Mac Owens: US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11

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We have turned to my friend Mackubin Thomas Owens for his learning on civil-military relations and other issues on many occasions over the years. Mac is Associate Dean of Academics for Electives and Directed Research and Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He is affiliated with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where he edits the journal Orbis. He served as a Marine infantry platoon commander in Vietnam (1968-69) where he was twice wounded and awarded the Silver Star medal. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a Colonel in 1994.
Mac is the also the author of US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain, just published simultaneously in hardcover and paperback. I asked Mac if he would write something that would allow us to bring the book to the attention of our readers. He has graciously responded with the following summary.

There is no more important question facing a state than the place of its military relative to civil society and the roles that the military exercises. The reason is simple: on the one hand, the coercive power of a military establishment, especially a strong and effective one, makes it at least a potential threat to the regime. On the other, a weak military establishment also threatens the regime because of the likelihood that the former will fail to protect the latter. This is the central paradox of civil-military relations. This is the topic of my new book, US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain, published in late January by Continuum.
The United States has been fortunate in that its military has successfully defended the Republic on the battlefield while avoiding threats to civilian control, the most extreme and dangerous forms of which are coup d’état and praetorianism. But tensions have always existed and are manifestations of the fact that from the time of the Revolution to the present day, civil-military relations in America essentially have constituted a bargain among three parties: the American people, the government, and the military as an institution.
The goal of this bargain is to allocate prerogatives and responsibilities between the civilian leadership on the one hand and the military on the other. From time to time throughout U.S. history, certain circumstances–political, strategic, social, technological, etc.–have changed to such a degree that the terms of the existing civil-military bargain become obsolete. The resulting disequilibrium and tension have led the parties to renegotiate the bargain in order to restore balance in the civil-military equation.
There are five questions that define the civil-military bargain. First, who controls the military instrument? Liberal societies often take civilian control for granted, but doing so begs several further questions: does civilian control refer simply to the dominance of civilians within the executive branch — the president or the secretary of defense? What is the role of the legislative branch in controlling the military instrument? Is the military establishment “unified,” that is, does it speak with anything like a single voice vis-à-vis the civil government? What is the nature of military advice? Should military leaders “insist” that their advice be heeded? What courses of action are available to military leaders who believe the civilian authorities are making bad decisions? In other words is there something that might be called a “calculus of dissent” that military leaders can invoke in cases where they believe civilian decisions are dangerous to the health of the country?
Second, what degree of military influence is appropriate in a liberal society such as the United States? The extreme form of military influence in society is militarism, a state of affairs in which military values predominate and the military devours a disproportionate share of society’s resources. Although some authors have claimed that the United States has become more militaristic over the years, the evidence for the argument is thin. Nonetheless, it is still necessary to ascertain the proper scope of military affairs. In today’s environment, what constitutes military expertise? Does it go beyond what Samuel Huntington called in The Soldier and the State, his classic study of civil-military relations the “management of violence?” Should it?
To what extent should the military influence foreign policy? Has American foreign policy become “militarized”? Do combatant commanders exercise too much power? Have they become the new “viceroys” or “proconsuls”? What is proper regarding the military and domestic politics? Should active duty officers be writing op-eds in support of particular programs or policies? Should retired officers get involved in partisan politics? What is the military’s proper role in influencing the allocation of resources?
Third, what is the appropriate role of the military? Is the military establishment’s purpose to fight and win the nation’s wars or to engage in constabulary actions? What kind of wars should the military prepare to fight? Should the focus of the military be foreign or domestic? The United States has answered this question differently at different times and under different circumstances. For example, throughout most of its history, the United States Army was a constabulary force. It permanently oriented itself toward large-scale conflicts against foreign enemies only in the 1930s. The end of the Cold War and the attacks of 9/11 have suggested new answers, e.g. a focus on “irregular warfare” (counterinsurgency and counterterrorism) as well as an openness to the use of the military in domestic affairs. What impact do such issues have on civil-military relations?
Fourth, what pattern of civil-military relations best ensures the effectiveness of the military instrument? All of the other questions mean little if the military instrument is unable to ensure the survival of the state. If there is no constitution, the question of constitutional balance doesn’t matter. Does effectiveness require a military culture distinct in some ways from the society it serves? What impact does societal structure have on military effectiveness? What impact does political structure exert? What impact does the pattern of civil military relations have on the effectiveness of strategic decision-making processes?
And finally, who serves? Is military service an obligation of citizenship or something else? How are enlisted members recruited and retained? How should the US military address issues of “diversity” in the force? What about reserves, racial and ethnic minorities, women, and homosexuals?
Obviously, questions regarding military service have been answered differently by Americans at different times under different circumstances. Through most of its early history, the United States maintained a small regular peacetime establishment that mostly conducted limited constabulary operations. During wartime, the several states were responsible for raising soldiers for federal service, either as militia or volunteers.
Conscription was the norm in the United States from the eve of World War II until the 1970s. Today the US military is a volunteer professional force. But even now the force continues to evolve, as debates over such issues as the role of the reserve components in the poast-9/11 military force, women in combat, service by open homosexuals, and the recruitment of religious minorities–Muslims–make clear.
The various patterns of American civil-military relations have generally worked well, but have occasionally exhibited signs of stress as the civil-military bargain has been renegotiated. This has certainly been the case in the United States during the last two decades.
A substantial renegotiation of the civil-military bargain took place with the end of the Cold War. The change in the security environment occasioned by the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a lack of a consensus regarding what the U.S. military was expected to do in the new security environment. The resulting period of drift had a substantial impact on civil-military relations. Arguably another took place after the attacks of 9/11 as the US military found itself fighting irregular wars instead of the conventional wars it prefers.
US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11 is primarily a work of synthesis that seeks to place events since 9/11 in their proper historical and theoretical context and to consider them in light the character of American civil-military relations in general. Civil-military tensions in America are not new. They have recurred periodically since the American Revolution.
Although the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan loom large in the book, US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11 is not simply a rehash of the debates attending these conflicts. Questions concerning the actual conduct of these wars and who was responsible for this or that aspect of planning for the conflicts have been addressed by a number of writers, e.g., Bob Woodward, Tom Ricks, Bing West, Michael Gordon, and Bernard Trainor. The purpose of US Civil-Military Relations Since 9/11 is to examine the issues these fine writers raise from the perspective of the theory and practice of civil-military relations, placing them in the context of the ongoing renegotiation of the civil-military bargain in America.
The issue of civilian control has dominated the treatment of civil-military relations in the United States since the 1990s. But the focus on civilian control has obscured other problems. One of the main arguments of US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11 is that the real problem for the United States is not the danger of a military coup against the US government, but the fact that the pattern of US civil-military relations over the past two decades has adversely affected the development and implementation of coherent strategies.
The Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz identified the essence of this problem when he wrote: “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive” (emphasis added). This oft-quoted passage makes it clear that the decision for war and its subsequent conduct require the successful–if not always harmonious–collaboration of civilian policy makers and their military advisers, who will also be responsible for providing the instrument necessary for the conduct of war and the plans and decisions required to bring it to a successful conclusion.
However, the dysfunctional character of US civil-military relations during much of the period following 9/11 meant that the judgment that Clausewitz described was not properly made, especially with regard to the war in Iraq. For a variety of reasons, there was, in Colin Gray’s formulation, “a black hole where American strategy ought to [have resided].” The absence of strategy meant that all-too-often, military operations were not connected to policy considerations. Of course this is not the first time that divided policy councils and dysfunctional relations between soldiers and statesmen have opened the door to strategic failure.
The most significant lessons of US civil-military relations since 9/11 raise such issues as how informed civilian leaders are when they choose to commit the military instrument, how well the civil-military pattern enables the integration of divergent and even contradictory views, and how this pattern ensures a practical military strategy that properly serves the ends of national policy.
The lessons of post-9/11 US civil-military relations also point to the issue of trust: the mutual respect and understanding between civilian and military leaders and the exchange of candid views and perspectives between the two parties as part of the decision-making process. The emphasis on civilian control in much of the civil-military relations literature obscures that fact that the real lessons of the post-9/11 era are less about the civilian authorities dictating policy to the military than about the tenor of the dialogue and the quality of the policy decisions and strategic plans that emerge from that dialogue.
Part of renegotiating the civil-military bargain in the future is to ensure that the dysfunctional confluence that has created America’s strategic deficit is not repeated. Rectifying this situation requires that both parties to the civil-military bargain adjust the way they do business. On the one hand, the military must recover its voice in strategy-making while realizing that politics permeates the conduct of war and that civilians have a say, not only concerning the goals of the war but also how it is conducted. On the other, civilians must understand that to implement effective policy and strategy requires the proper military instrument. They must also insist that soldiers present their views frankly and forcefully throughout the strategy-making process.

After the third paragraph of his text with reference to restoring the balance in the civil-military equation, Mac added a footnote expressing his indebtedness to Andrew Bacevich for this formulation of the problem in a comment on an early version of his proposal for a book tentatively titled Sword of Republican Empire: A History of U.s. Civil-Military Relations. Thanks to Mac for this summary of his important book, which I have added to our Amazon bookshelf.

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