Politics & Policy

Trump and U.S. Civil–Military Relations — the Generals Aren’t Always Right

President Trump attends a briefing from his senior military leaders, including then-Defense Secretary James Mattis (left), in the Cabinet Room at the White House, October 23, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Tensions between the two sectors are woven into the fabric of the American republic.

As Tom Nichols, my friend and former colleague at the Naval War College, noted recently in The Atlantic, Americans don’t often think about civil-military relations, and that’s a good thing. It means that paratroopers are not normally seizing communications centers, and tanks aren’t rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol.

But since U.S. civil–military relations are generally healthy, when Americans do talk about them, they often do so in apocalyptic terms. Each example of civil–military tensions, it seems, portends a crisis. Nichols’s essay is a case in point: President Trump, he writes,

has taken a dangerous path, excoriating retired military leaders who criticize him and lavishing praise and make-believe pay raises on the active-duty military voters who he believes support him. A precious heritage built on the dual pillars of military obedience to civilians and civilian respect for military professionals is now at severe risk.

Someone reading that essay would have to conclude that, under Trump, U.S. civil–military relations have entered a unique period of crisis.

But that is not the case. To understand why, it is useful to understand that U.S. civil–military relations can best be described as a bargain among three parties: the uniformed military, civilian policymakers, and the American people. Periodically, in response to social, political, technological, and geopolitical changes, this bargain must be renegotiated. In this case, as in many previous ones, what seems to be a crisis is more likely a transition as the civil–military bargain is in the process of being renegotiated.

There is no question that many of Trump’s actions, including his excoriation of some retired generals and flag officers critical of him, as well as his dismissive remarks about Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis after effusively praising him when the latter resigned, have inflamed civil–military tensions. But the 2016 presidential campaign should have made it clear that Trump’s approach to the military would be unconventional.

During that campaign, Donald Trump slammed the leadership of the U.S. military, claiming that “the generals under Barack Obama have not been successful. Under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble, reduced to a point where it is embarrassing for our country.” He implied that, as president, he would replace Obama’s military leadership with generals and admirals who would not subordinate military effectiveness to “political correctness.”

Of course, as president, Trump did not replace the military’s leadership. Indeed, he elevated three Obama-era generals to important administration positions: retired Marine general James Mattis as secretary of defense; retired Marine general John Kelly, first as secretary of Homeland Security and then as White House chief of staff; and active-duty Army lieutenant general H. R. McMaster as national-security adviser. For a variety of reasons, all are now gone from the administration.

Is this a crisis? It depends on whom one asks and when one asks. For instance, at the time, Trump’s appointments elicited two polar reactions: On the one hand, concern that they violated the principle of civilian control of the military, leading to an improper delegation of authority to the military; on the other — and paradoxically — the hope that these military men would provide a stabilizing influence on a mercurial president.

To the former reaction, the message has been mixed. By delegating the authority to use discretion in military operations, especially against ISIS, President Trump indicated his trust in the military’s judgment. But he has felt free to reject military advice, most recently in his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

It is the latter reaction to Trump’s appointments that should be of more concern to those who take healthy civil–military relations seriously. The most extreme example was articulated by Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks, a senior Pentagon appointee during the Obama presidency and author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.

Commenting in Foreign Policy, she wrote that Trump’s “first week as president has made it all too clear” that “he is as crazy as everyone feared” and that one “possibility is one that until recently I would have said was unthinkable in the United States of America: a military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders.” She continued that, for the first time, she could “imagine plausible scenarios in which senior military officials might simply tell the president: ‘No, sir. We’re not doing that.’”

Even short of this extreme, the idea that active and retired military officers should form a phalanx around the duly elected president for the good of the country smacks of praetorianism, something usually associated today with countries such as Turkey and Egypt, in which the army is the real power behind the government. Do we really want to normalize the view that the military is the protector of republican government?

The fact is that American civil–military tensions are nothing new. Indeed, they can be traced to the beginning of the republic and include Washington at Newburgh, the debate between Federalists and Republicans regarding a military establishment, Andrew Jackson’s unauthorized incursion into Spanish Florida in 1818, the very public debate between Whig generals and a Democratic president during the Mexican War, the tension between Lincoln and General George McClellan during the Civil War, the clash between Andrew Johnson and Congress during Reconstruction, the involvement of prominent military men in the “Preparedness Movement” begun prior to U.S. entry into World War I, General Leonard Wood campaigning in uniform while actively running for the Republican nomination for president in 1920.

Of course, we don’t have to go that far back. Current concerns about civil–military relations began in the 1990s during the presidency of Bill Clinton, as he clashed with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Colin Powell, over such issues as the use of American troops in the Balkans and open homosexuals in the military. During the administration of George W. Bush, we had the “revolt of the generals” during the war in Iraq.

We sometimes forget that civil–military tensions during the Obama administration were also acute, fueled by the president’s belief that the military were arrayed against his policies. In their respective memoirs, both of Obama’s first two secretaries of defense, Robert M. Gates and Leon Panetta, remarked on President Obama’s deep distrust of senior military leaders.

Nothing better illustrated this distrust than the administration’s treatment of General Mattis when he was commander of U.S. Central Command. In December 2012, after Obama’s reelection, Mattis received word that his command was being terminated several months before he was scheduled to leave his post, reportedly because he asked tough questions concerning the administration’s Iran policy. In other words, he was doing his job.

Is Nichols’s claim that Trump’s actions could lead to “the most politicized and divided military since Vietnam, or even since the Civil War,” a valid one? The problem with this formulation is the conflation of two concepts: being political as opposed to being partisan.

The fact is that from the founding until the early 20th century, most officers were partisan. The Revolutionary generation of officers were Federalists. Thomas Jefferson supplanted them for the most part with Democratic-Republicans. Both senior Army generals during the Mexican War were Whigs who publicly questioned the strategy of President James K. Polk, a Democrat. During the Civil War, most Union generals were Democrats who disagreed with Lincoln’s decision to attack the institution of slavery.

Today professionalism means that military officers must be “political” in the sense of understanding the political environment and being able to navigate its currents. But they must be non-partisan and resist becoming an adjunct of a political party.

The dangers of partisanship should be obvious. First, the U.S. military is highly respected by the American people. If the public begins to perceive the military as just another interest group vying for power though partisan politics, that respect will wither. Second, partisanship undermines the claim of the U.S. military to be a profession, the essence of which is service to a client — in the case of the U.S. military, the American people as a whole, not just Democrats or Republicans.

What about Trump’s response to military advice? It is interesting to note that many people who criticized Trump for surrounding himself with military men now criticize him for dismissing their advice. While I have been critical of Trump for his treatment of Mattis, it is also the case that Mattis acted in accordance with a principle he articulated some years ago at a conference on civil–military relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When asked about the propriety of President Bush’s receiving advice, on how to best conduct military operations in Iraq, from a retired Army officer instead of heeding the recommendations of active-duty officers, Mattis replied that he believed that the president of the United States was free to get advice from anyone he wished.

But there’s more. U.S. history confirms that the military is not always right, even when it comes to strictly military affairs. For instance, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln constantly prodded McClellan to take the offensive in Virginia in 1862. McClellan just as constantly complained about insufficient forces. Despite the image of civil–military comity during World War II, there were many differences between Franklin Roosevelt and his military advisers. George Marshall, the greatest soldier-statesman since Washington, opposed arms shipments to Great Britain in 1940 and argued for a cross-channel invasion before the United States was ready. History has vindicated Lincoln and Roosevelt.

There are more recent examples. Many observers, especially those in the military, have been inclined to blame civilians for the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, but the U.S. operational approach in Vietnam was the creature of the uniformed military. The historical consensus is that this operational approach — a “war of the big battalions” — was counterproductive, contributing in large part to the U.S. failure in Vietnam.

During the planning for operation Desert Storm in late 1990 and early 1991, General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of CENTCOM, presented a plan for a frontal assault against Iraqi positions in southern Kuwait followed by a drive toward Kuwait City. The problem was that the plan was unlikely to achieve the foremost military objective of the ground war: destruction of the three divisions of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. The civilian leadership rejected CENTCOM’s plan and ordered a return to the drawing board. The revised plan was far more imaginative and effective, further illustration that the military does not always know best.

With this history in mind, it is not unreasonable for Trump to believe that his judgment regarding U.S. involvement in Syria and Afghanistan might be at least as good as that of his military advisers. Reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom of our continued presence in various parts of the world, but there it would be mistaken to assume automatically that Trump is always wrong, as many observers do.

Although we should be concerned when civil–military tensions arise, we should not be surprised. In many respects, such tensions are woven into the fabric of the American republic. And we should avoid hyperbole.

Today’s U.S. civil–military relations also point to the issue of trust: the mutual respect and understanding between civilian and military leaders and the exchange of candid views and perspectives between the two parties as part of the decision-making process. Establishing trust requires that civilian and military leaders reexamine their mutual relationship. And mutual trust — in the Trump era as well as in all others — ultimately constitutes the key to healthy civil–military relations.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national-security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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