Civil-Military Relations

A friend pointed me at this post by Kings College lecturer Patrick Porter. He talks about how Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne is—ironically, since he is lamenting it—stuck in the Cold War mentality of fighting “the Russians on the north German plain.” Porter’s argument here however, is that “we are not ‘extremely well prepared’ for a brawl with Russia in Europe. Post Cold War spending has seen to that. The British military is a small fraction of its former size. It is flat out sustaining a Battlegroup in Afghanistan, let alone a Brigade.”

While the notion that the British army is “flat out” in Afghanistan is interesting for the Afghan Outsider, something more interesting is another of Porter’s posts.

It addresses something that has been a hot topic, not least with the release of Bob Woodward’s new book, the relationship between military and civilian leaders and commanders. It’s a problem with which US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has recently expressed concern.

Barack Obama is not the first US president, or leader of a modern nation state for that matter, to be engaged in a war. That sounds flippant. What I mean is that he is a civilian in charge of military matters. It’s not something that has been done well since kings stopped leading their men from the front.

As Lt. Gen. David Barno at CNAS says in a review of Woodward’s book:

The president is the commander-in-chief—and as such, he is ultimately responsible for U.S. military actions overseas. He not only issues the orders that commit troops, but also frames the national policy that those deployments will support. He owns the policy decision “ends” at the strategic level, but must also understand and approve the broad “ways” by which his strategy will be carried out in the field. Further, he must balance the resources required to carry out these decisions—the “means” of people, time and dollars that will always remain precious commodities. The military influences that process, often in outsize ways—but the President owns it.

During the Crimean War, leaders were accused of meddling simply because they could.

The Crimean War also saw the first tactical use of … modern inventions such as the electric telegraph, with the first ‘live’ war reporting to The Times by William Howard Russell. Some credit Russell with prompting the resignation of the sitting British government through his reporting of the lacklustre shape of the British forces deployed to the Crimea. Additionally, the telegraph reduced the independence of British overseas possessions from their commanders in London due to such rapid communications. Newspaper readership informed public opinion in the United Kingdom and France as never before. It was the first European war to be photographed.

The American Civil War began two years before (in 1861) and ended two months after (in April 1956) the Crimean. Porter uses the example of Abraham Lincoln as a commander in chief who had a “brief spell on a quiet garrison during the Black Hawk war” which “can hardly have been a good preparation for steering the country through fratricide and crisis.”

The relationship between civilians and the military, especially in the über-instant globally connected world (where superficial, virtual interactions allegedly don’t really lead to change), has always been strained. It has also always been important. It is important in the modern age as well. Arguably more so.

To get back to the original point of this post, I think that, while it is ultimately the civilians’ decision whether or not to go to war. “[T]he President owns it,” as the Lieutenant General said.

The Rolling Stone article that allegedly got General McChrystal fired shows how intimately linked, in the modern, connected world, soldiers are to their civilian superiors.

Noah Schachtman at Wired suggested that “[k]eeping General Stanley McChrystal in place would have shattered the chain of command, obliterated the authority Obama had with the military, and undermined any hope of waging a successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.” The authority of the civilian leadership over the military is vital this post-Cromwellian era. Private armies are not desirable. Renegade commanders are dangerous; Peter Sellers showed us that.

It’s definitely something for the Outsider to consider. Civilians always run the risk of being Outsiders to military affairs. Vice versa, in many instances. McChrystal’s poor handling of public appearances is some kind of testimony to that.

Can these barriers come down without collapsing into some kind of Cromwellian mess?


4 comments on “Civil-Military Relations

  1. PlasticusForkus says:

    Micro-management is a prevalent problem, and I think it has been ever since the invention of the telegraph. Apparently Thatcher was a PITA during the Falklands’ War.

    My impression is however, that Obama has been pretty hands off. Do you think this is a correct assessment?

    • Joe Dixon says:

      I just received Obama’s Wars from Amazon this morning. On the second page is this:

      Two months earlier [in September 2009], after receiving a routine top secret briefing from [Director of National Intelligence, Vice Admiral Michael] McConnell on terrorism threats, Obama had half joked, “You know, I’ve been worried about losing this election. After talking to you guys, I’m worried about winning this election.”

      Also, Woodward reports that Obama looked intimidated by his first security briefings. His interactions with generals (I’m thinking about McChrystal, here) seem to be forthright, but not unnecessary, so yes. I think that he has been reasonably hands off.

      I’ll let you know more when I’ve read the book. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Handsome Matt says:

    The constitution was framed in such a way to balance the power between civilian and soldier; so that one might not abuse the other.

    I think the forced retirement of General Patton at the end of WWII is a prime example of when this works well. Patton had the freedom to wage war in order to win, but he was discharged when he was going to start a war with the USSR. A similar situation occurred with MacArthur in Korea.

    Lincoln had a fairly good idea of what needed to be done during the Civil War, because he wasn’t a soldier. He knew the North needed to win and that he needed to keep the population focused on what that was going to take. He promoted the soldiers who were winning/leading, and he was doing what was necessary on the home front (think Gettysburg Address).

    Obama might be too hands off. Not assigning command of Afghanistan to Petraeus was based entirely on political reasons, namely, Petraeus wasn’t a leftist Democrat. Guantanamo Bay has a committee to consider closing it, “torture” has a committee to consider banning it. I think, right now, Obama is the argument for not having a civilian in charge of the military. He’s too much a politician, and not enough of a leader.

    • Joe Dixon says:

      The idea that Obama is “too much a politician, and not enough of a leader” is an intriguing one.

      I’m 60 or so pages into Obama’s Wars and, while it’s a lot of talk about how the president-elect was grounded in situations and informed of top secret, highly classified stuff, I get the impression that he was dangerously close to being overawed by the situation.

      The Rolling Stone article was enlightening as well, in terms of developing my understanding of the politics within politics.

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