Muddy Boots and Leather Satchels: An Assessment of Civil-Military Relations in the 21st Century America

By Richard M. O’Meara1, Contributor

Is it possible that in the next political generation, all important functions of the United States Government will be accomplished by soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines? The current ascendance of Generals James Mathis at the Department of Defense, James Kelly as the President’s Chief of Staff, and H. R. McMaster at the National Security Council, amongst others, might well support the proposition that the professional military establishment is an ideal place from which to harvest leaders capable of tackling big, emergent, and immediate problems. They are, after all, accomplished men who are mission oriented and national in vision; they owe little to needy constituencies, and have nothing to lose in terms of career aspirations or future agendas. They are used to accomplishing missions in three to four year service stints and they show up on time; they know the difference between leadership and management and are capable of both.

Yet there is considerable unease in the appointment of professional military officers to positions traditionally held by civilians. The time honored fear of military governance in lieu of civilian control of the military is a well-established and, arguably, a beneficial proscription which has served the stability of the Republic well. A cursory review of the use of the military to govern states around the world demonstrates an abysmal record when it comes to civil rights, freedom of conscience, and institutional corruption. Military leadership can be arbitrary, insensitive, and its vision is often at odds with the aspirations of the publics they serve. Yes, the military can be efficient but it also true that they have all the guns.

Has the United States always eschewed the use of professional military leadership in the past or is its use today a new phenomenon? Of course, professional military leaders have been pulled from the obscurity of peacetime positions to organize and lead the country in times of war. Yet, here they have traditionally stayed in their security lanes and let the civilians identify the threats and define the nature of the peace to follow conflict. There is, however, a long history of professional military leaders accomplishing what would seemingly be civilian projects on behalf of the state. George Washington (and his military staff) are obvious examples of military leadership assuming civilian responsibilities. But there are many others. The United States Military Academy was created by the national government to educate generations of engineers who would map the continent and supervise the creation of infrastructure (roads, bridges, ports, and tunnels). Military leaders were used to create and support the political institutions which attempted to integrate and reconstruct the South into the national political fold after the civil war. Professional Naval Officers have often served as diplomats on behalf of the Government throughout the world. Professional military leaders including Wood, Marshall, Taylor and Petraeus have served as close advisors to Presidents, and, indeed, a number of professional military leaders, including Harrison, Grant, and Eisenhower, have served as Presidents. Others have served as leaders of the Departments of State, War, Defense, the CIA, and the Selective Service Agency; they have run international war crimes tribunals and managed the creation of atomic energy. The military establishment, with its soldiers and resources, has also been used by the national government to respond to national disasters, quell domestic disturbances, and manage immigration and drug interdiction efforts. Despite the proscriptions of the Posse Comitatus Act, military personnel serve in multiple domestic roles in the War on Terror as well.

In 1957, in his seminal work on civil-military relations The Soldier and the State, The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, Samuel Huntington described the ethic of the professional military officer as “…conservative realism….It exalts obedience as the highest virtue of military men. The military ethic is thus pessimistic, collectivist, historically inclined, power-oriented, nationalistic, militaristic, pacifist, and instrumentalist in its view of the military profession.”2 Query whether this continues to be the case in an era where military professionals are required to accomplish a wide range of what were formally civilian projects, where military professionals are routinely called upon by national media and legislative bodies to weigh in on everything from homeland security to national disaster relief operations and the use of soft power and new technologies to accomplish national interests. Military professional officers often take sides in political disputes, support candidates (liberal and conservative) and, otherwise, influence the democratic process in an age when selfless service, patriotism and national pride are rarely recognized as civic virtues. For better or worse, it can be argued, they fill the vacuum which exists in the national discourse. Civilian political leadership needs to look at this issue and decide if it wants to privilege this cohort of leaders with responsibility for leading and managing the state going forward.

1 Richard M. O’Meara, PhD, JD is a retired Army General Officer and trial attorney who currently serves as the Director of the Division of Global Affairs at Rutgers University.

2 Huntington, Samuel. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. New York: Belknap Press, 1957. 11.

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