Item: Two US Navy patrol boats, with 10 sailors aboard, “stray” into Iranian territorial waters, and are apprehended and held by Iranian revolutionary guards, precipitating a 24-hour international incident involving negotiations at the highest levels of government to secure their release. The Pentagon offers conflicting reports on why this happened: navigational error, mechanical breakdown, fuel depletion—but not intelligence-gathering, intentional provocation, or hormonally induced hotdogging.
Item: The Pentagon, according to a Reuters exposé, has been consciously and systematically engaged in thwarting White House efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and release cleared detainees. Pentagon officials have repeatedly refused to provide basic documentation to foreign governments willing to take those detainees and have made it increasingly difficult for foreign delegations to visit Guantánamo to assess them. Ninety-one of the 779 detainees held there over the years remain, 34 of whom have been cleared for release.
Item: The Pentagon elects not to reduce Gen. David Petraeus in rank, thereby ensuring that he receives full four-star retirement pay, after he previously has been sentenced on misdemeanor charges to two years’ probation and a $100,000 fine for illegally passing highly classified material (a criminal offense) to his mistress (adultery, ordinarily punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice) and lying to FBI officials (a criminal offense). Meanwhile, Private Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning continues to serve a 35-year prison sentence, having been reduced to the Army’s lowest rank and given a dishonorable discharge for providing classified documents to WikiLeaks that included incriminating onboard videos of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed up to 18 civilians, including two Reuters journalists, and wounded two children, and of a 2009 massacre in Afghanistan in which a B-1 bomber killed as many as 147 civilians, reportedly including 93 children.
What do these episodes have in common? In their own way, they’re all symptomatic of an enduring crisis in civil-military relations that afflicts the United States.
Hyperbolic though it may sound, it is a crisis, though not like the Flint water crisis, or the international refugee crisis, or the ISIS crisis, or the Zika crisis. It’s more like the climate crisis, or a lymphoma or termite infestation that destroys from within, unrecognized and unattended. And yes, it’s an enduring crisis, a state of affairs that has been with us, unbeknownst to the public and barely acknowledged by purported experts on the subject of civil-military relations, for the past two decades or more.
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The essence of the situation begins, but doesn’t end, with civilian control of the military, where direction, oversight, and final decision-making authority reside with duly elected and appointed civil officials. That’s a minimalist precondition for democracy. A more ideal version of the relationship would be civilian supremacy, where there is civically engaged public oversight of strategically competent legislative oversight of strategically competent executive oversight of a willingly accountable, self-policing military.
What we have today, instead, is the polar opposite: not civilian supremacy over, nor even civilian control of, the military, but what could be characterized as civilian subjugation to the military, where civilian officials are largely militarily illiterate, more militaristic than the military itself, advocates for—rather than overseers of—the institution, and running scared politically (lest they be labeled weak on defense and security).
That, then, is our lot today. Civilian authorities are almost unequivocally deferential to established military preferences, practices, and ways of thinking. The military itself, as the three “items” above suggest, sets its own standards, makes and produces its own news, and appropriates policy and policy making for its own ends, whatever civilian leadership may think or want. It is a demonstrably massive, self-propelled institution increasingly central to American life, and what it says and wants and does matters in striking ways. We would do well to consider the many faces of civil-military relations today, especially in light of the role the military has arrogated to itself.
A Crisis Appears and Disappears
University of North Carolina historian Richard Kohn raised the specter of a civil-military crisis in a 1994 National Interest article titled “Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil-Military Relations.” He focused on the ill-disguised disdain of many in uniform for Commander in Chief Bill Clinton, highlighting the particularly politicized behavior of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, who had spoken out in opposition to two prime items on the Clinton agenda: intervention in the Balkans and gays in the military. As an incident typical of how the bounds of propriety had been crossed, Kohn also alluded to the example of the Air Force major general who, at a military gathering, contemptuously characterized the president as “gay-loving,” “pot-smoking,” “draft-dodging,” and “womanizing.”
Too alarmist for many pundits, Kohn’s claim of a growing crisis gave way to the milder thought, advocated most forcefully by journalist Tom Ricks, that there was simply an increasing cultural, experiential, and ideological “gap” between the military and society, a thesis that itself then went dormant when George W. Bush entered office.
Those who profess expertise on civil-military relations have tended to focus almost exclusively on civilian control and the associated issue of the military’s political “neutrality.” That’s why so much attention and controversy were generated over President Obama’s highly publicized firing of General Stanley McChrystal for the climate he created that led to the disparagement of senior Obama officials by his subordinates (as reported in the 2010 Rolling Stone article “The Runaway General”). Yet far bigger and more fundamental matters have gone largely unnoticed.
Civil-military relations are built on a tacit but binding social contract of mutual rights, obligations, and expectations among the military, its civilian overseers (executive and legislative), and society. Four things are expected of the military as part of this compact: operational competence, sound advice, political neutrality, and social responsibility. Operational competence and social responsibility are rarely even part of the discussion, and yet they go to the heart of the crisis that exists, pointing both to the outsize presence of the military in American life and statecraft, and to a disturbingly pervasive pattern of misconduct over time among those in uniform.
The Failure of Operational Competence
If we enjoyed a truly healthy state of civil-military relations, it would be characterized by a strategically—not just a militarily—effective force. By implication, such a military would be capable of successfully accomplishing whatever it is called upon to do. The military we have today is, arguably, ineffective not only militarily but demonstrably strategically as well. It doesn’t prevent wars; it doesn’t win wars; and it certainly doesn’t secure and preserve the peace.
No, the military doesn’t prevent wars. At any given time over the past quarter-century, on average roughly 40 violent conflicts a year have been under way around the world. The US military has had virtually no discernible influence on lessening the outbreak of such conflicts. It isn’t even clear that its size, configuration, and positioning, no less the staggering sums invested in it, have had any appreciable deterrent effect on the warring propensities of our so-called peer competitors (Russia and China). That they have not sought war with us is due far less to simplistic Washington assumptions about deterrence than to factors we don’t even grasp.
And no, the military doesn’t win wars anymore. It hasn’t won one of note in 70 years. The dirty wars in the shadows it now regularly fights are intrinsically unwinnable, especially given our preferred American Way of War: killing people and breaking things as lethally, destructively, and overwhelmingly as possible. It’s an approach—a state of mind—still largely geared to a different type of conflict from an era now long since past and to those classic generals who are always preparing for the last war. That’s why today’s principal adversaries have been so uniformly effective in employing asymmetric methods as a form of strategic jujitsu to turn our presumed strengths into crippling weaknesses.
Instead of a strategically effective military, what we have is quite the opposite: heavy, disproportionately destructive, indiscriminately lethal, single-mindedly combat-oriented, technology-dominant, exorbitantly expensive, unsustainably consumptive, and increasingly alienated from the rest of society. Just as important, wherever it goes, it provokes and antagonizes where it should reassure and thereby invariably fathers the mirror image of itself in others.
Not surprisingly, the military today doesn’t secure and preserve peace, a concept no longer evident in Washington’s store of know-how. Those in uniform and in positions of civilian authority who employ the military subscribe almost universally and uncritically to the inherently illogical maxim that if you want peace, you had best prepare for war. The result is that the force being prepared (even engorged) feeds and nurtures pervasive militarism—the primacy of, preference for, and deference to military solutions in the conduct of statecraft. Where it should provide security, it instead produces only self-defeating insecurity.
Consider just five key areas where military preferences override civilian ones and accentuate all manner of insecurity in the process.
Rapacious defense spending: The US military budget exceeds that of the next 10 countries combined, as well as of the gross domestic products of all but 20 countries. At 54 percent of federal discretionary spending, it surpasses all other discretionary accounts combined, including government, education, Medicare, veterans’ benefits, housing, international affairs, energy and the environment, transportation, and agriculture. Thanks to the calculations of the National Priorities Project, we know that the total cost of American war since 2001—$1.6 trillion—would have gotten us 19.5 million Head Start slots for 10 years or paid for 2.2 million elementary school teachers for a decade. A mere 1 percent of the defense budget for one year—just over $5 billion—would pay for 152,000 four-year university scholarships or 6,342 police officers for 10 years. What we spend on nuclear weapons alone each year—$19.3 billion—would cover a decade of low-income healthcare for 825,000 children or 549,000 adults.
Garrisoning the planet: The military maintains up to 800 bases in more than 70 countries and stations more than 200,000 active-duty personnel in some 150 countries. This global presence represents the geostrategic equivalent of Parkinson’s law: operational and social entanglements expanding exponentially to fill the space created by these far-flung outposts.
The nuclear black hole: The military remains the permanent keeper and executor of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal: an estimated 4,700 nuclear warheads on some 800 delivery systems, as well as another 2,340 “retired” but still intact and presumably usable warheads. A three-decade, trillion-dollar upgrade of this already monstrous arsenal is now under way. The Economist has called this Washington’s “unkicked addiction.” It should be clear, but apparently isn’t, that these are weapons of disuse. Other than for destroying the planet if used, their only value is as a measure of muscularity against mirror-image peers. They deter nothing at other levels of muscle-flexing but do feed an insatiable thirst for emulation among jealous non-possessors of such weaponry.
Spurning the rule of law: Though the United States regularly espouses and pretends to practice the rule of law, administration after administration has chosen to forswear important international agreements for parochial, largely military reasons. Among those not even signed are the 1969 Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, the 2002 Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, the 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons From Enforced Disappearance, and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Among those Washington has signed but not ratified are the 1977 Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions, the 1994 Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel, the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Add to this list the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, ratified in 1972, from which the United States withdrew in 2002. Then there are agreements to which the United States is a party, but which we nonetheless choose to ignore or circumvent, wholly or in part. These include the 1928 Kellogg-Briand General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy; the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Article VI of which states: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”); and the United Nations Convention Against Torture and selected provisions of the Geneva Conventions. (We don’t do prisoners of war; we do “unlawful enemy combatants.” We don’t do torture; we do “enhanced interrogation.” And of course we don’t engage in other illegalities, like “extraordinary rendition” or targeted killing or the use of black sites where hostile parties can be disappeared.)
Militarizing America’s World—At Home and Abroad
Added to the foregoing excesses are many examples of what we might call organizational hypertrophy. Institutions like the military are, by nature, self-selecting, self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating constellations of values and practices that generate their own realities and can rarely be disestablished once born. As at Hotel California, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
Of particular note in the post-9/11 world is our bloated intelligence apparatus of 16 separate agencies, nine of which are military organizations (if you count Coast Guard Intelligence). Most notably, there is the National Security Agency (NSA), always commanded by a general or admiral who now also heads up the US Cyber Command. NSA’s massive surveillance culture and capabilities foreshadow a totalizing new-age cyber warfare regime guaranteed to completely redefine traditional notions of aggression, self-defense, sovereignty, and territorial integrity in hair-trigger terms.
The military itself has nine combatant commands, six of which are regional and divvy up the planet accordingly. Except for NATO, there are no regional ambassadors, so the face we show to the world, region by region, is military—and combatant—not diplomatic. Even the “homeland” now has its own combatant command, the US Northern Command. In tandem with the “civilian” Department of Homeland Security, it has produced the militarization of the domestic front, dispensed with historical border sensitivities vis-à-vis Canada and Mexico, magnified concerns about civil liberties, and fed a permanent state of paranoia and alarm among the public about both illegal immigration and terrorism.
Special attention also must be given to the massive expansion of US Special Operations Command, once a modest cohort of elite specialists, into a force now larger than the militaries of many countries. Its ostensible raison d’être is waging permanent “war” against terrorism. The growing presence of and preference for using special operations forces globally ought to command the attention of anyone concerned with civil-military relations. Each armed service has a special operations command, as does each combatant command, including Northern Command. Estimates are that special operations personnel already number or are expected to number 70,000 (roughly the equivalent of four and a half Army divisions). This provides an almost infinite amount of potential space for meddling and “mission creep” abroad and at home, due in part to the increasingly blurred lines between military, intelligence, police, and internal security functions.
Of the various ways the military could be configured—for war fighting; peacekeeping, nation-building, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response; or covert special operations—the last poses by far the greatest threat to effective civilian control of the military. An increasing reliance on and reverence for Special Operations forces (SOFs) only exacerbate already existing civilian deference to military preferences, practices, and mindsets. As the SOFs conduct a range of operations, from low-profile assignments unknown to most Americans to secret missions beyond the bounds of stringent congressional oversight, the very nature of these missions fosters a military culture that is particularly destructive to accountability and proper lines of responsibility. Especially in times of divided government, as at present, when working around Congress is a preferred norm for getting things done, the temptation to employ forces that can circumvent oversight without objection is almost irresistible.
The Failure of Social Responsibility
As an institution, the military is accorded carte blanche authority to possess and wield violence on behalf of the state. It is also a mammoth social institution that reaches deep into American society and many other societies worldwide. It thus is tacitly expected to comport itself in a socially responsible manner and its members to demonstrate professionalism in their conduct. And yet the pervasive, long-term misbehavior of those in uniform is striking, even alarming. This is where civilian subjugation to the military manifests itself most glaringly, and where the lack of a willingly accountable, self-policing military comes most clearly into view.
Each year for at least the past two decades, literally hundreds of incidents have occurred that undermine any claims the military might make to moral superiority: atrocities, corruption and bribery, fraud and waste, sexual misconduct, cover-ups, racial and religious persecution, and acts of cultural intolerance. Moral arrogance is in abundant supply among those in uniform, genuine moral superiority in short supply. To cite just a small sample of such incidents from the recent past:
- The continuing “Fat Leonard” scandal that involved an exchange of bribes, gifts, and prostitutes for classified information on ship movements, implicating at least seven officers and officials and leading to the censure of three rear admirals.
- The ongoing Army National Guard recruiting fraud and kickback scandal involving thousands of troops and tens of millions of dollars in illegal payments.
- The four-star former head of US Africa Command, reduced in rank and forced to pay restitution for lavish spending of public funds on private business; the three-star former deputy nuclear force commander who used counterfeit poker chips at a casino; the two-star commander of the ICBM force who went on a drunken binge and insulted Russian counterparts at a joint exercise; the one-star commander of Fort Jackson, South Carolina, relieved of duty for adultery and physically assaulting his mistress; the one-star assistant division commander of the “elite” 82nd Airborne Division, fined $20,000 and reduced in rank for multiple affairs and other sexual misconduct; and the one-star commander of special operations forces in Latin America, relieved of duty and reduced in rank for drunken altercations.
- The forced resignation of the under secretary of the Navy over a scandal in which the brother of a naval intelligence official billed the military $1.6 million for weapons silencers that cost only $8,000 to manufacture.
- The proficiency exam cheating scandals that implicated several dozen Air Force and Navy nuclear weapons personnel.
- The Army staff sergeant, sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering 16 civilians and wounding six others in Afghanistan.
- The Army staff sergeant, also sentenced to life imprisonment, and five other soldiers who, as part of a “thrill kill” unit, murdered three Afghan civilians for sport and took their body parts as trophies.
- The Rolling Stone exposé of the Special Forces A-Team that allegedly “disappeared” 10 men and murdered eight others in Afghanistan.
- The video of four Marines urinating on dead Afghan bodies, alleged to be Taliban fighters.
- The photos of 82nd Airborne Division soldiers posing with body parts of dead Afghan insurgents.
- The burning of as many as 100 Qurans and other religious texts by American troops in Afghanistan.
- The unceasing surfeit of sexual assault reports in the military (22,000 between 2010 and 2014).
Such episodes aren’t, of course, only of recent vintage. Walking the calendar back a few years reminds us of many other similar examples:
- 2011: the suicides of Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew and Army Pvt. Danny Chen after hazing and harassment by fellow soldiers.
- 2010: the Khataba raid in Afghanistan, in which Army Rangers killed five civilians, including two pregnant women and a teenage girl.
- 2009: the massive sex scandal at Lackland Air Force Base, in which 43 female trainees were subjected to sexual predation by instructors.
- 2008: revelations about a Pentagon military analyst program in which retired senior officers working as news commentators received special access to insider briefings and information in return for publicly promoting Bush administration policies.
- 2007: a US Naval Academy scandal involving a Navy doctor secretly videotaping midshipmen engaged in sex acts; a Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal involving extensive patient neglect and execrable living conditions; and revelations concerning massive Iraq War contracting fraud, bribery, and kickbacks totaling $15 million.
- 2006: the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl and the murder of her family by five Army soldiers in Mahmudiyah, Iraq; the murder of an Iraqi man in Hamdania, Iraq, with associated kidnapping, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy, by seven Marines and a Navy corpsman; and the relief of the USS Enterprise captain for producing and showing sexually explicit and offensive videos on board.
- 2005: the massacre of 24 Iraqi men, women, and children by Marines in Haditha, and the associated cover-up in which all criminal charges were dismissed; and the Pentagon’s planting of stories favorable to the war effort in the Iraqi press.
- 2004: the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman and the tragedy’s associated cover-up, extending up the chain of command to the Pentagon.
- 2003: massive acts of prisoner sexual abuse, torture, rape, sodomy, and murder by Army personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
- 2002: the deaths of two unarmed civilian Afghan prisoners, who had been chained to the ceiling and beaten by US troops, at the Bagram internment facility in Afghanistan.
All of this is but the tiniest tip of the military misbehavior iceberg, a sample of countless incidents that have regularly occurred over an extended period of time. Remember the Tailhook sexual assault scandal, the Aberdeen sex scandal, the Camp Lejeune water contamination scandal, the Cavalese cable car disaster, the firing and reduction in rank of the sergeant major of the Army for sexual misconduct, the murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell, the discharge of Air Force Lt. Kelly Flinn?
Such a tidal wave of ethical breakdowns can’t be dismissed as mere exceptions to the rule or deviations from the norm. Institutional defenders nonetheless persist in claiming that such incidents represent the actions of a few bad apples in an otherwise healthy cultural barrel. In this, they are simply wrong, yet their positions are eternally bolstered by the fact that annual opinion polls of public trust and confidence in society’s institutions invariably place the military at or near the top of the list.
What Is to Be Done?
To this question—What is to be done?—there is no easy answer, perhaps no answer at all. Part of the reason is that the underlying crisis in civil-military relations has gone largely unrecognized, unacknowledged, and unaddressed for decades now. A first step, therefore, might simply be to break the bonds of denial and admit that there is a problem.
A second step—admittedly a far march onto an unknown planet—would be to encourage serious, thoroughgoing institutional self-reflection from both the military and civilian authorities. This would, of course, mean facing up to those facets of military culture that warrant re-engineering: aggression, intolerance, authoritarianism, parochialism, congenital secrecy, and pronounced anti-intellectualism among them. It would also mean acknowledging the numerous myths that have come to define the institution over time—for example, that the military nurtures and rewards leadership (rather than dutiful followership); that it instills discipline (rather than indiscipline); that it exemplifies competence and efficiency (rather than incompetence and inefficiency); that it is committed to accountability (rather than cover-ups and secrecy); and that its members, especially at senior levels, regularly demonstrate moral courage (rather than moral cowardice).
A third step would involve a concerted educational effort, inside and outside the institution, to enhance strategic thinking, ethical thinking, and civic literacy (especially, but not exclusively, among those in uniform).
A fourth step—ultimately the most fundamental and paradigm-shattering, as well as the least likely to occur—would be to reconsider the very purpose and function of the military and to reorient it accordingly. That would mean transforming a cumbersome, stagnant, obsolescent, irrelevant war fighting force—with its own inbuilt self-corrupting qualities—into a peacekeeping, nation-building, humanitarian-assistance, disaster-response force far more attuned to a future it helps shape and far more strategically effective than what we now have. Translated, counterintuitive as it might sound, this would mean seeking to demilitarize the military, an overarching strategic imperative if bona fide lasting peace is ever to be achieved on this planet.
Humpty Dumpty posed the question to Alice in Through the Looking Glass of whether words are to be the masters of men or men the masters of words by determining their meaning. Similarly must we ask whether an institution, the military, supposedly endowed with supernal character by objective circumstances, is to master us, or we to master it by determining for ourselves what it properly is and does.