Post by Stephen Saideman
One of my favorite military-isms is “OBE” or overcome by events. Something no longer applies as events have made that choice or that possibility no longer relevant or possible. I have been thinking of this as I have been doing heaps of reading for my Civil-Military Relations class. The old discussion of the US military as a profession, invoking Sam Huntington and others, focuses on how the military was apolitical and tried to stay that way. So, George C. Marshall refused to vote, and that remained a tendency among military officers for many years. How is that apolitical thing working out these days?
Not well. Sure, it had its ups and downs before, with US military folks casting aspersions about Bill Clinton the draft-dodger, and so on. The occasional retired military officer endorsing a candidate has become an arms race with Michael Flynn and John Allen both getting major prime time speeches at the conventions of 2016. Trump now talks of “His Generals” on a regular basis. He insisted this weekend after the NFL kneeling controversy that “General John Kelly” is with him, even though Kelly is NOT an active general And yes, we have an active military officer, H.R. McMaster who is not only National Security Adviser but appearing on Sunday talk shows spinning tales to defend Trump’s stances.
The NFL controversy is also an attempt to politicize the military–that the flag, the anthem and the US military are on one side of America’s polarized politics. I was glad to see that the vets in my twitter feed mostly say: I fought for my buddies and I respected my oath to the Constitution, which means defending the right to protest. Other vets disagreed. The big, largely unstated problem of the weekend: the US military, active or retired, should not be seen as the adjudicator of what is American, what is legitimate, what is right. Given how much the other institutions have fallen into disrepute–the parties, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the media, the Presidency–it seems that the only respected institution left is the military.
This is NOT GOOD. I am not worried about a coup, I am worried about the state of American democracy. We should not be looking to the military (active, reserve, retired) to legitimate anything. This is the crisis in US civilian-military relations. Ok, it is one of them. Whose job is it to manage US civ-mil? Mostly the Secretary of Defense along with the President and the Armed Services Committees of the House and Senate. This president has no clue about what is appropriate nor does he care. Instead, he seeks to politicize by grabbing the military’s popularity and attaching it to himself while abdicating responsibility for the hard decisions. The SecDef? Mattis is dodging the media, and has done little, as far as we can tell, to keep the military out of politics. The Congress? Well, one of the voices of the Armed Services Committees, Ben Sasse, spent the weekend saying dumb stuff. Other than that, who are asking tough questions about rules of engagement, about strategy, about how to keep the military out of the polarized politics? Anyone? Bueller?
My big concern right now is this: who is deciding how many planes should be flying so closely to North Korea? See my next post on this, but the question here is–who is deciding how much to escalate? I have no idea, and that really, really bothers me. And it should bother you.
After the carnage of WWI, French President Georges Clemenceau said that war was too important to be left to the generals. My conclusion is that overseeing the military is too important to be left to just one or two people.
An early version of this piece was posted on the author’s personal website.
An active and vibrant conversation about this issue is on-going. Last week the Naval Academy hosted a one day symposium that squarely hit on this issue. Speakers included Colin Powell, Mike Mullen, Bob Woodward, Richard Kohn, John McCain, and others.
The US Naval Institute was good enough to post videos of the talks and panels at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLWX4R7nG6a8nu_YiK1cCNEMn-UirFrPx9