University of North Carolina historian Richard Kohn raised the specter of a civil-military crisis in a 1994 National Interest article titled "Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil-Military Relations." He focused on the ill-disguised disdain of many in uniform for Commander-in-Chief Bill Clinton, highlighting the particularly politicized behavior of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, who had spoken out in opposition to two prime items on the Clinton agenda: intervention in the Balkans and gays in the military. Typical of how the bounds of propriety had been crossed, Kohn also alluded to the example of the Air Force major general who, at a military gathering, contemptuously characterized the president as "gay-loving," "pot-smoking," "draft-dodging," and "womanizing."
Too alarmist for many pundits, Kohn's claim of a growing crisis gave way to the milder thought, advocated most forcefully by journalist Tom Ricks, that there was simply an increasing cultural, experiential, and ideological "gap" between the military and society, a thesis that itself then went dormant when George W. Bush entered office.
Those who profess expertise on civil-military relations have tended to focus almost exclusively on civilian control and the associated issue of the military's political "neutrality." That's why so much attention and controversy were generated over President Obama's highly publicized firing of General Stanley McChrystal for the climate he created that led to the disparagement of senior Obama officials by his subordinates (as reported in the 2010 Rolling Stone article "The Runaway General"). Yet far bigger and more fundamental matters have gone largely unnoticed.
Civil-military relations are built on a tacit but binding social contract of mutual rights, obligations, and expectations among the military, its civilian overseers (executive and legislative), and society. Four things are expected of the military as part of this compact: operational competence, sound advice, political neutrality, and social responsibility. Operational competence and social responsibility are rarely even part of the discussion and yet they go to the heart of the crisis that exists, pointing both to the outsized presence of the military in American life and statecraft, and to a disturbingly pervasive pattern of misconduct over time among those in uniform.
The Failure of Operational Competence
If we enjoyed a truly healthy state of civil-military relations, it would be characterized by a strategically -- not just a militarily -- effective force. By implication, such a military would be capable of successfully accomplishing whatever it is called upon to do. The military we have today is, arguably, ineffective not only militarily but demonstrably strategically as well. It doesn't prevent wars; it doesn't win wars; and it certainly doesn't secure and preserve the peace.
No, the military doesn't prevent wars. At any given time over the past quarter century, on average roughly 40 violent conflicts a year have been underway around the world. The U.S. military has had virtually no discernible influence on lessening the outbreak of such conflicts. It isn't even clear that its size, configuration, and positioning, no less the staggering sums invested in it, have had any appreciable deterrent effect on the warring propensities of our so-called peer competitors (Russia and China). That they have not sought war with us is due far less to simplistic Washington assumptions about deterrence than to factors we don't even grasp.
And no, the military doesn't win wars anymore. It hasn't won one of note in 70 years. The dirty wars in the shadows it now regularly fights are intrinsically unwinnable, especially given our preferred American Way of War: killing people and breaking things as lethally, destructively, and overwhelmingly as possible. It's an approach -- a state of mind -- still largely geared to a different type of conflict from an era now long since past and to those classic generals who are always preparing for the last war. That's why today's principal adversaries have been so uniformly effective in employing asymmetric methods as a form of strategic jujitsu to turn our presumed strengths into crippling weaknesses.
Instead of a strategically effective military, what we have is quite the opposite: heavy, disproportionately destructive, indiscriminately lethal, single-mindedly combat-oriented, technology-dominant, exorbitantly expensive, unsustainably consumptive, and increasingly alienated from the rest of society. Just as important, wherever it goes, it provokes and antagonizes where it should reassure and thereby invariably fathers the mirror image of itself in others.
Not surprisingly, the military today doesn't secure and preserve peace, a concept no longer evident in Washington's store of know-how. Those in uniform and in positions of civilian authority who employ the military subscribe almost universally and uncritically to the inherently illogical maxim that if you want peace, you had best prepare for war. The result is that the force being prepared (even engorged) feeds and nurtures pervasive militarism -- the primacy of, preference for, and deference to military solutions in the conduct of statecraft. Where it should provide security, it instead produces only self-defeating insecurity.
Consider just five key areas where military preferences override civilian ones and accentuate all manner of insecurity in the process.
Rapacious defense spending: The U.S. military budget exceeds that of the next 10 countries combined, as well as of the gross domestic products of all but 20 countries. At 54% of federal discretionary spending, it surpasses all other discretionary accounts combined, including government, education, Medicare, veterans' benefits, housing, international affairs, energy and the environment, transportation, and agriculture. Thanks to the calculations of the National Priorities Project, we know that the total cost of American war since 2001 -- $1.6 trillion -- would have gotten us 19.5 million Head Start slots for 10 years or paid for 2.2 million elementary school teachers for a decade. A mere 1% of the defense budget for one year -- just over $5 billion -- would pay for 152,000 four-year university scholarships or 6,342 police officers for 10 years. What we spend on nuclear weapons alone each year -- $19.3 billion -- would cover a decade of low-income healthcare for 825,000 children or 549,000 adults.
Promiscuous arms sales: The United States remains by far the world's leading proliferator of conventional arms, accounting for some 50% of all global sales and 48% of all sales to the developing world. During the 2011-2014 period alone, U.S. weapons deliveries included a wide array of advanced weapons technologies: 104 tanks and self-propelled guns, 230 artillery pieces, 419 armored personnel vehicles, 48 supersonic aircraft and 58 other aircraft, 835 surface-to-air missiles, and 144 anti-ship missiles, much of that to the volatile Middle East. Skeptics would say that such transactions are motivated less by an urge to enable recipient countries to defend themselves than by the desire to buy influence abroad while aiding and abetting arms manufacturers at home. The result of such massive sales is, of course, the creation of yet more instability where stability should be.
Garrisoning the planet: The military maintains up to 800 bases in more than 70 countries and stations more than 200,000 active-duty personnel in some 150 countries. This global presence represents the geostrategic equivalent of Parkinson's law: operational and social entanglements expanding exponentially to fill the space created by these far-flung outposts.
The nuclear black hole: The military remains the permanent keeper and executor of the world's largest nuclear arsenal: an estimated 4,700 nuclear warheads on some 800 delivery systems, as well as another 2,340 "retired" but still intact and presumably usable warheads. A three-decade, trillion-dollar upgrade of this already monstrous arsenal is now underway. The Economist has called this Washington's "unkicked addiction." It should be clear, but apparently isn't, that these are weapons of disuse. Other than for destroying the planet if used, their only value is as a measure of muscularity against mirror-image peers. They deter nothing at other levels of muscle-flexing but do feed an insatiable thirst for emulation among jealous non-possessors of such weaponry.
Spurning the rule of law: Though the U.S. regularly espouses and pretends to practice the rule of law, administration after administration has chosen to forswear important international agreements for parochial, largely military reasons. Among those not even signed are the 1969 Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, the 2002 Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, the 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Among those Washington has signed but not ratified are the 1977 Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions, the 1994 Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel, the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Add to this list the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, ratified in 1972, from which the U.S. withdrew in 2002. Then there are agreements to which the U.S. is a party, but which we nonetheless choose to ignore or circumvent, wholly or in part. These include the 1928 Kellogg-Briand General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy; the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Article VI of which states: "Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control"); and the United Nations Convention against Torture and selected provisions of the Geneva Conventions. (We don't do prisoners of war; we do "unlawful enemy combatants." We don't do torture; we do "enhanced interrogation." And of course we don't engage in other illegalities, like "extraordinary rendition" or targeted killing or the use of black sites where hostile parties can be disappeared.)
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