Before the events of 6 January in the nation’s capital, WAR ROOM received several submissions dealing with the topic of the military’s relationship with “politics.” It’s an extraordinarily complex discussion–from understanding, interpreting, and abiding by relevant law and regulation, to the importance of norms, and the very definition of what counts as “political” or “partisan”–none of these questions are simple. Investigations since the 6th have revealed at least one active and a number of former military members who appear to have been involved in varying degrees with the activities seen around the world on news feeds. In an attempt to further a useful discussion of the civil-military relationship WAR ROOM will publish these pieces over the next several weeks each Friday.
The second offering in this brief series is this article by Todd Schmidt. He claims that the terms “apolitical” and “non-partisan” are often confused and misused. The reality of an apolitical, non-partisan military does not exist. Since the creation of the country the military of the United States has been intensely political, and many senior military professionals have been crucial members of political society. And thoughtful actions must occur to ensure the healthy rebalance of civil-military relations.
Too often, military service members confuse the terms “apolitical” with “non-partisan,” perhaps blinded by an institutionally presupposed professionalism that theoretically inoculates against both hazards.
Over the course of the last year, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff conducted multiple media engagements and made several public statements reassuring the public regarding the military’s allegiance to the U.S Constitution. In a National Public Radio interview, he stated that the U.S. has a “very long tradition of an apolitical military that does not get involved in domestic politics.” Following the violent riots in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed by the Army’s senior executive leadership, issued unprecedented statements to the joint force and Army. Again, they reiterated the military’s apolitical, non-partisan role in the American polity. With the necessity of deploying nearly 25,000 National Guard and active-duty military service members to the nation’s capital to guard against partisan violence and ensure a peaceful transfer of power during the inauguration of President Joe Biden, this essay respectfully challenges these assertions.
Too often, military service members confuse the terms “apolitical” with “non-partisan,” perhaps blinded by an institutionally presupposed professionalism that theoretically inoculates against both hazards. Institutionally, the American military (and the individual service members who comprise it) suffer from self-deception or self-serving bias. The term “apolitical” means to have no interest or involvement in political affairs. To be “non-partisan,” insinuates political impartiality or neutrality. Historical behavior of the U.S. military meets neither definition.
With nearly 500 retired flag officers endorsing the two main 2020 presidential candidates, the narrative of an apolitical military is clearly a part of a nuanced American mythology. Irrespective of the Huntingtonian ideal of separate military and political spheres, military service members are not apolitical, non-partisan servants of the state. In fact, the U.S. military has a noteworthy record of politicization, partisanship, and praetorian propensities.
First, it is time to recognize that the military institution is innately political. To be political, in an institutional context, simply refers to the military’s integral relationship to government and involvement in political policy process and issues. Administering vast resources ensures that any significant military action or policy will have far-reaching political ramifications that ripple across both domestic and international political domains.
Senior military service members are also inescapably political. Former Secretary of State, General Colin Powell described it very succinctly in a speech to National Defense University graduates in 1989 when he stated, “The fact of the matter is there is not a general or admiral in Washington who is not political…it’s the nature of our system…It is the way in which we formulate policy. It is the way in which we get approval for our policy.” The military’s process of professionalization does not insinuate neutrality into the military ethos. Despite sincere statements to the contrary, senior military officers, like all political actors, cannot cognitively separate their political beliefs from their behavior in an innately political policy process. Rather, they inject their biases into the policy process, consciously and subconsciously, in an effort to achieve their policy preferences.
It is not in the military ethos to sit idle, reacting to the environment as impartial, neutral observers, nor is such a response possible or practicable when human actors are involved. Indeed, the military makes every effort to anticipate and regulate its environment, political or otherwise, consistent with its interests. Although the military respects the principle of “effective civilian control,” it is not necessarily submissive to civilian masters. Rather, it is an active participant in what Dr. Mackubin Owens, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has described as a “bargaining process” or “negotiation.” Recent history supports these assertions. With this expansive view of politics, we must search elsewhere to understand the source of problematic military-political interaction.
Perhaps, as some analysts have noted, this is when political engagement veers toward the partisan. Here, the critique is on firmer ground. Indeed, it has been well-established through multiple studies over the past several decades that a majority of the military identifies and votes with the Republican Party. A notable dynamic in the 2016 presidential campaign and early days of President Donald Trump’s administration was a reliance on senior military officers. Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg were both heavily relied upon as senior advisors in the Trump presidential campaign and went on to fill key positions in the National Security Council (NSC). Both general officers displayed exceptional political partisanship, participating in campaign activities and making partisan political remarks on behalf of Trump.
Following his successful campaign and election, President Trump appointed retired four-star general James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, arguably the most influential cabinet position. One of the most political positions in the president’s office, Chief of Staff, was filled by retired four-star general James Kelly, a transition he made from serving as Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security. Following the early resignation of Flynn in the first weeks of the new administration, the president appointed yet another general officer, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. As the president and his senior military leaders experienced a divergence of views, Trump, suspicious of “deep state” resistance to his agenda, implemented a more political administrative strategy by appointing more compliant political appointees to pursue his agenda. Although President Trump relied heavily on a core team of senior military elites at the beginning of his term, with the exception of Kellogg, all left the administration within the first 24 months.
To many, having senior military officers shepherding a novice, unorthodox president with no governing experience in the early days of his administration was reassuring. Although filling so many important positions with senior military officers is not unprecedented, it did raise concerns related to a balance of influence and power in civil-military relations. There was a growing concern that civilian leadership was over delegating and relinquishing important authorities, and losing effective civilian control over the military establishment.
The partisanship on display by some retired military officers was alarming. However, analysts were highlighting a different problem, when they framed the issue as one of civil-military relations. In reality, the civil-military concerns are about rising praetorianism, rather than solely about the dangers of partisanship or imbalance in civil-military relations.
Today, just as during the Civil War-era, senior military officers are comfortable assuming a praetorian role in governing responsibilities. A condition of praetorianism describes a dynamic in which military elites actively participate in civil government. They are political actors with political preferences, intervening in political process to corral unorthodox executives, preserve status quo, direct policy in accordance with their preferences, or a combination of these actions.
A 2007 RAND study finds the military views “civilian control” as increasingly irrelevant. Rather, civilian control of the military is conditional. It is contingent on the fundamental premise that civilian officials demonstrate “effective control;” that they are able to assert themselves in national security matters knowledgeably.
Former Congressman Chris Gibson argues there is no longer parity between civilians and senior military leaders as it relates to expertise in national security. Lack of a countervailing force in the policy process creates imbalance in civil-military relations, favoring the military. Gibson insinuates military elites increasingly prop up civilian officials to avoid the appearance of the military directing policy.
This scholarly quandary is caused by the gap between theory and reality in civil-military relations.
Relatedly, some scholars assert the myth of military subordination to civilian control is deliberately preserved, creating a dilemma. This scholarly quandary is caused by the gap between theory and reality in civil-military relations. Not until the presumption of civilian control is removed can the “dearth of appropriate theoretical frameworks” be filled.
Dr. Kori Schake and General James Mattis, in a 2016 study, found civil-military relations in turmoil to the extent that military elites were reportedly embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of novice administrations. In contrast, civilian officials with no military experience felt they lack moral authority to manage the military. Rather, they relied heavily on military elites, hoping to stand in the shadow of the military’s credibility with the American public.
Civilian complacency in balancing military influence has long-term consequences. Civilian institutions have allowed resident “strategic thinking to atrophy.” The military is seen as the last fully functioning federal institution with the last remaining pool of trusted leadership capable of navigating congressional confirmation. The principle of “civilian control” has evolved into a fanciful myth. How this myth came to be and developed over time, goes even deeper into American history.
Dr. Richard Kohn provides an extensive history of America’s military establishment, going back to the American Revolution. Veterans of the American Revolution formed a powerful political faction intent on protecting their new nation. They were founders of the Federalist Party and forceful advocates for a standing military establishment to ward off external, as well as internal, threats to national security. It was a fundamental plank of their political platform intended to strengthen a central government.
Led by President George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, Kohn writes that these politically powerful, partisan veterans filled critical positions throughout the government and future administrations. These inaugural military elites were an early apparition of an exceptionally powerful epistemic community of military professionals bound together by military values instilled through military service.
During the American Civil War era, Donald Connelly provides a descriptive history of how senior military officers reached a pinnacle of political involvement in domestic politics. Officers were regularly appointed to senior position for purely political reasons. These politically appointed generals were empowered to overrule civilian government, displacing democratically elected officials, particularly during Reconstruction.
Postbellum senior military officers administered state and local governments, running courts, levying taxes, supervising elections, and drafting state constitutions. Nationally, the military fulfilled law enforcement duties in the American West while quelling violent organized labor uprisings in the East. The praetorian involvement of the military during this era ultimately led to the passage of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1887, constraining the military from involvement in governing and law enforcement within the United States.
Congressionally commissioned historical studies of presidential policy-making have found that following World War II, senior military officers, well-aware of their political power and prestige, were intent on using their political capital to affect significant organizational change. The disorderly, unorthodox wartime leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt prompted military-backed legislation that increased military control over the national security policy process. The National Security Act of 1947, creating the National Security Council (NSC) and Joint Staff, was the codification of these lessons learned.
Admiral Sidney Souers, executive secretary of the NSC and later CIA Director, testified before Congress that the NSC was intended to be an organization essentially run by the military. It would provide a measure of control and influence over future presidents. It would ensure “military considerations and military logic” dominated an orderly policy process.
With the support of General George Marshall, two years later, in 1949, Congress repealed prohibitions to the military directly lobbying Congress in matters of national security. Senior military officers were authorized to provide independent views to Congress, unsolicited. They were empowered to lobby for policy and resources independent of presidential priorities.
By 1953, congressional studies found that in matters of national security, “military professionals are the makers of national policy.” Civilian officials lacked a “take charge” mentality; did not assert leadership in the policy process; lacked respect for the importance of strategic planning; and were “wedded to a philosophy of reacting” to national emergencies. Senior military officers dominated the national security policy process while civilian counterparts readily acquiesced.
In 1977, General Andrew Goodpaster, addressing the challenges of “civilian control,” explained a fundamental reality. Military officers possess a “vast, diverse, and intricately interwoven body” of knowledge and expertise. Civilian “amateurs,” in Goodpaster’s words, were ill-suited to advise in matters of national security. They tend to abdicate national security responsibilities in deference to domestic, electoral politics. Objective deference to the military, Goodpaster argued, is justified by the senior military officer corps’ vast, career-long training and experience in the application of force and national security affairs.
A study conducted by this author found that post-Vietnam internal reviews led the military to improve the professionalism of the military’s officer corps. The consequences of these initiatives, however, created an increasingly insulated, conservative cadre of leadership. This powerful, combat-hardened, highly trained, well-educated, politically astute epistemic community became increasingly comfortable engaging in the political sphere with civilian counterparts.
Following the events of 9/11, the balance of civil-military relations was, in the words of one author, “renegotiated.” Dr. Mackubin Owens explains that senior military officers, both active and retired, became increasingly concerned with the lack of effective civilian control of the military. Loss of effective control stems from a leadership-knowledge-power vacuum among civilian leaders that has created an over-reliance on senior military officers in the national security policy process. Civilians, Owens argues, feel a lack of moral authority to lead in this policy arena.
Additionally, scholars, such as Colonel Heidi Urben, find a significant population of the military comfortable engaging in political activities. Active duty military openly express political beliefs and preferences on social media. Retired military publicly endorse political candidates. The reality of an apolitical, non-partisan military does not exist. The principle of “civilian control” is no longer static. It is dynamic and evolving.
As President Biden forms his government, he signaled his intent to appoint retired four-star general Lloyd Austin as his Secretary of Defense. While retired military officers have advocated on General Austin’s behalf, civil-military scholars are raising a red flag of concern. Austin’s nomination will be the second retired four-star general requiring a congressional exemption to serve, because his time out of uniform does not meet the current congressional requirements. It also signals that the incoming administration finds the pool of qualified civilian leaders wanting.
Regardless, for senior civilian leaders and future administrations, a high-level, external review of the role the military and senior military officers play in government would be valuable. In the meantime, the military will remain an overpowering political force as long as there is no meaningful countervailing influence. Achieving a healthy rebalance in civil-military relations requires rebalanced investment in competing institutions and elements of national power.
Deliberate consideration of reinvesting resources could potentially create a more diverse community of national security professionals. Until there is a rebalancing of resources and investments, the U.S. will continue to witness praetorian propensities among senior military officers. We cannot be complacent regarding imbalance of power in civil-military relations and the powerful political influence of a military epistemic community.
Todd Schmidt is a Colonel in the U.S. Army and the Director (J5), Plans, Policy, & Allied Integration, Joint Functional Component Command – Integrated Missile Defense (JFCC-IMD).The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.
Photo Credit: Proclaiming Claudius Emperor by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1867 via Wikimedia Commons
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