The Military and Modern Society : Civilian-Military Relations in Post-Cold War America

By Muhammad, John Allen | The World and I, September 1999 | Go to article overview

The Military and Modern Society : Civilian-Military Relations in Post-Cold War America


Muhammad, John Allen, The World and I


John Allen Williams is associate professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago (jwilliaor of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society at Northwestern University. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization with which he is associated. He thanks Steven Michels and Michael Noonan for their assistance.

Polls continue to show that the military is among the most admired institutions in America. Despite the theoretical popularity of the military, however, differences in experiences and culture ensure that civilian-military relations in the United States will remain troubled.

The use of military force in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 and the attendant discrepancy between desired ends and the means made available at the outset for their achievement aggravated an already difficult relationship between the military and an administration long on rhetoric and short on strategic judgment. At the same time, there was concern in military circles that public support for the bombing campaign against civilian targets in Serbia would wane. Whether such support would have continued cannot be known, because Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic acceded to NATO demands--to the surprise of many, including this author. Whether this was due to the air campaign, the increasing prospect of ground action, skillful U.S. and NATO diplomacy, or some combination of these and other factors is also not known at this time. In any event, the attack phase of the war ended before serious erosion of public confidence in the efficacy of military intervention occurred. Time will tell whether the long-term occupation of Kosovo by NATO and Russian forces will be successful and what effect that will have on public support.

Since the media both shape and react to popular conceptions of reality, popular films often serve as a useful barometer of public opinion. This is particularly true for their portrayal of the military, a subject on which everyone seems to have a strong opinion. The post-Vietnam fall, rise, and perhaps a coming fall in popular esteem for the military profession (and, by extension, military people) is well chronicled in such films as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July (fall); Officer and a Gentleman, Top Gun (rise); and The Siege (fall). The last film, in which the military rounds up Arab residents of Brooklyn in response to a series of terrorist bombings, is particularly instructive for its fear that the armed forces would slip the traces of civilian control in an emergency.1

In a similar vein, Air Force Col. Charles Dunlap Jr. used a hypothetical military coup of 2012 as the backdrop for writing of his concern about the direction of civilian-military relations. The coup was sparked by "the massive diversion of military forces to civilian uses, the monolithic unification of the armed forces, and the insularity of the military community."2 Appearing as it did in the journal of the U.S. Army War College, it caused quite a stir.

Media-driven hyperbole and attention-getting literary devices notwithstanding, how can society ensure that military authorities remain in their proper sphere? Is the gap between civilian and military society so serious as to pose problems for civilian-military relations and civilian control?

TWO THEORIES

Two classics of civilian-military relations still frame discussions of how the military is controlled in a democratic society: Samuel Huntington's The Soldier and the State and Morris Janowitz's Professional Soldier.3

For Huntington, civilian control is achieved through military professionalism. He argues that military officership exhibits the three characteristics that define a profession: expertise (the management of violence), responsibility (for the defense of the state), and corporateness (institutional self-awareness and organization).4 These properties distinguish the military from other professions, and their emphasis serves as the best basis for civilian control.

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