The professionalism of Western militaries is ripe for another discussion. The practitioners who make up the profession of arms—and those that study and teach them—owe it to their citizens, their governments, and themselves to shape their forces, and educate their professionals, in preparation for the future. It is their duty to ensure they are prepared to ethically and effectively achieve the military objectives their leaders lay before them, no matter the adversary or the context of the conflict.
oday’s long wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and increasingly in the U.S. military involvement in and around Syria’s civil war, demonstrate a failure of the political resolution for which the U.S. military acts. Lacking an attainable political end, the blue whales find the need to continually keep the tiger sharks in action. Without this understanding as we confront the many challenges to U.S. policy aims, we may find ourselves, again, in exactly the wrong kind of limited wars, using limited means—wars that have no fundamental or achievable political aim—with the only option a continuing and bleeding military application for which no end appears.
What obligations do political communities have towards the military and its members? Military members play an essential role in defending political community members’ rights and securing the political community itself, and they risk a great deal doing so. Because of this, political communities incur special obligations towards military members.
The dramatic title of a 2015 magazine article in The Atlantic by Dominic Tierney, “Why has America Stopped Winning Wars?,” underscored a portrayal of the final military deaths in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq as both remarkable and poignant. A better question and the focus here is: Why do U.S. military outcomes after 1945 so often fail to achieve the policy objectives for which they are begun?
It is important to view the civil-military problematique through a lens slightly different from that of the United States looking at itself. In this regard, Trinkunas has offered a useful addition to the literature on civil-military relations. And as a history of political transitions, coups, democracy, and civil-military relations in Venezuela from 1945 to 2004, he does not disappoint. But the book doesn't live up to the author's aspirations.
The nomination of James Mattis as Secretary of Defense briefly brought the often overlooked concept of civilian control of the military to public attention. Commentators debated whether Mattis’ qualifications, personality, and presumed influence on the administration justified an exception to the law prohibiting recently retired generals from serving in that post. Reassuringly, in that discussion as well as in the larger conversation about the unusual number of retired and acting general officers now serving in traditionally civilian posts, there has been no discernible challenge to the notion of civilian control of the military. Yet underneath this consensus as to the desirability of civilian control, hide differences in understanding about what it actually entails. In short, we want civilian control but do not precisely know what it is.
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.
War, we are told by a wise elder, is the “pursuit of policy by other means.” In fact, this famous statement was perhaps more an aspiration on Carl Von Clausewitz’ part than a statement of metaphysical truth. It is often observed that German generals in the succeeding generations completely forgot this famous dictum, which demoted them relative to civilian leaders they often held in contempt. But American generals do not seem to be immune, either.
Truth can triumph over parochialism only when military professionals unburden themselves from responsibility for conclusive answers, which are ultimately monuments to obsolescence, and share their individual glimpses of reality to create an understanding of war that remains lacking in a still dangerous world.
The civil-military divide in the 21st century can be described as one between the military and the elites that govern it, and as one between those elites in uniform and those in a regular coat and tie. While increasing the number of elites in uniform will help with the first divide, it does not do much for the second. The military should not abandon its values, and in fact, I believe it should continue to be defined by them. However, if the civil-military divide is to be closed, those in the military need to realize that underneath the uniform of their values lies an occupationally minded American, who is remarkably similar to every other citizen of our great Nation.
The civil-military divide in the Army Officer Corps is largely a self-inflicted wound. The Army should not stand by and allow it to grow and eventually damage the vital trust relationship the American people have in the United States military. It is within the Army’s span of influence to reduce this divide.