Scholar & Gentleman
Sam Huntington, R.I.P.


Mackubin Thomas Owens

A scholar who gains renown in one area of his academic field is considered a success. So what can we say about a scholar who has made major contributions to three?

Sam Huntington, who passed away this past weekend at the age of 81, accomplished this in the field of political science. Professor Huntington produced major works in the areas of civil-military relations, democratic theory, and international relations. But Sam produced something even more important than scholarly works: brilliant students, including Eliot Cohen, Steve Rosen, and a host of others.

I first met Sam in the early 1980s, when I was a program officer for the Smith Richardson Foundation. (Now that was a great gig. I gave money away. And for some reason, everyone returned my phone calls.) Smith Richardson funded several of Sam’s projects, as well as several of his students’. I must admit I was in awe of his brilliance and impressed by his capacity to produce a continuous stream of first-rate scholarship. He was a gentleman as well as a scholar. He subsequently helped me out on a number of occasions, for which I will always be grateful.

Given the war against Islamic terrorism, his 1993 essay on the “clash of civilizations” and subsequent book on the topic are probably his best-known works today. However, it is likely that his most influential book remains one that he wrote on the topic of civil-military relations a half-century ago: The Soldier and the State.

Huntington’s theory is the source of what Eliot Cohen has called the “normal” theory of civil-military relations, which holds that during wartime, civilians determine the goals of the war, then stand aside to let the military run the actual war. Much of the criticism of George W. Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war is grounded in Huntington’s theory.

Huntington’s theory has survived numerous challenges over the decades, as Peter Feaver has argued in Armed Servants (itself one such challenge). Huntington’s core claims are that 1) there is a meaningful difference between civilian and military roles; 2) the key to civilian control is military professionalism; and 3) the key to military professionalism is military autonomy. These assertions persevere “while the challengers drift into obscurity.”

Why is this? First, Huntington grounded his theory in a “deductive logic derived from democratic theory while his critics did not.” Second, despite the claims of many of those who look at U.S. civil-military relations through the lens of sociology, analytically distinct military and civilian spheres do appear to exist. Even while arguing that a separation of the two spheres is theoretically and empirically flawed, advocates of a “concordance” theory of civil-military relations maintain the analytical distinction between the military and civilians.

Finally, The Soldier and the State has had a great and lasting effect within the military itself. Indeed, the U.S. armed forces have come to endorse many of Huntington’s general conclusions, and have made the arguments central to their education on civil-military relations.

There are a number of flaws in Huntington’s theory, though. First, as Feaver points out, elegant as it may be, it doesn’t always fit the evidence of the Cold War. Second, my own research for a forthcoming history of U.S. civil-military relations has led me to question some of Huntington’s historical generalizations concerning the alleged isolation of the military during the late 19th century.

Finally, the line of demarcation mandated by Huntington’s theory is not as clear as some would have it. As Sam’s student Eliot Cohen has shown in Supreme Command, storied democratic war leaders such as Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln impinged upon the military’s turf as a matter of course, influencing not only operations but also tactics.

The reason that civilian leaders cannot simply leave the military to its own devices during war is that wars are fought to achieve policy goals set by the political leadership of the state. As the war continues, situations tend to change, modifying the relationship between these political goals and military means.

There is also a practical problem arising from the military’s reading of Huntington’s theory. Officers often infer that military autonomy means that they should be advocates of particular policies, and not simply serve in their traditional advisory roles. Indeed, they believe they have the right to insist that their advice be heeded by civilian authorities. As we recently have seen, such an attitude among uniformed officers is hardly a recipe for healthy, balanced civil-military relations.

But despite its flaws, The Soldier and the State continues to provide useful insights. Huntington’s theoretical framework consists of a few tightly reasoned, deductive propositions. It addresses the central problem of civil-military relations: the relation of the military as an institution to civilian society. Its best empirical insights — the civilian-military distinction, the idea of military subordination as essential to democratic theory, the importance of military professionalism — do not depend on the problematic parts of Huntington’s model.

No theory, especially one in the social sciences, goes unchallenged for long. But as Feaver points out, history suggests that Sam’s theory will persevere, as it has in the face of past challenges. There is no question that his extraordinary legacy will survive. But more importantly, all who knew him will miss this extraordinary scholar and gentleman. Requiescat in pace.

– Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis and 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, and his study of Lincoln’s wartime leadership will be published in early 2009 by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.