The Culture of Military Bureaucracy: Civil-Military Relations in Democracies Today

By Foster, Gregory D. | The Public Manager, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The Culture of Military Bureaucracy: Civil-Military Relations in Democracies Today


Foster, Gregory D., The Public Manager


Are military professionals unaware of their own civic and strategic illiteracy?

One of the most significant issues facing any democracy today, not least the United States, is the current state of civil-military relations. Why should the relationship between the military and society be of such concern to us? There are two principal reasons.

First, the military's relationship to civilian authorities and to society more generally lies at the very heart of what democracy is all about. Democracy, Harry Truman suggested, is "based on the conviction that man has the moral and intellectual capacity, as well as the inalienable right, to govern himself with reason and justice." By the same token, what defines the state, Max Weber observed, is government's monopoly of the legitimate possession and use of force. The military is the principal embodiment of state-centered and -controlled violence. Thus, in a form of government where the people are supposed to rule, civilian supremacy over the military is essential; it is an ethical imperative. Where this relationship fails or falters, the very end of government--"the common benefit, protection, and security of the people," as the Virginia bill of rights first enjoined--stands in jeopardy.

Second, the three parties to the civil-military relationship--the military, its civilian masters, and the people themselves--are bound to one another by social contract. "The first principle of a civilized state," said Walter Lippmann, "is that power is legitimate only when it is under contract." A social contract is a mutually binding, though a tacit, set of expectations, obligations, and rights. Because it depends on the ability--and, more importantly, the willingness--of the parties involved to live up to their end of the unwritten bargain, it is, in every sense, an ethical compact.

What Society Expects of the Military

What do civilian authorities and the people more generally expect of the military as part of this compact?

Operational Competence

Above all else, they expect operational competence--the ability of the military to fulfill its mission, to get the job done, to accomplish all tasks assigned (even those that are only implied). The generally unrecognized question this raises is how we judge or measure operational competence: whether in terms of strategic effectiveness or mere military effectiveness. The importance of this question lies in the military's institutional preference--and frequently its insistence--that it be given only purely "military" tasks to perform, that it not be expected to do things that aren't properly military, and that it be judged accordingly.

Yet in the postmodern, media age in which we now live, we do well to realize that military effectiveness is not synonymous with--and may even be antithetical to--strategic effectiveness. A military, for example, that is structured, equipped, trained, and psychologically prepared to wage war, ostensibly for the purpose of securing peace, but that thereby feeds the insecurity and militarization of others, is strategically dysfunctional. A military prepared only for the conduct of traditional conventional war that thereby can't (or seeks not to) be used at all when confronted by forms of conflict and violence unlike traditional war, or, when thus used, either repeatedly fails or wreaks casualties and destruction out of all proportion to the stakes at hand, also is strategically dysfunctional. A military charged with maintaining internal domestic security that, in the process, quashes civil liberties, may undermine the state's ability to act strategically by destroying the public trust and confidence in governmen t so essential to social cohesion and national will.

Is this what we want in a democracy? Is it what we must accept as the price of maintaining a permanent military establishment (what George Washington called a "permanent peace establishment")? …

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