America’s military is overdue for a dramatic overhaul
The U.S. military, if it is to measure up to its future responsibilities as an effective instrument of statecraft and a trusted institution of society, must embark on the path of thoroughgoing transformation. This means truly sweeping overhaul, not the marginal incremental change that has characterized the self-justifying, self-deluding rhetoric of “defense transformation” to date.
The international environment the U.S. faces and is destined to continue facing in the years ahead requires a military significantly different from the one we now have. What we have, arguably and at best, is a militarily effective military: an instrument of force, designed and able only to wage war — usually disproportionately, often indiscriminately — on its own preferred terms on behalf of those in power.
What we need is a strategically effective military: an instrument of power capable of fulfilling the larger aims of society and even of humanity — a self-contained, self-sufficient, full-service enterprise that can be projected over long distances and sustained for extended periods of time to deal successfully and conclusively with a full range of complex emergencies and conditions.
Achieving such a capability will be a matter, first, of reorienting the military from one charged with preparing for and waging war to one whose purpose and preparations are to prevent war, to secure and preserve peace. These two profoundly different missions — preparing for and waging war and securing and preserving peace — call for profoundly different militaries.
On one level — the most obvious, but also the most superficial — this means revamping military technology, personnel, training, force structure and, even more dramatically, missions and doctrine. On a deeper level, though, it means seeking something much more fundamental and enduring: to essentially demilitarize the military so that it becomes a constructive force for reassurance, credibility, legitimacy and affordability, not a destructive source of provocation, escalation, alienation and profligacy. Ten deeply rooted features of established military culture and behavior therefore beg for reformation:
1. From dutiful followership to assertive leadership. The future, considering its expected complexity, ambiguity and turbulence, will demand extraordinary leadership — especially strategic leadership — throughout the military. This wouldn’t be an issue if the prevailing mythology that the military is in the business of producing leaders coincided with reality. But the reality is that what the military actually nurtures and rewards is dutiful followership. Those who succeed in the military, who make it to higher rank, are those who show themselves to be the most dutiful — silent, compliant, unquestioning, can-do — followers. Mavericks, iconoclasts and renegades who challenge established orthodoxy and authority, or impede stoic execution, need not apply. The generals and admirals who, by virtue of rank and position, command a measure of public attention are typically assumed by the public to be leaders, even when, as is often the case, they actually aren’t. The problem is that those who are thoroughly socialized over time to follow dutifully, to invariably seek direction (and approval) from higher authority before acting, eventually lose the capacity and the inclination for boldness, vision, initiative and moral courage — the stuff of true leadership. Moreover, those who are inculcated only with the transactional, superior-subordinate, tactical leadership the military emphasizes, similarly lose the capacity to exercise the transformative, predominantly intellectual, strategic leadership required at senior levels, where the name of the game is motivating equals with minds of their own, not directing submissive subordinates.
2. From blind obedience to responsible dissent. Inherent in the leadership the future will demand of the military will be the concomitant need for responsible dissent from those in uniform. This imperative for dissent of course flies in the face of the military’s deeply ingrained ethos of obedience to authority. The ethos of obedience underlies and reflects the enlistment oath and the officer’s commissioning oath — both of which bind those in uniform to support and defend the Constitution, and, either explicitly (in the case of the enlistment oath) or implicitly (in the case of the commissioning oath), to obey the lawful orders of their superiors in the chain of command. From this constitutional commitment come the implicit requirements for civilian control of the military — the expectation that uniformed personnel must necessarily defer to properly constituted civilian authority — and political neutrality — the associated principle that the military must eschew involvement in partisan political affairs (even to the extent, many think, of desisting from openly opposing policy, though not, paradoxically, from openly supporting policy). These conjoined imperatives, almost universally internalized and embraced, frequently serve as justification (or rationalization) and moral cover for those in uniform not to speak out, even when circumstances demand that they do so. They also suppress the equally important, but constitutionally unspecified, responsibility of the military to act as an institutional check and balance against the strategic illiteracy and ineptitude, militaristic impetuosity and arrogance, and ulterior partisan political motives of civilian authorities who display such traits.
The ethos of obedience also is born of the primacy of command in military culture and the military’s largely unquestioning and unquestioned conflation of command and leadership. Though the two should be essentially synonymous, they often aren’t — command frequently taking the form of unilateral, authoritarian edicts from commanders who expect their orders to be obeyed unquestioningly. Just as the military conflates command and leadership, so too does it correspondingly conflate dissent and disobedience. Few in uniform, if they are to avoid sanction and thereby succeed, can (or care to) resist the slippery slope from obedience to unquestioning obedience to blind obedience. The result of perpetual obedience, like the crippling effect of perpetual followership, is that those who bear responsibility for speaking up to those in authority and when necessary speaking out in public, are robbed of their ability and willingness to do so.
3. From strategic illiteracy to strategic literacy. Strategic leadership, a predominantly intellectual enterprise, is predicated largely on the ability of would-be strategic leaders to think strategically. A future that demands strategic leadership from the military accordingly will demand a pronounced degree of strategic literacy from uniformed personnel. In large part this requirement will grow out of the tacit social contract of civil-military relations — a contract that requires the military to provide sound advice at the same time that it is expected to defer to the decisions and direction of civilian authorities. Largely unrecognized, even by reputed experts on civil-military relations, is the unwritten quid pro quo at the heart of this contract: In return for its deference and for “staying in its lane” by limiting itself to strictly military advice, the military has every right to expect, even to demand, strategic literacy and strategically sound direction from its civilian overlords. There is every reason to expect, however, that civilian authorities in the years ahead will continue to display the same pronounced levels of strategic (and military) illiteracy and myopia that have become the norm in recent presidential administrations. This state of affairs, combined with the associated fact that there no longer are purely military or tactical events or activities that can be separated from their almost instantaneous strategic ramifications, will require an entirely new order of strategic literacy and advice from the military. Regrettably, though, tradition and hierarchy have conspired to consistently marginalize and discourage strategic thinking within the military’s ranks. Forced by their superiors to think and operate tactically and programmatically for most of their careers, those in uniform who then (if ever) are called upon to provide strategic insight and vision, find themselves unable to rise to the occasion, to overcome the crippling intellectual stultification they have imposed on themselves.
4. From civic illiteracy to civic literacy. Just as the future will place a premium on strategic literacy from the military, so will it place a premium on civic literacy. For a profession whose members have, as the price of admission, sworn an oath of allegiance to the Constitution, there should be no question about the essential importance of fully understanding the content, intent and underlying philosophical foundations of that document. Faced, as they inevitably will be, with heightened potential for all manner of military interventions abroad (presidentially initiated and proclaimed, congressionally undeclared), with the increased blurring of boundaries between military, paramilitary, police and intelligence functions, and with growing temptations for those in power to employ a willfully compliant, capability-emboldened military for sundry domestic security purposes, military personnel will be confronted constantly by constitutional questions and dilemmas they ignore only at the institution’s peril. Yet query uniformed professionals, junior or senior in rank, on civic matters affecting and affected by the military — civilian control, war powers, the rule of law, habeas corpus, free speech and assembly, due process, equal protection, search and seizure — and the degree of illiteracy is disturbingly palpable. Those in uniform cannot afford to assume, uncritically and unquestioningly, that their political masters will employ them only within the bounds of constitutional propriety, nor can they continue to ignore such matters themselves by deferring to military lawyers. The price of doing so will be the complete abnegation of their oath of office.
5. From anti-intellectualism to intellectualism. That there would be widespread strategic and civic illiteracy in the military should come as no surprise to anyone truly familiar with the institution and its deeply entrenched tradition of anti-intellectualism. In a society that is itself anti-intellectual, the military — a demonstrably action-oriented, physical culture — stands out as being especially so. Notwithstanding the fact that the military has an extensive professional schooling system and also underwrites civilian graduate schooling for many of its officers, it remains institutionally indifferent at best, hostile at worst, to intellectual pursuits. Education, with its focus on intellectual development, invariably takes a distant back seat in the military to training, with its focus on skill development, subject-matter familiarization and topical immediacy. The constant tension that exists in military schools between military and academic priorities consistently favors the former. Academic job assignments, for students and faculty alike, at military or civilian schools, are widely eschewed as a low-priority, unproductive, career-diverting cost (rather than a worthy investment) that comes at the expense of higher priority, more productive, more career-enhancing, institutionally more essential operational assignments. The handful of individuals in uniform who actually seek to write for publication must, even today, submit their work to internal clearance review — always, ostensibly, for security reasons — before public release. Doctrine, long a defining hallmark of military praxis, imposes a suffocatingly pervasive overlay of forced standardization and routinization on virtually every facet of military life. And political ideology (predominantly conservative) is an ever-present, if latent, intellectual crutch for the many in uniform who seek nothing more than reaffirmation and reinforcement of their pre-established core beliefs.
Collectively, these things severely retard free thought and free expression throughout the institution. Nothing so angers those in uniform and puts them on the defensive as the suggestion that they are representative — or captive — of the so-called military mind. Such defensiveness owes to the painfulness of truth. If the military is to extricate itself from the fact that its members are afflicted by a self-imposed common mindset that is unimaginative, reactive, ossified, even pedestrian, it must create a central space for intellectuals and intellectualization. Intellectual stagnation, in fact, threatens to be the military’s undoing in a future where success will be determined far more by brains than by brawn.
What the military will need in large numbers in the years ahead are clearly not chest-thumping, tough-talking, self-proclaimed “war fighters,” who now predominate; nor even exceedingly rare soldier-scholars, for whom intellectual achievement is, of career necessity, little more than a residual byproduct; but scholar-soldiers who are, first and foremost, valued sources and purveyors of ideas, reflective critical and creative thinkers who can invest the institution with intellectual legitimacy and influence it now sorely lacks.
6. From parochialism to ecumenism. Anti-intellectualism provides fertile ground for perpetuating the military’s natural parochialism — a preference for narrow (branch, service, military) interests at the expense of larger interests; a predisposition for the simplifying attractions of doctrinal standardization and procedural routinization to deal with inherently complex situations and problems; an enduring penchant for repeating the past, in the dubious belief that history is a preferred guide to the future. The popular, seemingly trite truism that generals are always fighting the last war is a disturbingly recurrent reality. No clearer example of this could be found than in the military’s stultifying performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which bear out even more than our failed Vietnam experience that fighting the last war means fighting the wrong war. Yet the military persists in trying to turn the wars it gets into the wars it wants, even though the two rarely match in today’s world. “Transformation” and “vision” are the two most overused and empty terms in the Pentagon’s rhetorical arsenal, providing thin cover for the hesitant, risk-averse inertia and myopia that permeate the institution. There are, to be sure, self-anointed experts on military affairs who argue that an institution charged with managing violence on behalf of the state and subordinating itself to civilian authority must, of necessity, be conservative in outlook, prudent in behavior and traditional in its values. But the unforgiving future we face will not be sympathetic to logic that does little more than rationalize fear of difference, rejection of newness, denial of inevitability and single-minded adherence to the status quo. That future will demand adaptability, responsiveness, initiative, courage and boldness from a military that must demonstrate a willingness to fundamentally rethink some of the most central features of its ethos: the essential nature and purpose of the profession of arms; the canonical principles of war; the sanctity and prerogatives of authoritarian command; the hierarchical rank structure; even such cherished precepts as order, discipline, professionalism and unquestioning acquiescence to civilian authority.
7. From secrecy to transparency. The military’s innate parochialism feeds off the institution’s penchant for, if not its obsession with, secrecy. Those in uniform are thoroughly socialized over time to expect, as a right accompanying the perceived danger of their profession, that as many of their activities as possible be kept from public view. So deeply is this perceived right embedded in the military character that it obscures the ulterior motive of simply avoiding public scrutiny that underlies much secrecy.
Owing to its presumed relationship with security, the hallowed principle of war, secrecy is a central feature of the military ethos, the default position in military thinking invariably being to opt for concealment over disclosure. The ostensible rationale for such secrecy is nearly always operational security — the largely unscrutinized, unchallenged premise that revealing information (however harmless and innocuous) creates dangerous vulnerabilities that give prospective adversaries exploitable advantages. And when the military is encouraged by policymakers to consider itself in a permanent state of war, as at present, the institutional penchant for secrecy is further legitimized and accentuated. Under such circumstances, the democratic imperatives of public accountability and popular consent regularly get sacrificed to the discretionary authority uniformed professionals consider their due.
But transparency will be at a premium in a future marked by the pronounced complexity and ambiguity that accompany globalization’s multiplying interconnections and interactions. Dealing with this future will require breaking down barriers of informational compartmentalization and “stovepiping,” both within the military and between the military and others, that grew out of the Cold War and have taken on new life in the war on terrorism. The key to success in this future will lie not in the continued hoarding and denial of information, but in the accelerated processing and exploitation of information across traditional jurisdictional lines.
Beyond the future requirement for more integrated and harmonious interservice, interagency, intergovernmental and international operations, there will be a fundamental need to reaffirm the military’s proper relationship to society — the former serving the latter — and to re-establish the most basic underlying premise of democratic rule in this country: that government, based on the consent of the governed, is instituted in the first place for the very purpose of securing the natural rights of the people, including, not least, the implied right to know what their government is doing, presumably on their behalf, so that they can give or withhold their informed consent. If the democracy we claim to enjoy is actually to exist and if the civilian control of the military that is a hallmark of democracy is to work, then a military that seeks to protect itself by walling itself off from society with secretiveness and silence dooms us all to failure and autocratic rule.
8. From intolerance to tolerance. Undue secrecy impedes efficiency and adaptability, feeds self-perpetuating abuse and unaccountability, and breeds hostility and alienation from those whose trust and confidence are essential for institutional and societal well-being. Moreover, it engenders an inflated sense of privileged exclusivity that magnifies intolerance of others.
Although conventional wisdom would have us believe, citing racial and gender integration as examples, that the U.S. military is a veritable model of tolerance, in reality intolerance is deeply ingrained in military culture. Beginning with the oath of office — to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” — our military, like militaries the world over, is built on a basic foundation of intolerance, externally directed but internally reflected. It is a demonstrably friend vs. foe, good guys vs. bad guys, us vs. them culture that embraces dehumanization and hatred of generalized enemies as a natural motivational tool, while denying that such an orientation can infect thinking and behavior in other unexpected, institutionally corrupting ways.
The most glaring internal example of this is the deeply visceral, largely irrational antipathy toward homosexuals, in uniform or out, that has long pervaded the institution. Mere discussion of the subject, like race and gender before it, invariably elicits visible discomfort and emotion-laden expressions of distaste from uniformed personnel, who deny the realization that they and their bigotry, not homosexuals, are the problem.
More importantly, all signs point to a future of increasingly widespread, varied overseas deployments in which U.S. military personnel will be exposed to more regular direct contact with foreign populations that differ markedly from our own and from one another in customs, language and cultural norms and preferences. Media-driven transparency and heightened public expectations will accelerate the convergence of the tactical and the strategic and accentuate the importance of cultural sensitivity and understanding, proper (nonhostile, nonconfrontational) behavior toward indigenous populations and self-discipline by U.S. military personnel.
All of this will demand degrees of tolerance characteristic of more mature, sophisticated, empathetic, respectful personnel than the military has heretofore seen fit to nurture in its ranks.
9. From aggression to disciplined restraint. The handmaiden of intolerance is aggression, long considered a martial virtue at the very core of the military ethos. To quip, however facetiously, that the military is in the business of killing people and breaking things is to confront the prevailing military image of itself. This self-image is why lethality is an unquestioned design feature of most military capabilities. It is why “war fighting” and “war fighter” are uncritically internalized expressions of self-identity in the contemporary military lexicon. It is why the military persists in the belief that what it rightly wants and needs to “man” the force are proficient killers. And it is what ultimately differentiates military effectiveness from strategic effectiveness, for it is violent aggression employed for the sake of military effectiveness that frequently produces the strategically deleterious effects of indiscriminate lethality and disproportionate destructiveness. Both, when they occur, rob the military — and by association the United States — of the legitimacy and credibility that are such strategically invaluable commodities.
The dismissive inclination of those who defend aggression as an intrinsically valuable and desirable martial virtue is to reject anything less — or different — as cowardly, unmanly, even unnatural. Why bother, they ask, to even have a military if it isn’t prepared to fight? But aggression is an unrefined primal impulse that dominates reason, feeds an insatiable desire for retribution by even the weakest of its victims, undermines human claims to species superiority, diminishes those who employ it and accentuates the hypocrisy of peace-preaching practitioners of violence. In the postmodern media age we inhabit, where imagery and symbolism reign and the negative effects of violence are magnified exponentially, there is an overriding requirement for disciplined restraint — the conscious willingness to refrain from the preferred use of violence, other than as a last resort born of necessity. For a military institution that incessantly invokes the importance of “good order and discipline” to justify all manner of prescriptions and proscriptions, but that relies overmuch on externally imposed coercive discipline in lieu of spontaneous self-discipline, this must be an individual and collective imperative of the first order.
10. From moral arrogance to moral superiority. Important as it may be in its own right, the call for disciplined restraint is a reminder of the larger ethical challenges that lie ahead for a military that would seek to transform itself. The tacit social contract that binds the military, its civilian overseers and society to one another embodies a constellation of mutual rights, obligations and expectations. In seeking to fulfill its part of this compact, the military must be operationally competent, a source of sound advice and politically and ideologically neutral. As importantly, as a mammoth institution whose reach extends throughout society and even into other societies, it must be socially responsible. That means, among other things, that its members, accorded the authority to possess and employ the most destructive instruments of violence on behalf of society, must adhere, consistently and universally, to the highest ethical standards and practices.
To hear those in uniform tell it, almost to a man and woman they are convinced not only that they fully embrace and regularly demonstrate the highest of moral values, but that the larger society — of which they themselves are members — is in an advanced state of moral decline bordering on decadence. To actually scrutinize the performance of the military, however, is to confront the realization that the moral superiority those in uniform claim to represent is little more than misplaced moral arrogance. Each year, literally hundreds of documented incidents of impropriety involving U.S. military personnel occur: combat atrocities, prisoner and noncombatant abuse, sexual assaults, murders, waste and fraud, cover-ups, weapon system accidents and failures, friendly fire incidents, domestic surveillance and various other infringements of civil liberties, environmental despoilment and much more. Regularly dismissed by institutional defenders as unrepresentative aberrations attributable to a few bad apples, such instances of aberrant behavior have been sufficiently pervasive and sustained over time as to suggest an underlying illness that seriously threatens the livelihood and well-being of the institution from within.
As an institution that is obligated to be socially responsible, demonstrating true moral superiority — by actually practicing what one claims for oneself and demands of others — is to be valued not only for its own sake, but no less for its contribution to two other facets of social responsibility that bear directly on the health of civil-military relations. The first is the sense in which the military must be representative of and identified with, not alienated from and resentful of, the society it serves. The second is the extent to which the military, through its actions, earns the right to possess and exercise the discretionary authority its members demand as professionals.
A crucial juncture
Annual opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the American people vest greater trust and confidence in the military than in any other institution of society — including the clergy, medicine, education, business, the presidency and certainly Congress and the media. Should we take this as evidence that the military is doing well what it should be doing? The answer is no, not least because the important “why” question is never asked of the public. Considering that public trust and confidence in institutions generally, including the military, have eroded progressively since the immediate aftermath of 9/11, such findings perhaps say more about how little the public values all institutions today than how highly it values the military. Beyond this, we might reasonably conclude from such polls that the public is (a) largely ignorant of what the military does, much less what it ought to be doing, (b) indirectly expressing its gratitude (or relief) for a military that is performing dirty work society is perfectly content to otherwise ignore, or (c) compensating for feelings of guilt over its own disinclination to serve in uniform.
There clearly are things all of us know we don’t know. But there are infinitely more things we don’t know we don’t know. One of the things most people — even professed experts on military affairs — don’t know they don’t know is that the military can be anything other than what it is and has been. Who would think, for example, that the military could and should do anything other than prepare for and wage war; or that in being militarily effective, the military could thereby be strategically ineffective; or that it might be possible and desirable to demilitarize the military as a precondition for eliminating war and achieving lasting universal peace?
The future is now. We have reached a crucial juncture in the postmodern era where we can no longer assume that what once was and once worked is adequate for the present and future. If government is to avoid being overwhelmed by the world around us and, at the same time, to fulfill the purpose of securing and protecting the natural rights of its citizens, then the military, as perhaps government’s most powerful and influential arm, must undergo truly sweeping transformation to keep pace with the times. Otherwise, we almost assuredly will fall prey to our own complacent ignorance and inertia. AFJ
GREGORY D. FOSTER is a professor at the National Defense University, a West Point graduate and a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the NDU or the Defense Department.