America’s Broken Civil-Military Relationship Imperils National Security
When U.S. President Donald Trump left office on January 20, many of those concerned about the state of civil-military relations in the United States breathed a deep sigh of relief. They shouldn’t have. Yes, Trump used the military as a political prop, referred to some of its leaders as “my generals,” and faced a Pentagon that slow-rolled his attempts to withdraw troops from battlefields around the world. But problems in the relationship between military officers and elected officials did not begin with Trump, and they did not end when Joe Biden took office.
Civilian control over the military is deeply embedded in the U.S. Constitution; the armed forces answer to the president and legislature. Starting in 1947, Congress built robust institutions designed to maintain this relationship. But over the past three decades, civilian control has quietly but steadily degraded. Senior military officers may still follow orders and avoid overt insubordination, but their influence has grown, while oversight and accountability mechanisms have faltered. Today, presidents worry about military opposition to their policies and must reckon with an institution that selectively implements executive guidance. Too often, unelected military leaders limit or engineer civilians’ options so that generals can run wars as they see fit.
Civilian control is therefore about more than whether military leaders openly defy orders or want to overthrow the government. It’s about the extent to which political leaders can realize the goals the American people elected them to accomplish. Here, civilian control is not binary; it is measured in degrees. Because the military filters information that civilians need and implements the orders that civilians give, it can wield great influence over civilian decision-making. Even if elected officials still get the final say, they may have little practical control if generals dictate all the options or slow their implementation—as they often do now.
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Resetting this broken relationship is a tall order. It demands that Congress doggedly pursue its oversight role and hold the military accountable, regardless of who occupies the White House. It requires that defense secretaries hire skilled civilian staffs composed of political appointees and civil servants. But most important, it requires an attentive public that is willing to hold both civilian leaders and the military to account.
Evidence of the decline in civilian control over the military isn’t hard to find. Over the last few decades, senior military leaders have regularly thwarted or delayed presidential decisions on military policy. In 1993, Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, helped block President Bill Clinton from ending the policy that banned gays from the military, resulting in the now defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise. Both President Barack Obama and Trump complained that officers boxed them in—limiting military options and leaking information—and forced them to grudgingly accept troop surges they did not support. Obama’s generals signaled that they would accept nothing less than an aggressive counterinsurgency in Afghanistan—despite White House opposition. Obama later fired Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, after members of the general’s staff disparaged White House officials in remarks to a reporter. Trump, for his part, saw senior military leaders push back against his orders to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Syria. Although these moves were signature campaign promises, Trump eventually backed off when military leaders told him they couldn’t be done and that the policies would harm national security.
Of course, senior military leaders do not always get everything they want, but they often get more than they should. Their power also extends beyond headline-grabbing decisions about overseas deployments or troop reductions. The military’s influence manifests hundreds of times a day through bureaucratic maneuvers inside the Pentagon, in policy discussions in the White House, and during testimony on Capitol Hill. These mundane interactions, perhaps more than anything else, steer decision-making away from civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and toward uniformed personnel. Inside the Pentagon, for instance, military leaders often preempt the advice and analysis of civilian staff by sending their proposals straight to the secretary of defense, bypassing the byzantine clearance process that non-uniformed staffers must navigate.
There are signs of the erosion of civilian control outside the Pentagon, as well. Congress too rarely demands that the military bow to civilian authority, instead weighing in selectively and for partisan reasons. During the Obama administration, for example, some commentators and at least one member of Congress suggested that Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should resign in protest over the president’s management of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The goal was to use Dempsey’s role as the president’s chief military adviser as leverage in a partisan battle over Obama’s foreign policy. Under Trump, many Democrats cheered on the retired and active-duty generals who pushed back against the president’s decisions. These “adults in the room” included James Mattis (the secretary of defense), John Kelly (the secretary of homeland security and then White House chief of staff), and H. R. McMaster (Trump’s national security adviser). At the extreme, some of Trump’s opponents even urged senior military leaders to contemplate removing Trump from office. In August 2020, two well-known retired army officers, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, penned an open letter to Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling him to do just that if the president refused to leave office after losing the 2020 election. Although these efforts may have comforted those concerned about Trump’s erratic policies, they undermined civilian control by suggesting that it was the military’s job to keep the executive in check. When politicians endorse military insubordination that serves their interests, they do long-term damage to the principle of civilian primacy.
Civilian control over the military is deeply embedded in the U.S. Constitution.
Oversight itself has also become politicized. Politicians increasingly turn to those with military experience to run the Pentagon. Trump decided to appoint a former general, Mattis, as secretary of defense, and Biden did the same, putting Lloyd Austin in the post. In both cases, Congress had to waive a requirement that officers be retired for at least seven years before serving in the department’s top job. The rule, which had been broken only once before, is designed to prioritize leaders with distance from the mindset and social networks associated with military service. Ideally, defense secretaries should be comfortable operating as civilians—not soldiers. Mattis’s and Austin’s nominations, and subsequent confirmations, therefore represent a break with over seven decades of law and tradition, beginning with the 1947 reforms, stipulating that the secretary of defense cannot be a recently retired general.
There is no obvious reason to think that those with military experience are better suited to controlling the military on behalf of Congress or the president—and plenty of reasons to suspect the opposite. In the military, soldiers are taught to follow orders, not scrutinize their implications, as a cabinet official should. Military personnel, moreover, are ideally taught to stay out of partisan debates, whereas the secretary’s job demands well-honed political skill and experience. Yet as Mattis’s and Austin’s appointments show, military service is becoming a litmus test for Pentagon policy jobs traditionally held by civilians, and this is true even at lower levels.
Meanwhile, the public is failing to insist that elected leaders hold the military to account. Many Americans would rather put troops on a pedestal and admire the military from afar. Repeating the mantra “Support our troops” has become a substitute for the patriotic duty of questioning the institution those troops serve. Large numbers of citizens are now reluctant to even offer their opinions in response to survey questions about the military, let alone to criticize military leaders. In a 2013 YouGov survey, for instance, 25 to 30 percent of the nonveterans asked consistently chose “I don’t know” or “no opinion” in response to questions about the military.
At best, these trends immunize the military from scrutiny; at worst, they give it a pass to behave with impunity. An October 2017 White House press conference epitomized this exceptionalism: during a discussion of Trump’s condolence call to the widow of a slain soldier, Kelly, who had served in the military for more than four decades and whose own son was killed fighting in Afghanistan, refused to call on journalists who didn’t know someone who had had a family member killed in combat. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, later admonished journalists for daring to question Kelly. Debating “a four-star Marine general,” she said, was “highly inappropriate.”
Part of the decline in civil-military relations can be blamed on institutional changes. As the United States became a global power, elected leaders developed a bureaucratic structure to manage the military on a day-to-day basis. When it became clear at the start of the Cold War that the U.S. defense establishment had become too large for the president and the legislature to control on their own, Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947. The law established what would eventually become the Department of Defense and placed at its head a civilian secretary of defense, who would bring experience managing bureaucratic and domestic politics. That person would have the exclusive job of ensuring that the military’s activities aligned with the nation’s goals as determined by its elected political leaders. And Congress granted the secretary a civilian staff composed of individuals who could draw on their experiences in government, business, and academia.
But in 1986, Congress unintentionally undid much of this work. That year, it overhauled the 1947 law by passing the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, which shifted power and resources away from civilian leaders and to their military counterparts. Since that law passed, large, well-resourced military staffs have displaced civilians in the Pentagon and across the rest of the government. Today, for example, ambassadors and other civilian officials frequently depend on the military’s regional combatant commands for resources, including planes and logistical support, necessary to do their jobs. Regional combatant commanders also have responsibilities that cross national boundaries, giving them de facto diplomatic authority and frequent contact not only with their military counterparts overseas but also with foreign government leaders. The military officials who govern security assistance and cooperation programs have also grown in number and influence, further sidelining their civilian counterparts in the State Department.
It is a truism in national security discourse that diplomats are underfunded relative to the military. Even former defense secretaries, including Mattis and Robert Gates, have warned Congress of the risks of underfunding the State Department. But no one ever does much about it. Without a serious attempt at rebalancing, the military’s personnel and resource advantages will only further undermine civilian control, giving the military extra speed and capacity that it can leverage during bureaucratic fights to make and implement policy.
At the same time, there has also been a hollowing out of the processes of civilian control within the Department of Defense itself. In recent years, the Pentagon has faced immense difficulties recruiting, retaining, and managing the civilian professional staff responsible for overseeing the uniformed military. These challenges are the result of underinvestment in the civilian workplace. There is little systematic training to prepare civilian officials for their responsibilities, and they are often thrown into the deep end of the Pentagon and left to sink or swim. In contrast, service members benefit from thorough professional military education programs and other developmental opportunities throughout their careers.
By 2018, this situation had deteriorated to a point where the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission, a congressionally appointed panel, concluded that a lack of civilian voices in national security decision-making was “undermining the concept of civilian control.” To be sure, these problems became more acute during the Trump administration, when the Pentagon was littered with acting officials and unfilled positions. But the civilian bench was shallow long before Trump took over.
Partisan polarization has also undermined civilian control. After 9/11, the public’s esteem for the military spiked, and politicians noticed. Elected leaders became increasingly willing to disregard civil-military norms, avoid serious oversight and accountability, and encourage military insubordination to score political points against their political opponents.
Today, politicians on both sides of the aisle capitalize on the military’s prestige to shield themselves from criticism and attack their rivals—often a cost-free strategy, given the military’s popularity. During campaigns, candidates often claim that troops prefer them over their opponent; in 2020, a Trump ad featured the tagline “Support our troops,” and Biden cited a Military Times poll to suggest that it was he who enjoyed their support. Candidates regularly seek the endorsement of retired generals and even use them as partisan attack dogs. At the 2016 Republican National Convention, the Trump adviser Michael Flynn, who had then been out of the military for just two years, criticized Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and encouraged the crowd to chant “Lock her up!” As president, Trump repeatedly delivered partisan speeches in front of uniformed audiences, once telling officers at MacDill Air Force Base, “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we? And I saw those numbers—and you like me, and I like you.” In over-the-top campaign videos, some post-9/11 veterans running for office use their experience as a means of dividing those who served from those who did not. In 2020, the Republican Texas congressman and former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw released an Avengers-themed ad entitled “Texas Reloaded” that featured attack helicopters, fighter jets, and Crenshaw himself parachuting out of a plane.
More frequently ignored, however, are the less egregious moments of politicization, such as presidents donning bomber jackets and flight suits in public speeches to military audiences or venturing to West Point to make major foreign policy addresses rather than to a civilian university. All these actions reinforce the belief that military service is superior to other kinds of public service.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle stand to benefit from better civilian oversight.
Even though politicians try to gain electoral advantage through such behavior, what they are ultimately doing is damaging their own authority. By lionizing the armed forces, politicians teach the public to expect elected officials to make concessions to military leaders or defer to them on important decisions. This same dynamic motivates civilian leaders to encourage officers to serve as “the adults in the room,” resist or oppose their partisan opponents’ policies, or resign in protest against a lawful order from an elected president. Although there may be short-term advantages to such behavior (assuming, of course, that the military leaders are correct), it subverts the broader principle that civilians get to pursue the policies they were elected to carry out.
The military has also played a role in the degradation of civilian control. For one thing, its nonpartisan ethic is in decay. Whereas the majority of senior military officers did not identify with a political party as late as 1976, nearly three-quarters do so today, according to surveys of senior officers attending various war colleges conducted between 2017 and 2020. Many service members are comfortable airing their partisan political commentary on social media to wide audiences, an outspokenness that would have made past generations of soldiers blush. Retired generals involved in politics—especially through campaign endorsements—reinforce to those in uniform that the military is riven by partisan divides. Senior military leaders have largely failed to address this behavior, either looking the other way or attributing it to a few bad apples. Their silence, however, normalizes partisanship in the military, with those in uniform concluding that it is acceptable to openly pick political sides. Recent surveys of senior active-duty officers found that roughly one-third had observed their colleagues make or share disparaging comments about elected officials on social media.
Service members also make civilian control that much harder when they act as if they are superior to their civilian counterparts. Research consistently shows that many in the military believe that their decision to serve in uniform makes them morally superior to those Americans who did not make that choice. According to a 2020 survey by the research institution NORC, this sense of superiority extends even to their views of those Americans whose jobs also entail significant risks—including doctors fighting the pandemic and diplomats serving in combat zones or in hardship assignments. At the extreme, military personnel question the legitimacy of the civilians who oversee them, especially if they suspect that those leaders don’t share their partisan views.
Another factor undermining civilian authority is the military’s attachment to the notion that it should have exclusive control over what it views as its own affairs. This concept, endorsed by the political scientist Samuel Huntington, contends that the military has a right to push back when civilians attempt to interfere in military matters. According to this view, autonomy is a right, not a privilege. But military and political affairs are not as distinct as many officers have been led to believe, and the experience of other countries suggests that alternative models are just as plausible: throughout Europe, for example, military leaders are accustomed to much more intrusive oversight than their U.S. counterparts.
Trends in American culture underpin many of these problems. Americans increasingly fetishize the armed forces and believe that the only true patriots are those in uniform. According to Gallup polling, the public consistently has more confidence in the military than in any other national institution. That admiration, coupled with declining trust and confidence in civilian organizations, means that large segments of the population think that those in uniform should run the military, and maybe even the country itself.
This adoration has grown in part out of efforts to bring the military out of its post-Vietnam malaise. In 1980, Edward Meyer, the army chief of staff, declared his force a “hollow army,” and that same year, an operation intended to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran ended in disaster, showing the public just how depleted its armed forces had become. While Congress attempted to rectify the situation by ramping up military spending, the military cannily worked to rehabilitate its image through popular culture. In the 1980s, the Pentagon cooperated with big-budget movies such as Top Gun, a practice it has continued to the present with such superhero films as Captain Marvel. By conditioning its cooperation and provision of equipment on approval of the script, the military learned that it could influence storylines and enhance its brand.
Another contributing problem is the military’s tendency to recruit heavily from particular subsections of American society. With few calls for shared sacrifice or national mobilization during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the majority of the public had little to do besides thank the troops for their service. The military, meanwhile went to great lengths to honor soldiers with patriotic displays centered on the nobility of military service, notably during college and professional sporting events. These trends all reinforced the notion that military service members were truly exceptional—better, different, and more selfless than the civilians who cheered them on.
REFORM OR PERISH
Together, these pressures have weakened the institutional processes, nonpartisan practices, and societal values that have historically served to keep the principle of civilian control of the military strong in its mundane and often unglamorous daily practice. But the damage can be repaired. Institutional reforms have the greatest chance of success. Politicians on both sides of the aisle stand to benefit from better civilian oversight.
Congress could start by rebalancing power in the Department of Defense away from the Joint Staff and the combatant commands (the 11 military commands with specific geographic or functional responsibilities) and toward civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Legislators can do this by resisting calls to further cut the Pentagon’s civilian workforce and by eliminating duplicate efforts among the Joint Staff and the combatant commands, which together account for an estimated 40,000 positions. A parallel program to train, retrain, and prepare a civilian workforce would help deepen the Pentagon’s civilian bench.
Congress should also rethink efforts to give the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the mission of “global integration” of U.S. military capabilities—an initiative that took root when Joseph Dunford filled the role, from 2015 to 2019. The idea was that the Joint Chiefs could adjudicate the military’s competing geographic requirements, curb the power of the combatant commands, and prioritize resources. But that role is best played by civilians in the defense secretary’s office, not by a sprawling military staff.
The uniformed military must also address its role in undermining civilian control. A hallmark of any profession is its ability to enforce standards of conduct, and yet the military has at times struggled to ensure that its members refrain from partisan activity. To address this, active-duty officers should publicly disavow retired senior officers who damage the military’s nonpartisan ethic through campaign endorsements and other political pronouncements. Retired officers should also use peer pressure to curb partisan campaign endorsements among their colleagues. If that fails, Congress should consider instituting a four-year cooling-off period that would prohibit generals and admirals from making partisan endorsements immediately after retiring—similar to what it did with lobbying efforts.
Politicians must stop propagating the myth that serving in the military is a prerequisite for overseeing it.
Finally, military leaders must do a better job of educating service members about the importance of nonpartisanship, including on social media. This will require clear regulations and consistent enforcement. The same leaders should also rethink their view of military professionalism, abandoning the notion that they have an exclusive domain and embracing an approach that accepts the need for civilian oversight.
Other areas in need of reform, including among civilian elected leaders, are less likely to see change. Politicians today face few repercussions for politicizing the military, and they have considerable incentives to continue to do so. Still, elected leaders could start to deal with the problem by ending the practice of soliciting endorsements from retired generals. They could also stop using the uniformed military as a backdrop for partisan political speeches and stop running campaign advertisements that insinuate that they enjoy more military support than their opponents. Veterans and active reservists or members of the National Guard should also stop weaponizing their service for electoral gain. That would mean an end to cashing in on public support for the military through campaign ads that suggest their military service makes them superior citizens.
Politicians should also stop propagating the myth that serving in the military is a prerequisite for overseeing it. This belief not only diminishes the important role civilians play but also symbolically raises the military above its civilian superiors in the minds of service members and the public. Instituting a ten-year waiting period—or at least adhering to the existing seven-year requirement—before a retired officer can serve as secretary of defense is a necessary step. So is valuing and investing in the contributions of civilian expertise at all echelons in the Pentagon.
Finally, those who continue to mythologize the military in popular culture should rebalance their portrayals. A little more M*A*S*H—the darkly comedic 1970s television series about a U.S. Army medical unit during the Korean War—and a little less righteous soldiering might humanize military personnel and chip away at the public’s distorted view of the armed services. Bringing the military back down to earth and a bit closer to the society it serves would help politicians in their effort to scrutinize military affairs and encourage Americans to see accountability as a healthy practice in a democratic society.
If Americans do not recognize the rot lurking beneath their idyllic vision of civilian control, the United States’ civil-military crisis will only get worse. More than most citizens realize, the country’s democratic traditions and national security both depend on this delicate relationship. Without robust civilian oversight of the military, the United States will not remain a democracy or a global power for long.