Civil-Military Relations in Transitions: Behavior of Senior Military Officers

By Allen, Charles D. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2017 | Go to article overview

Civil-Military Relations in Transitions: Behavior of Senior Military Officers


Allen, Charles D., Joint Force Quarterly


On Inauguration Day 2017, President Donald Trump inherited from President Barack Obama's administration the current cohort of uniformed military leaders at the most senior levels across the Department of Defense (DOD). Over the previous 2 years, President Obama had selected an impressive group of military officers. This process included the emplacement of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) and of the Vice Chairman by the end of fiscal year 2015, and of each of the Service chiefs by October 2016. (1) Over the course of President Obama's second term, these senior officers engaged with both executive and legislative branches of the U.S. Government in the exercise of civil-military relations (CMR). At times, the relationship was contentious as the President formulated policies and strategies for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, military leaders advocated for relief from sequestration measures based on the Budget Control Act of 2011. (2)

There have been continuing challenges to two aspects of CMR--providing best military advice and presenting dissenting opinions--in the 21st century. Such challenges support historian Richard Kohn's list of myths regarding CMR:

* "Everything is fine in the relationship."

* "Civil-military control is safe, sound, and inviolate--No coup, no problem."

* "There exists a clear bright line between military and civilian responsibilities."

* "The military is non-partisan and apolitical"; "The military is political and politicized."

* "There is a covenant between the military and the American people."

* "Civilian control is understood by both sides in the relationship and the American people." (3)

Current civil-military relations are challenged by the strategic uncertainty and fiscal austerity that affect the national military strategy and complicate its execution in such areas as readiness, force structure, and modernization of the joint force. The current cohort of senior officers must now continue to ensure the Nation's security in a time of divisive domestic politics and dutifully serve a new administration.

This article examines the behavior of our most senior military officers and reviews their impacts on CMR as they transitioned out of their senior leadership positions. It examines this behavior in a historical perspective. It describes how formerly privileged and private conversations may have become stridently public. It then considers how this more public role may affect CMR. This analysis is based on congressional testimony, press conferences, and media engagements, as well as news reports and journalist accounts of senior military leaders' statements.

U.S. History of Civil-Military Tensions

From the inception of this nation, our military has struggled to find the proper balance of CMR. As commander of the fledgling U.S. Army, General George Washington addressed his officers in Newburgh, New York, to quell the Newburgh Conspiracy. (4) When the Congress of the Confederation considered rescinding its commitment for back pay and pensions, officers threatened to disobey orders to disband the standing Continental Army. Some proposed a mutinous march on the capital to demand their due. Washington's March 1783 speech at the New Windsor Cantonment reminded these disgruntled officers of their professional obligation to the civilian leaders of the Nation. Seven months later, in his final speech as the military commander in chief, Washington reinforced the principle of the military's subordination to the new government and its Congress. He modeled this principled behavior by resigning his military commission in December 1783. (5)

At the onset of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln wrestled with two problems. First, he needed a strategy to defeat the Southern secessionists (he refused to acknowledge "the Confederacy") in order to preserve the Union. …

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