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The Problem With “Pushing Back”
The military should voice its concerns, but not engage in public debate over foreign policy.


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Mackubin Thomas Owens

During the 1990s, a number of events led observers to conclude that all was not well with civil-military relations in America. Some of the most highly publicized of these events reflected cultural tensions between the military as an institution and liberal civilian society, mostly having to do with women in combat and open homosexuals in the military.

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Other examples of alleged civil-military tensions included the military’s resistance to involvement in constabulary missions and the charge that General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was illegitimately invading civilian turf by publicly advancing opinions on foreign policy. In addition, there were many instances of downright hostility on the part of the military toward President Bill Clinton, whose anti-military stance as a young man during the Vietnam War years did not endear him to soldiers. Many interpreted such hostility as just one more indication that the military had become too partisan (Republican) and politicized.

These events generated an often-acrimonious public debate in which a number of highly respected observers concluded that American civil-military relations were in crisis. In the words of Richard Kohn, a distinguished professor of history at the University of North Carolina and one of the country’s foremost experts on the nexus between civilians and the uniformed military in the United States, civil-military relations during this period were “extraordinarily poor, in many respects as low as in any period of American peacetime history.”

Some observers claimed that the civil-military tensions of the 1990s were a temporary phenomenon attributable to the perceived anti-military character of the Clinton administration. But as a recent Washington Post column by David Ignatius illustrates, civil-military tensions did not disappear with the election and reelection of George W. Bush as president. Indeed, if anything, they have become more strained as a result of clashes between the uniformed services and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over efforts to “transform” the U.S. military from a Cold War force to one better able to respond to likely future contingencies and the planning and conduct of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

In handicapping the field to succeed Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), Ignatius raised the central question of U.S. civil-military relations: To what extent should the uniformed military “push back” against the policies of a president and his secretary of defense if the soldiers believe the policies are wrong?

Ignatius writes that “when you ask military officers who should get the job, the first thing many say is that the military needs someone who can stand up to…Rumsfeld. The tension between Rumsfeld and the uniformed military,” he continues, “has been an open secret in Washington these past four years. It was compounded by the Iraq war, but it began almost from the moment Rumsfeld took over at the Pentagon. The grumbling about his leadership partly reflected the military’s resistance to change and its reluctance to challenge a brilliant but headstrong civilian leader. But in Iraq, Rumsfeld has pushed the services–especially the Army–near the breaking point.”

“The military is right,” concludes Ignatius. “The next chairman of the JCS must be someone who can push back.” But what does “pushing back” by the uniformed military mean for civilian control of the military?

A Consequential Misreading


The cornerstone of U.S. civil-military relations is civilian control of the military, a principle that goes back to the American Revolution. Since that time, soldiers have, for the most part, acted on the basis of the precedent established by George Washington. As my Naval War College colleague, Bill Calhoun, relates on the Claremont Institute’s website, “Washington’s willing subordination, of himself and the army he commanded, to civilian authority established the essential tenet of that service’s professional ethos. His extraordinary understanding of the fundamental importance of civil preeminence allowed a professional military force to begin to flourish in a democratic society. All of our military services are heir to that legacy.”

Ignatius concludes his column with this observation: “When Bush thinks about picking the next Joint Chiefs chairman, he might recall an unusual gesture by Myers’s predecessor, Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, who told his service chiefs to read a book called Dereliction of Duty. Its subject was how the Joint Chiefs failed to challenge Defense Secretary Robert McNamara adequately during the Vietnam War. It took the Army decades to recover fully from Vietnam; that’s a history the next JCS chairman must not repeat.”

Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam is indeed worth reading. However, many serving officers have misinterpreted a key part of the book, concluding that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should have voiced their opposition to the Johnson administration’s strategy of gradualism that they knew would fail, publicly if necessary, and then resigned rather than carry out the policy.

But as Richard Kohn observed in an important essay in the summer 2002 issue of the Naval War College Review, “The Erosion of Civilian Control of the Military in the United States Today,” the book “neither says nor implies that the chiefs should have obstructed U.S. policy in Vietnam in any other way than by presenting their views frankly and forcefully to their civilian superiors, and speaking honestly to Congress when asked for their views. It neither states nor suggests that the chiefs should have opposed President Lyndon Johnson’s orders and policies by leaks, public statements, or by resignation, unless an officer personally and professionally could not stand, morally and ethically, to carry out the chosen policy.”

The misreading of Dereliction of Duty by many officers supports the increasingly widespread belief among officers that they should be advocates of particular policies rather than merely advisers–the traditional role of the uniformed military in the United States. As Kohn writes,

The survey of officer and civilian attitudes and opinions undertaken by the Triangle Institute in 1998-99 discovered that many officers believe that they have the duty to force their own views on civilian decision makers when the United States is contemplating committing American forces abroad. When “asked whether…military leaders should be neutral, advise, advocate, or insist on having their way in…the decision process” to use military force, 50 percent or more of the up-and-coming active-duty officers answered “insist,” on the following issues: “setting rules of engagement, ensuring that clear political and military goals exist…, developing an ‘exit strategy,’” and “deciding what kinds of military units…will be used to accomplish all tasks.” In the context of the questionnaire, “insist” definitely implied that officers should try to compel acceptance of the military’s recommendations.

This sounds suspiciously like what Ignatius is advocating in his call for a CJCS that “pushes back.” If so, he should be aware of the risks.

Perhaps the clearest example of an American general who “pushed back” against civilian leadership because he disapproved of administration policy is Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the commanding general of the largest Union force during the Civil War, the Army of the Potomac. Military historians tend to treat McClellan as a first-rate organizer, equipper, and trainer but an incompetent general who was constantly outfought and outgeneraled by his Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee.

Learning from Lincoln

That much is true, but there is more to the story. McClellan and many of his favored subordinates disagreed with many of Lincoln’s policies, and indeed may have attempted to sabotage them. McClellan pursued the war he wanted to fight–one that would end in a negotiated peace–rather than the one his commander-in-chief wanted him to fight. The behavior of McClelland and his subordinates led Lincoln to worry that his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation might trigger a military coup.

There is perhaps no more remarkable document in the annals of American civil-military relations than the letter McClellan gave to Lincoln when the president visited the Army of the Potomac at Harrison’s Landing on the James River in July of 1862. McClellan, who had been within the sound of Richmond’s church bells only two weeks earlier, had been driven back by Lee in a series of battles known as the Seven Days.

McClellan’s letter went far beyond the description of the state of military affairs that McClellan had led Lincoln to expect. Instead, McClellan argued against confiscation of rebel property and interference with the institution of slavery. “A system of policy thus constitutional and conservative, and pervaded by the influences of Christianity and freedom, would receive the support of almost all truly loyal men, would deeply impress the rebel masses and all foreign nations, and it might be humbly hoped that it would commend itself to the favor of the Almighty.” McClellan continued that victory was possible only if the president was pledged to such a policy. “A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies” making further recruitment “almost hopeless.”

The suspicion that McClellan was pursuing his own policies and not those of his president is reinforced by another event. In early June of 1862, while the Army of the Potomac was still advancing toward Richmond, McClellan had designated his aide Col. Thomas Key to represent him in prisoner-of-war negotiations with the Confederates, represented by Howell Cobb. But McClellan went far beyond the issue at hand, authorizing Key to investigate the possibility of peace between the sections. McClellan apparently thought it was part of his duty to negotiate with the enemy on the terms for ending hostilities and to explain to that enemy the policies and objectives of his commander-in-chief without letting the latter know he was doing so.

McClellan’s pursuit of his own goals in the war cast his notable lack of aggressiveness in a different and more sinister light. He was accused of tarrying when John Pope’s Army of Virginia was being handled very roughly by Lee at Second Manassas. Indeed, one of his corps commanders, Fitz-John Porter, clearly serving as a surrogate for McClellan, was court-martialed for his alleged failure to come to Pope’s aid quickly enough.

I have long believed that there was little evidence to support the charge that McClelland’s lack of aggressiveness was the result of a near-treasonous sympathy for the South, or that Porter was guilty of the actions for which he was court-martialed. But now I am not so sure. There is no question that McClellan’s language and that of some of his officers was often intemperate. McClellan wrote his wife, “I have commenced receiving letters from the North urging me to march on Washington & assume the Govt!!” He also wrote her about the possibility of a “coup” after which “everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet.”

He did not limit the expression of such sentiments to private correspondence with his wife. Lincoln and his cabinet were aware of the rumors that McClellan intended to put “his sword across the government’s policy.” McClellan’s quartermaster-general, Montgomery Meigs, expressed concern about “officers of rank” in the Army of the Potomac who spoke openly of “a march on Washington to ‘clear out those fellows.’” Such loose talk did not help McClellan or his army in Lincoln’s eyes.

Lincoln understood that he had to take action to remind the army of his constitutional role. He did so after learning that one Maj. John Key–aide-de-camp to general-in-chief Henry Halleck and brother of McClellan’s aide, the aforementioned Col. Thomas Key–had, in response to a query from a brother officer as to “why…the rebel army [was not] bagged immediately after the battle near Sharpsburg [Antietam],” replied “that is not the game. The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery.”

Lincoln dismissed Key from the service, despite pleas for leniency (and the fact that Key’s son had been killed at Perryville), writing that “it is wholly inadmissible for any gentleman holding a military commission from the United States to utter such sentiments as Major Key is within proved to have done.” He remarked to John Hay “that if there was a ‘game’ ever among Union men, to have our army not take an advantage of the enemy when it could, it was his object to break up that game.” Shortly thereafter, Lincoln relieved McClellan himself after another long bout of inactivity following Antietam.

A Soldier’s Duty

Whether one loves Donald Rumsfeld or despises him–and I know many officers in both camps–one cannot deny that he has reestablished civilian control of the uniformed military, control that had lapsed during the Clinton administration. While the military in the 1990s never approached McClellan’s form of “push back” against the Lincoln administration–open disobedience–it did engage in types of what Duke professor, civil-military-relations expert, and author of the very important Armed Servants Peter Feaver calls “shirking” by the military when it is unhappy with civilian-generated policies: “foot-dragging” and leaks to the press designed to undercut policy or individual policy-makers.

As I suggested in a January piece for NRO, shirking as foot-dragging provides an important bureaucratic context for Rumsfeld’s decision to recommend invading Iraq when he did, rejecting the call for a larger initial ground force or to wait for the Fourth Infantry Division to redeploy to the south after Turkey refused to permit the opening of a northern front.

If a service didn’t want to do something–as was the case with the Army in the Balkans in the 1990s–it would simply overstate the force requirements. Accordingly, the secretary and others in the Pentagon interpreted the Army’s call for a larger force before invading Iraq as one more example of what they perceived as foot-dragging.

Certainly any new CJCS must be strong enough to stand up to civilian leaders if they think a policy is flawed. If they believe the door is closed to them at the Pentagon, they also have access to Congress. But the idea that a CJCS should publicly advocate a policy that may be at odds with that of the president and his secretary of defense is dangerous. Should the Army and Navy in 1941 publicly have debated Lend-Lease, convoy escort, the occupation of Iceland, or the Europe-first strategy? Should generals in 1861 have discussed in public their opinions of the plan to re-provision Fort Sumter, or aired their views regarding the right of the South to secede from the Union, or argued the pros and cons of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation? If the answer is no in all of these cases–and I believe it is–how can today’s officers justify their attempts to advocate policy, including whether or not to go to war with Iraq?

While the military must make its point strongly in the councils of government, we must also recognize that the military will not always be correct when it comes to policy recommendations. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1990, Colin Powell preferred sanctions against Iraq to the use of force. George Marshall, the greatest soldier-statesman since Washington, opposed arms shipments to Great Britain in 1940. History has vindicated the position of the civilians in these cases.

Of course, it is the soldier’s duty to convey his concerns to civilian policymakers forcefully and truthfully. But the American traditions of civil-military relations requires that he not engage in public debate over matters of foreign policy, including the decision to go to war. Moreover, once a policy decision is made, the soldier is obligated to carry it out to the best of his ability, whether his advice is heeded or not. Ignatius’s call for “push back” seems at odds with this tradition.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.



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