What Is New in the Civ-Mil Crisis

In response to my post highlighting the Bacevich article, Schmedlap responds with an important critique, albeit ungenerously asserted.

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Actually, I think it is Bacevich who is losing his bearings. If he thinks that nearly 10 years of war is the cause of this, then I’m guessing his memory is completely shot. These problems (though I disagree with how he characterizes them) existed before 9/11. See Snider and Watkins from August 2000.

I get the argument.  Those of us warning about a crisis in civil-military relations do have a Chicken Little problem.  We’ve been arguing the sky is falling for so long that no one pays attention anymore.  Still, there are three issues that I think are important here.

(1) Much of the earlier literature on the “gap” between civil and military was focused on public attitudes.  People in the military were more conservative on the whole, it was argued and had different attitudes on a variety of social issues.  I was never much concerned about this, though I did (and do) have some concerns about the role of proselytizing Evangelical Christians in the officer corps.  I think the issue now is that we’re seeing a changing attitude about how influential the military ought to be in domestic politics.  The notion that the civilian leaders cannot be trusted to wage our wars effectively, is, I think, increasingly common and that moves the issue for a general — and transitory — divide in social views to a more fundamental challenge in civil-military relations.

(2) I also think the Overton window has shifted.  In the late 1990s, sentiments such as those apparently common in McChrystal’s staff were fringe.  They were not the attitudes promoted and tolerated by the best and the brightest in the military.  Now they apparently are.  And remember where the fringe now is: the Oathkeepers who are quite explicit about promising to overthrow democratic government if they are given what they consider an illegal order.  This did not exist a decade ago.  Contempt for civilian leaders is mainstream now, the fringe of the military is now talking, essentially, about a coup.

(3) Significantly, also, as a practical matter, the military critique is accurate.  The reality is that often military coups are not the work of power mad would-be despots, but rather the work of patriotic and frustrated (albeit often short-sighted) military leaders.  On substance, recall, Caesar’s cause was just.  I am not sure I could easily argue against the notion that our civilian leaders are generally feckless and overly concerned with political standing, nor with the idea that they are reckless in their willingness to use force without clear purpose.  If I were on my 5th or 6th tour, seeing the long war dragging on forever, I would be questioning the wisdom of the civilian leadership as well.  The gap between rhetoric and reality is also striking.  As Bacevich points out, for all the talk about us being a “nation at war” we’re really not.  We’re a nation at peace, and a military at war, and that dichotomy cannot hold forever. Anyway, the point is, the frustrations of McChrystal’s team is not just a function of arrogance. There is a legitimate beef there. And the countervailing insistence on abstract norms of civil-military relations must strike those in Iraq and Afghanistan as faintly ridiculous.

So yeah, the crisis has been brewing a long time, and indeed, we may have been too alarmist about the “gap” in the 1990s.  But none of that necessarily implies that we don’t face a real crisis today.

2 comments to What Is New in the Civ-Mil Crisis

  • In addition to being ungenerous I think my comment was also a little unclear. I wasn’t asserting a chicken little problem. Bacevich attempts to assert a cause-effect relationship between protracted conflict and the attitudes that were reflected in the Rolling Stone article. My simple point, poorly stated, was that this is very clearly not the case. The attitudes existed before 9/11, so they were not brought about by the current conflicts. His cause-effect assertion is borne of excessive introspection rather than observation of things as they are (though he attempts to compensate by locating and quoting one unnamed officer who happens to share his half-baked views).

    Bacevich disagrees with the manner in which the conflicts are being fought, and has disagreed for a long time, as we all know. But rather than continue arguing against it from an intellectual standpoint, this op-ed argues that protracted conflict is inherently more costly than the benefits. And like most people who have no facts to back up their ridiculous assertions, he draws parallels to empire and Rome and war-mongering Generals. I can get that level of analysis from the crazy guy down the street who stands at the intersection holding the “No War” sign.

    I actually do agree there are serious civil-military issues – I’ve commented on them, highlighted your posts that discuss them, and been in lengthy discussions over them (in real life and via email). You and I agree on more than we disagree, but areas of agreement generally make for dull blog commentary.

  • [...] creating a rift between them and their civilian masters and loosening civilian control. Finel echoes this, alleging that ‘the notion that…civilian leaders cannot be trusted to wage our wars [...]

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