What Military Officers Need to Know about Civil-Military Relations

By Owens, Mackubin Thomas | Naval War College Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

What Military Officers Need to Know about Civil-Military Relations


Owens, Mackubin Thomas, Naval War College Review


Civil-military relations describe the interactions among the people of a state, the institutions of that state, and the military of the state. At the institutional level, there are "two hands on the sword."1 The civil hand determines when to draw it from the scabbard and thence guides it in its use. This is the dominant hand of policy, the purpose for which the sword exists in the first place. The military's hand sharpens the sword for use and wields it in combat.2

From the time of the Revolution to the present, U.S. civil-military relations essentially have constituted a bargain among the aforementioned parties-the people, the civil government, and the military establishment-concerning the allocation of prerogatives and responsibilities between the government and the military, in answer to five questions:3 Who controls the military instrument? What is the appropriate level of military influence on society? What is the role of the military? What pattern of civil-military relations best ensures military success? Who serves?4

From time to time throughout American history, certain circumstances-political, strategic, social, technological, etc.-have changed to such a degree that the terms of the existing civil-military bargains have become obsolete. The resulting disequilibrium and tension have led the parties to renegotiate the bargains in order to restore equilibrium.

This is not to say that in the United States the parties to the bargain are equal. The American civil-military bargain is the outcome of an "unequal dialogue." It is "a dialogue, in that both [the civilian and military] sides expressed their views bluntly, indeed, sometimes offensively, and not once but repeatedly-and [an] unequal [one], in that the final authority of the civilian leader was unambiguous and unquestioned."5 In the United States, the military, despite having a monopoly on coercive power, has generally accepted its position relative to the other parties.

As the idea of a periodic renegotiation of the civil-military bargain would suggest, there have been some fairly serious civil-military clashes over the past two decades. They primarily reflect changes in the security environment but also have been driven to some degree by changing social and political factors.

For example, a substantial renegotiation of the civil-military bargain took place with the end of the Cold War. The change in the security environment occasioned by the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a lack of consensus regarding what the military was expected to do in the new security environment. The result was a period of drift that had an impact on civil-military relations. During this period, some observers worried that the military had become more alienated from its civilian leadership than at any time in American history, that it had become politicized and partisan, that it had become resistant to civilian oversight, that officers had come to believe that they had the right to confront and resist civilian policy makers-to insist that civilian authorities heed their recommendations -and that the military was becoming too influential in inappropriate areas of American society.6

Arguably another renegotiation of the civil-military bargain began to take shape after the attacks of 9/11, as the military found itself fighting protracted irregular wars instead of the conventional wars it prefers. Illustrative of civilmilitary tensions were clashes between the uniformed services and President George W. Bush's first secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, over efforts to "transform" the military from a Cold War force to one better able to respond to likely future contingencies, and the planning and conduct of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. These tensions peaked with the so-called revolt of the generals in the spring of 2006, which saw a number of retired Army and Marine Corps generals publicly and harshly criticize Secretary Rumsfeld. …

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