On Military Advice to Civilians

Many great advisers to presidents and prime ministers have come from the military ranks. Many presidents and prime ministers have seemed great in war and peace because they listened to sage military advisers. But military advice is often a thorny topic and more than once in America there has been confusion about this topic. I have seen this first hand on a few occasions and wanted to craft some thoughts on the topic to help elected, appointed, and commissioned senior leaders and those who will stand in their shoes one day.

Some key questions about this topic can help to frame it. If a General or Admiral suggests a military strategy to the White House or Secretary of Defense and the advice is ignored or rejected what are the obligations of the military officer? Should he stay quiet? Should he be asked by the White House to publicly support the military plan he opposes and thinks will fail to achieve the strategic goal? Worse yet should she be asked to stay silent if she knows from 40 years of experience that the military course chosen by the civilian leaders will cause more military and civilian deaths? General Ridgway raised this matter many years ago and the question is worth examining every few years.

Chief of Staff of the Army Matthew Ridgway felt that military leaders must, of course, give their advice on “military aspects of the problems referred to him.” He also understood, as do our military leaders today, that national security policies are complex and that the military is just one part of the DIME paradigm: Diplomacy, Information (Intelligence), Military and Economics. I think more controversially he believed that once a General or Admiral has given the advice requested by a civilian leader, the military leader “should be neither expected nor required to give public endorsement to military courses of action against which he has previously recommended.” That last part takes courage but makes perfect sense. General Ridgway was no stranger to his Commander in Chief; he and President Eisenhower used to call each other “Matt” and “Ike” and even handed over military commands to each other in Europe. But General Ridgway knew at the outset of his term as Army Chief of Staff that his friend “Ike” was now Mr. President.

Over the last few years we have seen many senior officers, both retired and on active duty, make public statements for and against the military part of a national strategy. This is healthy for the country. Some might think this undermines civilian control of the military. But let’s put ourselves in a general’s shoes. If you had spent months reviewing a war plan that was requested by the Secretary of Defense or the White House and then they told you “thanks, but we are going to follow some other advice on the military portion of our strategy,” what would you think?

You might think who in the hell at the White House has more knowledge of the military’s capability than me and my staff? And then think — if it’s one of the 20-something political appointees or politically focused advisers from the president’s campaign staff I am going to lose it. You might think, OK I did my part and they decided to go a different direction, that’s my job done. Or you might think, this decision is going to get a lot of America’s sons and daughters killed and I need to ensure that this decision is not made in secret. They are all logical reactions and likely senior military leader’s cycle through them all during sleepless nights after the White House has ignored their advice.

So what should happen after the decision is made to go in another direction from your advice by the President or Secretary of Defense? The President can make you come to a press conference and stand behind him as he announces his military decision. He can even state in front of the press that everyone on his national security team now supports the larger national strategy. But should the President ask the General that disagrees with the military portion of the strategy to tell the press he now agrees with the military plan? Isn’t that asking someone to lie to the American people?

What if you are that General whose advice was rejected and the Senate or House asks you to come testify about the proposed national strategy? As an officer you have sworn to follow the President’s orders and directions in accordance with the laws of the U.S.A. So Congress, as the U.S. lawmakers and a co-equal branch of government, has the right to ask you, a commissioned officer, to testify to them whenever they want. So if Congress asks you what military advice you gave the President should you tell them? As Congress holds the only constitutional right to declare war and not the President, don’t they have a right to hear the same military advice? By law General and Flag Officers have to state their personal opinion to Congress so why does it always seem like they are carefully choosing their words so as not to upset the Executive Branch?

If the answers to these questions seem simple then change the hypothetical players. What if the President rejected the diplomatic advice of the Secretary of State? Would you support the Secretary being asked to lie to the Press or Congress and say he “fully agrees” with the diplomatic decision of the President? Or does the term “fully support” the decision make more sense? What if you were the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency or Director of National Intelligence and it was an intelligence analysis conclusion that the Vice-President was drawing that you felt was incorrect? If Congress asks the C.I.A. if they have come to the same conclusion as the Executive Branch and it was a key part of a declaration of war? Would you expect the Intelligence chief to be “loyal” and agree with the Vice-President knowing it was a lie?

Some clear recent hypothetical examples might make this more realistic. If you, a military service chief, told the Secretary of Defense that 300,000 troops are needed to achieve victory and he rejected your advice isn’t it your duty to tell Congress what you told the SECDEF before they vote on a war declaration?

Or if you are the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and are asked to testify before congress on a pending Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) for Syria because the Congress doesn’t feel the President has made his case for war nor has a clear strategy. Is it your duty to share the same military advice you gave the President about how to win? Is it your duty to say simply I support the Presidents AUMF request and leave Congress in the dark while they decide to authorize the President to send American citizens into a war-zone?

So by now you are probably pretty sure you don’t want to be a Four-Star military officer, but let’s see this through. Most people would probably say that the President has the right to reject your military advice and ask you to pose for press conferences as part of the national security strategy team. Most might also agree if the President rejects your advice that it is wrong for him to ask you to lie to the press and the American people by saying you agree with the chosen military strategy. Most people would also agree (and law dictates) that the Congress has the right to hear exactly the same advice that was given to the President when it comes to deciding to authorize war. The advice from intelligence leaders, diplomatic leaders and military leaders; our senior leaders that are entrusted with so many lives and so much American treasure must be transparent with the White House and Capitol Hill because, as co-equal branches of government, they are both responsible for declaring and winning a war or establishing peace.

This article does not advocate that the senior military, diplomatic or intelligence officers should run to the press or Congress to complain every time the President or a Secretary rejects his advice. I think it does advocate our senior civilian leadership in the Executive and Legislative branches think more critically about how they look at military advice and what they expect their Generals and Admirals to do when that advice is not taken.

This is a complex topic and was surely not resolved here but, there are many great works on this topic that you can pick up of you want to know more about how and when the military leaders can and should give military advice. One of the first de facto National Security Advisers was actually a military officer of the highest caliber and also the least recognizable by name. The story of General Andrew Jackson Goodpaster is an excellent example of how senior military leaders can and should interact with elected leaders. The life of George C. Marshall is another great example. As mentioned General Matthew Ridgway offers a personal view of this discussion. LTG H.R. McMaster’s book about this topic during the Vietnam War is also great place to start. On the civilian side of things I would recommend looking at the relationships that President’s Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Carter and Bush the elder had with their senior military officers to view both healthy and unhealthy relationships.

General Ridgway may have given the clearest advice to Officers and Civilians on this topic during his appointment ceremony as the senior officer in the Army. While he told his civilian bosses that they “could expect fearless and forthright expressions of honest, objective professional [military] opinion,” that if that opinion was ignored, and another route was chosen, the civilians should then expect “complete loyal and diligent execution of those decisions.” But he also made clear that trust is a two-way street. He advised his civilian leaders that they “must scrupulously respect the integrity, the intellectual honesty, of its officer corps.” He went on to add that any “effort to force unanimity of view, to compel adherence to some political-military ‘party line’ against the honestly expressed views of responsible officers” would gradually destroy the profession of arms.

This gets to the heart of the matter. As time and again soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines work for days on end and risk their lives in dangerous situations following military strategies they don’t agree with and leaders they didn’t vote for. But they never give less than 100% because it’s something they don’t agree with. The American military profession is based on the bedrock that General George Washington instilled in our armed forces. We are citizens first and military members second and we will always support civilian decisions and policies to our utmost regardless of how we feel about it. But never ask a military person to lie about their advice because honor and integrity are two things that hold men together when war casts its darkest day on a Corporal’s fire-team or a Captain’s company. We can never compromise that as a nation no matter what rank they wear.

Jason Howk is a retired Army Foreign Area Officer. He holds a Master’s Degree in Middle Eastern Studies, was a term-member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and is a Malone Fellow in Arab and Islamic Studies. He has worked extensively in Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, Multi-National, and NGO operations and has been involved in international foreign policy and strategy development. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. 

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Notes and References:

Ridgway, Matthew B. and Martin, Harold H., SOLDIER: The Memoirs of Matthew B. Ridgway, 1956, Harper New York.

Jordan, Robert S., An Unsung Soldier: the Life of General Andrew J. Goodpaster, 2013, Naval Institute Press Annapolis MD.

Pogue, Forrest C., The 4-Volume George C. Marshall Authorized Biography, 1963–1987, Viking New York and the George C. Marshall Foundation Lexington VA.