When Joe Biden’s choice for his Secretary of Defence was recently retired general Lloyd Austin, he found himself in a similar position to Donald Trump and his chosen Secretary of Defence, Jim Mattis four years ago.

They both needed a Congressional waiver for the requirement that a minimum of seven years has to pass between soldiers’ retirement and their assumption of civilian office.

The original logic behind this decision is that a certain distance has to be imposed in order for ex-generals to soften their ‘military mindset’ and adopt one which is more inclusive of the nuances of politics. However, this logic highlights a dangerous structure in the United States’ view of civil-military relations, namely that the two fields are so distinct from each other that it seems hard to reconcile them.  

While civilian control over the United States’ military is deep embedded in its Constitution, a division between the realms of civilians and military and their spheres of influence is best articulated in Samuel Huntington’s 1957 book The Soldier and the State in his concept of ‘professionalisation’. According to Huntington, an objective control over the military is required which entails that the military is responsible for the practical and strategic management of battlefield operations while civilian staff should develops the political aspects of war policy.

In practice, this view would translate to the military’s expectation of a clearly set goal from civilian staff and the freedom to determine the means by which civilian-issued policies can best be implemented. However, this logic implies several traps which are counter-productive to overall national security. 

As prominent scholar of US civil-military relations Risa Brooks discusses, the concept of military professionalisation contributes to internalising a culture of apolitical thinking within the army. By officers’ view of their role as restricted to the realities of combat, they attempt to keep their distance from engaging in the tangled web of larger political dynamics which affect and also determine battlefield activities. Additionally, they are often hostile to civilians diverging from originally issued plans, thinking that changes are resulting from internal politics and not from the grander considerations of national security. In Huntingtonian terms – which declares that military autonomy is a right and not a privilege – when civilians attempt to influence the military’s activity they are intruding their territory. This thinking appears to prevent the formation of a close symbiosis between the two ‘realms’, which would depend on a constant and transparent advisory process and the willingness to adapt to each other’s – by nature, inherently very different – rhythms, needs and priorities, even if they change radically over time. 

The growing apart has identifiable institutional background. Prior to the Cold War, the Unites States’ elected leaders developed a sophisticated bureaucratic structure to manage military operations. However, after the bipolarisation of the world order, the defence establishment grew so robust that it required a separate institution to oversee and manage its operation.

In 1947, Congress passed the National Security Act, creating the foundations for the future Department of Defence, led by a civilian secretary and a civilian staff who, with great experience and understanding of domestic politics and bureaucracy, would liaise between the military and elected leaders and ensure that identified foreign policy interests are well-translated into military means. However, in 1986 Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defence Reorganisation Act, which placed greater power into the military’s hands over their own affairs and military staff occupied roles in the Pentagon which were formerly fulfilled by civilians.  

The division and erosion of civilian control is also furthered by external societal pressures and by civilian leaders themselves. Due to the military’s apolitical stance, they are often viewed as being above the swamp of politics. Their position as carrying out civilian instructions best as they can presents them as blameless for the mistakes they make. Through popular culture – as the result of a post-Vietnam effort for ‘saving face’ – a hero cult is often constructed around The Soldier who is morally superior to the civilian public by embodying virtues of courage, selfless sacrifice and patriotism.

Consequently, the army has a significantly larger social capital and trust by the general public than elected leaders, who are considered to fail way too often. Because of this, in recent years presidential candidates included the military in their campaigns, using their support as legitimisation for their candidacy. This further erodes civilian control and authority by re-enforcing the view that the military is superior to civilian politics by projecting that their siding and vote is a sign of a candidate’s moral purity. As a parallel process, using the military as political props for legitimacy does politicise the military itself but not in a way which should reverse the division but which enlarges the gulf by including them in partisan politics. Since the army historically desired to stay away from politics soldiers rarely counter their involvement in partisan narratives because most officers do believe that taking political stance publicly is against their ethos. 

In order to reverse the deterioration of civil-military relationships, most often articulated policy recommendations include the diversifying of military education to include critical assessment of the intertwined nature of politics and the battlefield and the rigid reluctance to engage in politics has to melt. Otherwise, the military is going to be further sucked into partisan politics without the means to stop the process. Also, the intertwined nature should be emphasised in the civilian staff’s work and the larger public and culture of glorifying the armed forces should give way to more accountability, paving the way for closer co-operation in the Pentagon.

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