Some thoughts on the US military-civilian relationship

I’ve been reading former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ 2014 memoir, Duty, and it’s been fascinating. Probably the most interesting part so far is Chapter 10, which focuses on the war in Afghanistan. I don’t think it will surprise anybody that in reading this book it becomes clear that there is a strong disconnect between the military and the Democratic party. This is on full display during the decision process of whether to increase troop levels in Afghanistan early in the Obama presidency.

At this point in the story, Obama has been in office less than a year and Stanley McChrystal has recently been named senior commander in Afghanistan. As one of his first actions, McChrystal ordered a complete assessment of the situation on the ground. This assessment concluded that an additional 40,000 troops were required, in addition to the 21,000 more Obama had recently authorized just months earlier. Understandably, Obama was reluctant to get drawn further into Afghanistan, given that he was elected partly on the promise to disentangle the US from its wars.

“On September 13, the president chaired the first of nine— by my count— very long (two-to-three-hour) meetings on McChrystal’s assessment and Afghan strategy. Two days later the Senate Armed Services Committee held a confirmation hearing for Mike Mullen’s second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at which time he forcefully argued for more troops in Afghanistan. He was implicitly critical of the vice president’s views, saying we could not defeat al Qaeda and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven again “from offshore.… You have to be there, where the people are when they need you there, and until they can provide for their own security.” The president— and everyone else in the White House —was livid, seeing the testimony as another effort by Mullen and the military to force the commander in chief’s hand. [“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” by Robert M Gates p. 366]


“Then the biggest shoe of all dropped . On Monday, September 21, The Washington Post published a detailed story by Bob Woodward on McChrystal’s assessment, clearly based on a leaked copy. The four-column-wide headline read “McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure.’” The Post had given us advance warning it was going to run the story, and over the weekend Cartwright, Flournoy, and Geoff Morrell negotiated with Woodward and others from the Post to remove sensitive numbers, references to intelligence gaps, Special Forces unit designations, and the like. They had some success, but they could not redact the political bombshell the story represented. The story ended with a quote from the assessment: “Failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure.” After I left office, I was chagrined to hear from an insider I trust that McChrystal’s staff had leaked the assessment out of impatience with both the Pentagon and the White House. If so, I’d be very surprised if Stan knew about it. [p. 367]


“An infuriated president, Mullen, and I repeatedly discussed what he regarded as military pressure on him. On September 16 , Obama asked us why all this was being discussed in public. “Is it a lack of respect for me? Are they [he meant Petraeus, McChrystal, and Mullen] trying to box me in? I’ve tried to create an environment where all points of view can be expressed and have a robust debate. I’m prepared to devote any amount of time to it— however many hours or days. What is wrong? Is it the process? Are they suspicious of my politics ? Do they resent that I never served in the military? Do they think because I’m young that I don’t see what they’re doing?” Mike assured him there was no lack of respect. I said we just needed to shut everyone down until the process was complete.” [p.368]


“Again and again I tried to persuade Obama that there was no plan, no coordinated effort by the three military men to jam him. I said that if there had been a strategy to do that, they sure as hell wouldn’t have been so obvious. I reminded him that McChrystal had never had a job before with the kind of public exposure he now had, that he was inexperienced and a bit naïve about dealing with the press and politics. I said Mullen and Petraeus were both on his team and wanted to serve him well; but particularly when testifying, or even when talking to reporters, both felt ethically compelled to say exactly what they thought, however politically awkward. I told the president that Mike’s independence had annoyed Bush as well. My assurances fell pretty much on deaf ears, which I found enormously frustrating and discouraging.[p. 369]


Why this mutual level of distrust between Democrats and the military? Note that this is not unique to the Obama era: the Clinton administration also had several high profile disagreements with the military. I can think of two, non mutually exclusive explanations. One is that Democrats simply haven’t had that much experience leading the military in the post Vietnam era. When Obama took office, Democrats had controlled the executive branch in only 12 of the past 40 years, and so there wasn’t a deep bench of people with defense or military experience. Under this hypothesis, it’s then unsurprising that Obama appointed two Republicans to be Secretary of Defense.

The other potential explanation is a cultural one. In our current political alignment, liberals are associated with the Democratic Party and conservatives with the Republicans. No surprises there. Furthermore, the military tends to be more culturally conservative: the values of patriotism, honor, obedience to authority, etc. are important across both members of the military and those who identify as Republican. With the high levels of polarization present in our politics, it should not be surprising that levels of trust across ideological groups is low, and hence Republicans tend to have have better military bonafides. This is evidenced by polling, which shows that members of the military strongly identify as Republican and conservative (but as an interesting aside, the number of Republicans has dropped precipitously over the past decade, in favor or more independents and libertarians).

Looming larger than either of these possibilities is the fact that there is a broader disconnect between the military and civilian society that has been growing for decades. According to the Pew Research Center,  the percentage of veterans in Congress is at record lows, as well as the fraction of the civilian population that has served. The divide was visible even 20 years ago, as evidenced by this Thomas E. Ricks piece from 1997 which also highlights an increasing conservatism and politicization of the military officer corps, trends which I imagine only intensified during the 2000s. This is a big problem that deserves greater attention. When the more hawkish elements of our political establishment want to engage in military solutions to problems in the world, an unfamiliarity with military capabilities can lead to unrealistic expectations (see the last 15 years). And the more dovish, with their mistrust of the military, will be reluctant to intervene in the instances where it is required. This leads me sometimes to believe that some sort of required national service would be healthy for the country, though that’s a topic I’ll leave for another day.
Now perhaps a more interesting question is, must it be the case that a military is culturally conservative? After all, Starfleet seems pretty liberal ;p. But seriously, it could be the case that the conservatism of the military is a compositional effect: that is, if for whatever reason the people who join and remain in the military tend to be more conservative, then this would bubble up into the leadership and so on. The all volunteer armed forces would of course only intensify this self selection process. On the other hand, it could be the very nature of military operations that enforces a sort of conservative culture; any organization that requires high levels of coordination and trust to accomplish its goals will need to enforce a homogeneity of values and inculcate adherence to authority, etc. This is also a topic I’d like to explore in the future, because the question of ‘what would a liberal military look like?’ isn’t often addressed.

I’d like to close by acknowledging that this is all still at the speculative phase, and I haven’t defined my terms well or presented much data to defend my claims. Additionally, there are multiple dimensions to liberal and conservative values and I’ve been grouping them together quite broadly. This is a topic I’ve only begun to think about recently, and so I haven’t yet delved into the relevant literature. 


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