Expert Commentary

Rethinking Civil-Military Relations

Don Snider
Adjunct Research Professor, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College

Compared to most of his proposed cabinet, President Donald Trump’s pick of retired Marine Corps General James Mattis for Secretary of Defense has been one of the least controversial. However, due to his recent retirement from the military, Mattis needed – and received – a waiver from Congress to serve; the first Secretary of Defense to receive such a waiver since General George C. Marshall 70 years ago. Looking at Secretary Mattis, and the many other former military officers serving in Trump’s cabinet, The Cipher Brief asked Don Snider, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, how civilian control over the military works in practice, and what might change under the Trump administration.

The Cipher Brief: What does the appointment of James Mattis – a recently retired General – as Secretary of Defense mean for civil-military relations and Pentagon culture?

Don Snider: I think it’s too early to tell exactly what effect Mattis’ appointment will have, and I think many people are going about this debate the wrong way.

The first issue I would establish is that much of the talk in the literature about civilian control of the military is poorly articulated. The issue is not control. The issue of control is a red herring. The real issue is whether the military defers to the supremacy of civilian values. This is the way that the founders saw it. They wanted a military that was deferential to the civilian values of the republic. If the military is always deferential to those values, then there is no issue of control to be concerned about.

The idea of control puts everything into a state of tension and division, but that’s not the point. What you want are civil-military relations with such a strong respect for each other’s skill and expertise that they produce effective strategy that can be implemented and produces effective outcomes. It’s not about who said or ordered what, but whether the strategy that was developed is effective and in the interests of the nation, and whether it was effectively implemented. That’s where you look to judge civil-military relations, not in press releases or pundit’s reports.

TCB: Where do civil-military relations stand now after nearly 16 years of war during the Bush-Obama era?

DS: Looking at the YouGov data that Mattis and Kori Schake used in their book Warriors and Citizens, the status of civil-military relations is actually pretty healthy. However, there are some red flags.

First, there is a concern that the military is too small and isolated from the population it serves. When I used to teach this at West Point, the question I always helped the cadets understand is how different and how separate they may be before the public that they serve is going to start thinking they are not politically legitimate? I’m one of the scholars who does not believe that simply because ½ percent of the population serves in the military that we have a significant familiarity gap that must be addressed immediately. The reason I don’t believe that is because familiarity to millennial soldiers comes in many different forms than it did in the past. For instance, in my work with Army folks in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would simply ask the officers how many friends are on your Facebook list? Seldom was the number less than 250. So there is a significant amount of interaction and understanding between deployed military and the people back in the states.

The second reason I would argue against this concern is the role that the national guard and reserve have played in the last 16 years of war. We’ve deployed reserve units almost as much as we’ve deployed active units. They don’t come from isolated military posts, they come right out of local communities, cities, and towns, and they have an immense network of friends.

Yes, the military is small, but there are more pressing concerns. First, while the military is small, it is also increasingly unready. We have significantly underfunded the needs of the military, particularly the needs balanced against what they were being asked to do and the intensity with which they were doing it. We’ve just worn out a lot of equipment and expended a lot of supplies, so you read daily now about what percentage of Army brigade combat teams could not deploy within 72 hours. Just last week, there was a report that only three brigade combat teams could deploy immediately.

That’s an issue political leaders have to address. The constitution gives Congress the responsibility to raise and maintain the military. Political partisanship, sequestration, we can all point to what has caused this, but the fact is that the military is seriously overmatched in many areas of future warfare. I’ve been in this business for over 50 years, and I’ve never seen a time, except right after Vietnam, when I could make that statement.

That is my bigger concern about civil-military relations. Are we preparing our forces with the readiness to do what the political elites, the cultural elites, and ultimately the public might want them to do, when and where they want it done.?

TCB: The political will is an interesting point. You talked about the percentage of the public serving in the Armed Forces, but the percentage of members of Congress who have previously served is also quite low. What do you make of that as it pertains to wider civil-military relations?

DS: In political science we call that number the “veteran’s deficit.” If you measure the percentage of veterans in the population and then compare it to the percentage of the 535 elected members of Congress, then yes, there’s an immense deficit.

TCB: Do you think that this deficit, this lack of direct knowledge and understanding of the military within the political class, has had a poor effect on civil-military relations and helped produce some of the problems you talked about?

DS: There’s no doubt about that. Some of the most eloquent statements by former Defense Secretary Bob Gates in his book are when he rails against what he called the “mindlessness” of the way we’re doing things.

It is not normal for the military to get so deeply caught up in partisan politics, but certainly for the last six or eight years it has been.

TCB: So would you say that the problem of civil-military relations today is less about civilian control of the military and more about the incompetence of that control in terms of a lack of knowledge and understanding the military itself?

DS: Yes, it’s exactly incompetent control. And it’s reinforced by the fact that the military has such a high popular reputation. This also came out in the YouGov data; the military is the highest respected public institution in America, has been for a long time. However, we need to be careful about that. When I lecture on this subject, particularly to senior leaders, I say, “don’t believe your headlines.” When you look at that data carefully and you stratify it by age group, that respect and regard for the military goes down significantly when you get down to the millennials. In fact, the millennials are the only cohort where there’s not a majority who would place the military in the highly trusted position.

So yes, the military is respected, but it’s not well understood. People continue to think that it’s going to be able to do whatever they want it to do, and that’s a real danger, because the readiness has slipped.

TCB: Do you see a way forward for the Trump administration – specifically Secretary Mattis and his team – to begin to fix some of these problems?

DS: Yes, I do. They need to unscrew the budgeting process so that the resources can flow again, and then be accountable for the best use of the resources possible. Sequestration has to be resolved, there has to be a budget act approved, and we’ll just have to wait and see whether the political gridlock continues to prevail. The parties could just reverse roles and all of a sudden we’re still in gridlock.

TCB: The Obama administration seemed to have a bit more of a top down approach in terms of decision-making in commanding the military, whereas you look at President Trump, and he has very little experience with military strategy or operations that we know of. Do you see decision-making changing with this new dynamic, an experienced General Mattis in the Pentagon and a relatively inexperienced chief executive in the Oval Office?

DS: Yes, I definitely do see that, and I think it has the potential to produce a very salutary outcome, particularly in cooperation between Defense and State. I served in the White House at the end of the Reagan administration and the first part of the Bush ’41 administration when Brent Scowcroft came in as the National Security Advisor. There are two different ways you can do this: presidents can pull all the power to the White House and make most decisions in the National Security Council (NSC) and then simply send it back out for execution; or you can power down and run the federal government by a more autonomous cabinet system.

I get the impression, particularly listening to Mattis and Tillerson, that they’re perfectly prepared to execute a more autonomous form of cabinet government and do it quite cooperatively. I find that immensely encouraging. I have never personally been a fan of highly centralized, micromanaged decision-making from the White House. There’s just too much going on in the world for the White House to be able to pay attention to all of it, that was always my impression working there. I spent a huge amount of time at the NSC throwing things back to the cabinet departments and saying, “this is not the president’s business, you solve this problem. You have the authority, get it done, he’ll never get to this issue.” 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the United States Army. 

The Author is Don Snider

Dr. Snider is adjunct research professor, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army
War College. He is also professor emeritus of political science at West Point. He served three tours in Vietnam as an infantry officer. He is co- author, research director, or editor of six books on military professions and their ethics.

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