September 1, 2009  

Limits to civilian authority?

Critical thinking and moral courage outweigh loyalty

In accordance with our nation’s Constitution, military leadership is rightfully subordinate to civilian authority. For that reason, the Constitution divides military power between the legislative branch (Congress) and the executive branch (the presidency) — a separation of power intended to avoid abuses of authority.

Responsibility for maintaining the military is assigned to the Congress, and commander-in-chief duties are assigned to the president. The U.S. military serves at the direction of the president, certain designated officials in the executive branch and the elected leaders of Congress. The structure is designed to prevent the succession of authoritarian or military regimes, though it does not always come without friction. As French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau put it: “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men.”

The writers of the Constitution understood the perils of creating too strong of a military. Armed forces must be subject to civilian control and designed to execute military operations, not determine their necessity. Indeed, during our country’s earliest years, large military forces were viewed as a threat to liberty and democracy, a weapon that could be wielded by a power-hungry autocrat with personal ambitions. The armed forces were considered excessively expensive to maintain and vulnerable to arms races that could manifest themselves into war.

The role of the military is to advise on how to use military might to achieve the policymaker’s goals, not to get involved in the political decision-making process. The military serves as a government organization that implements rather than formulates policies.

Historical examples justify the arrangement of military subordination to elected officials. President Abraham Lincoln went through 14 commanders before he settled on Gen. Ulysses Grant to fight the war against the South. Grant went on to lead the North to victory. President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose Gen. George C. Marshall from far down the seniority list when looking for an Army chief of staff in 1939 because he knew Marshall would follow his direction. President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur after he refused to abide by civilian decisions in Korea, thereby avoiding a potential nuclear war with China. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John F. Kennedy wisely ignored Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis LeMay’s recommendation for a full invasion of Cuba.

However, rarely have we seen the conditions observed in the Iraq War during the George W. Bush administration: civilian leadership ignoring or manipulating military leaders to the detriment of military security. This raises a number of compelling questions: Should there be a limit to civilian authority over the military? What should the military do when the civilian leadership disregards sound and important military advice? What options do our generals and admirals have when the commander in chief makes critical mistakes that will cost the lives of sailors and soldiers? Obedience and respect for civilian leadership is one of the basic tenets of our civil-military system, yet can one be loyal to a fault? The eight years of the Bush administration raised this issue to national prominence.


The early war in Iraq saw blunder after blunder by the U.S. government. Civilian leaders in intelligence agencies were wrong about the weapons of mass destruction, disregarded Pentagon recommendations about the force requirements and made critical mistakes in Baghdad that fomented an insurgency against U.S. forces, and officials in the White House misrepresented the war to the American people.

Volumes have been written about these problems. But there has been no examination of the civil-military structure of governing the nation’s military forces, a structure that is so fundamental to our core national defense system. Likewise, there has been no analysis of how the nation’s senior military representatives performed when faced with these leadership dilemmas during the biggest and bloodiest conflict the country has faced in 40 years.

Much of the blame belongs to the former civilian leadership in the White House and Pentagon. Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are symbols of a broken interagency system and a dysfunctional civilian leadership that ran roughshod over the nation’s military. Both the president and the secretary surrounded themselves with a small coterie of loyal officials who faithfully supported their agendas, rapidly dismissing those who didn’t. The civilian leadership marginalized military leaders and ignored their advice and recommendations. Military officers who did speak out, like Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, were sidelined or removed from their assignments. Military leaders learned their lesson: Toe the party line and do not voice dissent. As a result, recommendations from the military leadership became politicized and ineffective.

However, not all the fault lies with the commander in chief or the defense secretary. In many cases, Defense Department leaders acquiesced to civilian leadership despite misgivings and knowledge that they would be distorting the truth. The pressure to comply with the administration was huge, and dissent could be career-ending. However, by bending to political pressures, military leaders in the Pentagon and in the field placed at risk the servicemen and women under their charge.

Military leaders have been rightfully indoctrinated with a consuming sense of dedication to the country, a loyalty personified by the president as commander in chief. However, when that loyalty clouds the ability to provide critical thinking, it can become a blind dedication to a faulty strategy that is counterproductive and even dangerous toward the welfare of the nation. This myopic loyalty discourages officers from challenging civilian authorities placed over them, especially any dissent that could undermine national credibility or the reputation of the armed forces.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is legislated to be the senior military adviser to the president. As such, he is obligated to consider the opinions, both positive and negative, of the service chiefs. Gen. Colin Powell understood this requirement to alert the National Command Authority of dissenting opinions. “During my tenure as chairman,” he said, “I gave my civilian leaders my own professional advice, fully informed by the advice and counsel I received from my JCS colleagues. When one or more of the chiefs disagreed, I made sure the secretary and the president were aware of any differences. This is what Congress intended.”

Considering the traditional and legislated subordination of the military to the civilian leadership in our country, what options do officers have when they believe the armed forces are being unnecessarily led into harm’s way? Where is the threshold of dissent — public or private — that allows one to voice disagreement with a policy while avoiding any disruption to the morale of the unit or to discredit the service? Furthermore, what can be done when the White House is willfully deceiving the American people and the nation’s armed forces, as occurred in the Vietnam and Iraq wars?

In 2006, the public voted congressional Republicans out of power, a condemnation of their war policy. Rumsfeld, who cajoled so many subordinates into submission, was forced to retire on the eve of the 2006 congressional elections. Our nation’s most revered democratic tradition, universal suffrage, provides us the ability to replace our leaders who have failed to provide for the common good. Many militaries around the world don’t have this luxury.

Military journals permit officers to publish critical analyses of military decisions and operations. Consider Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s 2007 article in Armed Forces Journal or Army Lt. Col. H.R. McMaster’s scathing critique of the Joint Chiefs in Joint Force Quarterly in 1999. Even Gen. David Petraeus published his doctoral dissertation from Princeton University in 1987 on the lessons of Vietnam, in which he stated: “While the military still accept emphatically the constitutional provision for civilian control of the armed forces, there remain from the Vietnam era nagging doubts about the abilities and motivations of politicians and those they appoint to key positions. Vietnam was a painful reminder for the military that they, not the transient occupants of high office, generally bear the heaviest burden during armed conflict.” The most prolific author among active-duty officers, Adm. James Stavridis, advises those hesitant to express their opinions: “Don’t be afraid — have the moral courage to vet your ideas responsibly and sensibly. In virtually every case of which I am aware, even the most controversial articles are respected as attempts to contribute.”

Under the Constitution, the president serves as commander in chief of the armed forces but only Congress can declare war. Congress also controls the purse strings for war funding. However, this practice is rarely followed in modern-day decisions to commit U.S. troops into combat; presidents have rarely received congressional approval to go to war. Truman didn’t have it when he ordered troops to Korea, George H.W. Bush sent forces to Panama without congressional authority, and Bill Clinton was on his own when he initiated the air war over Kosovo. The War Powers Act of 1973, which cuts off presidential use of force after 60 days, was passed by Congress after a veto by President Richard Nixon. All subsequent presidents have refused to recognize its constitutionality, Congress has never tried to force the issue into law, and the highest courts in the land have shied away from refereeing the dispute. In order to maintain the checks and balances so critical to the system, Congress should have a vote in this critical matter when combat deployments are prolonged. President Barack Obama should push this issue to the national forefront and set the precedent that the president and Congress are required to consult on security matters before committing troops into combat.

Congressional lawmakers should investigate the abuses of the Bush administration declared necessary under the mantle of national security: torture of prisoners, extraordinary rendition, retribution against critics, the use of signing statements to dodge congressional mandates, and manipulation of intelligence. The investigations don’t have to be a witch hunt or a partisan finger-pointing exercise. Rather, it is absolutely necessary to regain the system of checks and balances so critical to our constitutional system and to demonstrate to ourselves and to all other nations that we can admit our mistakes and reconcile our issues. The investigation would also create a public record of government misconduct as a lesson to future generations and a caution to future administrations. The very effort would serve as a counter to the secret laws that facilitate rights violations and would be the start of a long national healing process.

Former U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Anthony Zinni promoted such a truth and reconciliation process when he spoke before the Brigade of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy: “What certainly needs to come is an examination of what we have done on the battlefield, what strategic and policy decisions we made, and even what operational and tactical decisions were made. We are obliged to do that. We are obliged to look back and be as critical as we possibly can of ourselves. There is a time to do that and a time not to do that, but it is an obligation.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed the same sort of candid advice required of today’s officers during an address to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.: “If as an officer you don’t tell blunt truths — or create an environment where candor is encouraged — then you’ve done yourself and the institution a disservice.”

The country is immersed in two wars, equipment and personnel readiness are in horrid condition. A credibility gap threatens to cloud future national security decisions because of suspicions of the honesty of our civilian leaders. Our military leaders must strike a balancing act: walking the tightrope between providing forthright military counsel even when it doesn’t align with political objectives and avoiding overstepping the bounds of civilian control of the armed forces. Silence and acquiescence by military leaders lend credibility to the deception and inaccuracies that could cost service members’ lives and expensive military equipment.

The proper chemistry among our civilian and military leaders will result in a balance of powers between the micromanagement style we witnessed in Vietnam to the hands-off method we experienced in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. When it works properly, the system will provide clear political guidance, a sound and well-integrated campaign plan, a combatant commander in charge, and appropriate oversight by the Joint Chiefs and National Command Authorities.

Refinement of our civilian-military organization is more critical than ever in a period of WMD proliferation. The reform of war declaration authorities is a critical issue considering the potential for a required retaliatory attack in the event of a WMD attack on the U.S. or its deployed forces. This is a situation made even more dire by the limited military experience among our senior government officials.

One cannot allow political fealty to replace moral courage as a requirement for promotion. Political correctness has become the buzzword for getting promoted: Stay in your lane, don’t rock the boat, tell the leadership what they want to hear. Flag promotions are as much a selection for political loyalty as for merit and experience. But now the nation is in two wars, our young men and women are dying in combat in faraway lands, and the troops are looking to the generals and admirals to defend their interests. Respectful candor and legitimate military dissent enhance the decision-making process and ensure an honest dialogue. The failure of leadership doesn’t reside with one or a few individuals. It resides with a system that has advocated a systemic deception and distortion of the truth, and has placed loyalty above common sense, political correctness above moral courage. There has never been a more urgent need for courage from our senior military leaders. AFJ

CMDR. PAT PATERSON recently retired from the Navy after 20 years of service. A Navy foreign area officer, his last post was as the political-military adviser to the 4th Fleet in Mayport, Fla. He is a professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and a doctoral student of political science at American University in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or the Naval Academy.