Getting the Military-Civil Mix Right

Article excerpt


Many were surprised when, early in his first term as secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld vowed publicly to rein in the power of the generals. Conservative Republicans especially found it hard to imagine a Republican secretary taking on the military - usually closely aligned with the Republican Party - in such a public manner. What had gone so wrong in civil-military relations? Mackubin Thomas Owens seeks to answer that question in U.S. Civil-Military Relations After 9/11, his latest book.

This is a scholarly study, in many ways not meant for the general reader. Nevertheless, it thoughtfully addresses a serious issue that requires our closest attention. Conventional wisdom has it that the norm in American civil-military relations is a bargain between the two sectors. In theory, the military will not conduct coups or engage in Praetorian kingmaking as long as the civilian leadership allows it to conduct wars once they are declared and enforce discipline in the ranks as the military leaders see fit. Some see the military and some see civilians as having upset this balance of late. Mr. Owens effectively argues that this bargain was never a reality, and that civil-military relations have always been a moving target.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln regularly tinkered in areas generally considered to be in the military realm, and rightly so when generals such as George Brinton Mac McClellan turned in subpar performances. In World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt no compunction about playing military leaders against each other in order to gain maximum battlefield performance. President Harry S. Truman relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur for exceeding his authority in the Korean War by challenging strategic policy that is traditionally in the purview of the president. As the author points out, the military can give advice, but it cannot and should not dictate policy.

All of these were generally considered to be exceptions, done under severe circumstances. Mr. Owens considers them to be a long-term norm in a relationship that was never as stable as some scholars have believed. He also argues that several recent developments have upset the fragile balance. …