the contrary is wimpish or suspect.  There is also a lingering sense from the early years of the Cold War that senior State Department officials had engaged in too friendly relations with the Soviet Union, or that advice has ‘gone native’, which is a way to discredit advice through ad hominem without having to consider the advice on its own merits.  The reaction in the Department has been to turn inward and defensive, helping to reinforce impressions that the Foreign Service is eccentric and out of step.  Years of underfunding State have followed.  But increasing funding will not address the issue.  What the Department provides is the political perspective.  This in an environment now enamored of direct action, despite calls for ‘soft power’ or ‘smart power’.  Slogans will not overcome systems or practices long embedded and vigorously represented.  Money will not undo the problem.

[16] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

[17] Public Papers of the Presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960, p. 1035-1040.

About the Author(s)

Wm. J. Olson is a professor at the Near East and South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.



Fri, 09/04/2015 - 12:10am

Not paying their fair share...


President Kennedy pressed for and got lower effective tax rates because the US economy was stagnant. Korean War recovery.

Johnson, combines the "War on Poverty" with the Vietnam War. Tax rates go right back up to pre-Kennedy levels. Government spending goes wild. Again stagnating the economy for two decades.

G.W. Bush attempts a hybrid of the two policies with "compassionate conservative-ism", cutting taxes and prosecuting combat in CENTCOM.

Size of the military between 1996 - 2002 is essentially the same size as the 2015 stats offered in the referenced website, especially in regards to the strength numbers of the Army and Marine Corps.(In fact the same page has the supporting numbers for the 96 - 02 time frame.)

Not sure that taxing "the wealthy" would solve this. Invoking a mixed economy to support defense spending continues us on the same course we have been on, and fulfilling Eisenhower's concerns. And brings us another Johnson-like stagnancy.

Like it or not, for every dollar in government expenditures does not net $1.50 in economic gain. Doesn't matter if it is GW Bush or President Obama is driving the national economic policy.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 07/16/2014 - 11:04am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Graham Greene had interesting things to say, I should say, about the whole Kipling thing. Some literature places you mentally on the outside and I am not sure Lawrence is so much better. Anyway, its too painful reading DC military analyst types front for their favorite foreign buddies. Another reason friends tell me as a civilian to just walk away from the whole thing and quit engaging on any level because it won't change outside big societal changes.

Peter Munson made that point about outside change at WoTR.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 07/16/2014 - 10:52am

This is a great paper. I keep reading it over and over and find something different to each time. I love the part about DOD as a lobby and the proliferation of retired military analysts and the various pressures the create and channels they work.

The part about assigning motive to these people kinda hit home, though. I am the queen of pop psych and can be mean spirited and so can a lot of critics of militarism. It's hard not to do because for sure the corrupt are mixed in with the decent and so much bad analysis exists. From the outside, the entire process looks corrupted.

Why are colonial examples so compelling for western small warriors in place of a more complete analysis? Or am I mistaking the interest of a few writers for the larger picture? Or is the uncomfortable point that raising forces as an outsider puts you in colonial company always?

Graham Greene has interesting things to say

Bill M.

Fri, 08/24/2012 - 9:01pm

In reply to by augustcole

It is hard to come to a rational consensus when some threats are hyped by politicians to support their political agendas. Fear has always been an easy tool to manipulate the populace to support defense spending (well beyond the Dept of Defense). On the other hand there are very real threats out there that need to be discussed intelligently. We seem to have two extremes, the fear mongers (the weak on terror crowd as one example) and those who dismiss all threats as figments of our imagination.

As implied we also have polices that go far beyond defense and promote using our military to spread democracy, free markets, and defend human rights. We have others who promote almost complete disengagement from the global arena.

Not my intent to open a discussion on our opinions of what is right and wrong with the contrasting views above, but simply to point out the obvious which is there is wide divergence in views.


Fri, 08/24/2012 - 2:22pm

Prof. Olson,

After more than a decade of war, the US must decide what kind of country it wants to be. Wartime forces this introspection for nations, whether they go about it in an orderly or ad-hoc manner. The role of the US military in the next decade, and in 21st Century America the business of supporting their operations, is a crucial question for the country to come to a consensus on. As the presidential race shows, there is none. One way to look at the question is to think hard about what really makes America safe today? Is it our troop end-strength, currently jeopardized by budget cuts? Is it having thousands of stealthy fighters and a naval overmatch in the Pacific? Or is it more to do with Joseph Nye's 'soft' power (powers of attaction)? Or the integrity of our healthcare system and educational progress, elements of our society that speak to national values as much as national ambitions. Like you, I don't have any ready answers, at least yet. Thanks again.

August Cole

Move Forward

Sun, 08/19/2012 - 3:23pm

This article is fascinating, and it is surprising that it received no comments. As Mr. Olson admits, it offers few solutions or recommendations. It does imply throughout that President Eisenhower’s admonitions are more true today than in years past. If that is the case how do you explain these figures from the following link:

Service: Army……Air Force……Navy……Marines

If that is militarism, why is the military scheduled to be so small during a time of war with other conflicts potentially looming. Even as U.S. Servicemembers were fighting two wars, today’s active Armed Forces were a fraction of the size of Eisenhower’s non-war years, forcing many reserve component troops to deploy.

Scores of past Presidents and Congressmen over many decades had military experiences like President Eisenhower giving them an informed capacity to keep the military in check. With that trend lessened by a far smaller volunteer military, few legislative and executive leaders have military service. Civilian leaders who are clueless about the military are not a great argument for reduced military influence in how to employ the military. There remains no clear evidence that state department officials, NGOs, the UN and similar civil influence could end problems and operate securely outside major cities in war-torn lands. Past ambassador decisions have been just as problematic as those of military leaders, with both learning on the fly.

<blockquote>If ‘small wars’ are the most likely circumstance for the future of conflict, these, of necessity, require ‘small’ responses. Not just an appropriate force structure but a support establishment short of the scale and scope of the current Department of Defense with all its rococo embellishments. There is a need for specialized, scaled components specific to the need and not large, general purpose forces.</blockquote>

Small initial responses in Afghanistan led to at least a 13 year war with inadequate resources for wide area security. This was driven by an Army far smaller than in the past which meant that split war efforts required extensive Soldier deployment pain of 12-15 months for most of OIF and OEF. USAF aerial refuelers deploy for 2 months and most USAF tours are 6 months. Compare that to the new policy that has the Army deploying for 9 months without a mid-tour leave, and a major discrepancy exists in the sacrifices we ask ground troops to endure for the same or less (flight) pay.

Deployment duration is a function of force size available. Even Marines have just 7 month tours. In Eisenhower’s 1955 and 1960, the Marines were 1/5th the size of the Army. Today, that number is more than 1/3rd of the Army’s size and A2/AD strategies render forcible entry from the sea a less than viable tactic or strategy. Given such typically short USAF, Marine, and Navy tours, and the propensity for continued flying in the civil sector, coupled with stateside operation of Remotely Piloted Aircraft, you would believe that all services that fly fixed wing aircraft could have a far larger reserve flying component.

In addition, many world Armies are as large or larger than our own. That isn’t the case for the world’s Navies and Air Forces. Adversary populations and Armies live and hide on the land, far from the reach and targeting eyes of the air or sea. Our abhorrence to committing collateral damage increases threat likelihood of hugging civilians, both their own and those of invaded nations, thus rendering less effective the reach of airpower.

Underground and mobile systems, typical of China, Russia, North Korea, Hezbollah, and Iran also shield threat systems from our easy detection and air attack. Abstract concepts such as the Global Commons are somewhat irrelevant when billions live far inland and only one nation has a substantial blue water Navy. The closest second place Naval threat has no reason to obstruct the Global Commons that are the lifeblood of their own trade.

Mr. Olson makes this interesting observation in his fourth footnote:

<blockquote>A return to isolation was not an option. Engagement was not the result of a motive for hegemony, the way many now read it, but a sense, based on some experience, that failure to engage now meant having to engage later when things were even worse and harder to deal with.</blockquote>

This was referring to U.S. entry into the long Cold War following WWII. Many would submit that it applies equally to U.S. engagement of terrorism most represented by Jihadists. With so many worldwide Muslims, and no U.S. intent to withdraw support for Israel, we can expect Islamic terror will continue all around the world whether we engage or not. Some say our engagement causes the problem. Others can claim with legitimacy that terror unaddressed is terror that increases both in amount and effectiveness. WMD proliferation brings new meaning to the idea of hybrid warfare.

As the recent attack of a Pakistani air base and past attack on a Navy facility thought to contain Pakistani nuclear weapons illustrate, extremists without a Jihadist diversion against armed international forces demonstrating resolve, are extremists able to focus more efforts obtaining and using WMD on innocent civilians in Europe, the U.S., Asia, and Israel. When extremists are unafraid to die, advocate suicide attacks, and are eager to impose Sharia law, their extremism is hardly deterred by the prospect of international community retaliatory strikes that could return their homeland to the stone age...condition not altogether unlike their current aspirations for how their people should live.

Drone attacks and limited use of GPF and SOF are a preferable solution when the resulting casualties, both military and civilian on both sides of the conflict, are a fraction of those ignorantly considered acceptable in past conflicts. In Afghanistan, despite a decade of efforts of varying emphasis, U.S. casualties remain fewer than those of 9/11. Others argue that we are spending too much treasure in addition to blood. In his famous speech, Eisenhower said this:

<blockquote>We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.</blockquote>

Today, just the top 25 corporations paying the highest tax rates according to Forbes, generated over $364 billion in net income in 2011. Imagine the net income of the rest of the Forbes 500. Lockheed Martin, our nation’s largest defense contractor had only $3 billion in net income in 2011 compared to Exxon Mobil’s $41 billion, Chevron's $27 billion, Apple’s $33 billion, Microsoft's $23.5 billion, GM’s $20 billion, and Wells Fargo/IBM/G.E.'s 15.9 billion, and Wal-Mart's $15.7 billion. LockMart received only 7% of Pentagon spending as the largest defense contractor employing 123,000 direct employees and countless indirect who enjoy the spending of their employees.…

So as we consider Eisenhower’s words, ensure that we place them in the current context of a larger world market with expanded economic interdependencies. Two of the biggest players in this economic market are Japan and Germany, past U.S. foes that we helped to rebuild following major wars. That investment has paid off insofar as these nations alone create substantial manufacturing jobs within the U.S.

In other rural areas, Servicemember spending is a hefty portion of many local economies creating many middle class jobs and providing training, education, and experiences that translate to the civil sector. Many of these Army jobs are in areas that otherwise would languish due to the lack of other civil sector opportunities. Also, many defense contractor jobs are the last vestige of science, technology, engineering, and math jobs. Defense procurement manufacturing jobs are not as likely to be sent overseas as other low skill non-defense manufacturing. Yet these same jobs also produce high dollar exports such as the F-35 fighter.

When Exxon Mobil had to pay an effective rate of 42% on its $41 billion net income, surely we can ask our nation’s wealthiest to pay a higher effective rate than the 13% that Presidential candidate Romney recently revealed. Recall that when Eisenhower made his famous speech and from 1950 through 1963, the marginal tax rate on the highest earners was 91% of the upper portions of their income. It was 70% or higher from 1964 through 1980, and 50% through 1986. The problem isn't the military industrial complex, it is a portion of the conservative sector that refuses to make the wealthiest amongst us pay adequately for our nation's defense.