- - Wednesday, October 5, 2011


By Mackubin Thomas Owens
Continuum, $22.95, 224 pages

Many were surprised when, early in his first term as secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld vowed publicly to rein in the power of the generals. Conservative Republicans especially found it hard to imagine a Republican secretary taking on the military - usually closely aligned with the Republican Party - in such a public manner. What had gone so wrong in civil-military relations? Mackubin Thomas Owens seeks to answer that question in “U.S. Civil-Military Relations After 9/11,” his latest book.

This is a scholarly study, in many ways not meant for the general reader. Nevertheless, it thoughtfully addresses a serious issue that requires our closest attention. Conventional wisdom has it that the norm in American civil-military relations is a bargain between the two sectors. In theory, the military will not conduct coups or engage in Praetorian kingmaking as long as the civilian leadership allows it to conduct wars once they are declared and enforce discipline in the ranks as the military leaders see fit. Some see the military and some see civilians as having upset this balance of late. Mr. Owens effectively argues that this bargain was never a reality, and that civil-military relations have always been a moving target.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln regularly tinkered in areas generally considered to be in the military realm, and rightly so when generals such as George Brinton “Mac” McClellan turned in subpar performances. In World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt no compunction about playing military leaders against each other in order to gain maximum battlefield performance. President Harry S. Truman relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur for exceeding his authority in the Korean War by challenging strategic policy that is traditionally in the purview of the president. As the author points out, the military can “give advice,” but it cannot and should not dictate policy.

All of these were generally considered to be exceptions, done under severe circumstances. Mr. Owens considers them to be a long-term norm in a relationship that was never as stable as some scholars have believed. He also argues that several recent developments have upset the fragile balance.

Rather than strengthening the military control, Mr. Owens shows that the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 gave the military’s senior regional combatant commanders unprecedented peacetime voices in strategic policymaking in the mythical norm that Mr. Owens believed never existed in the first place. Mr. Owens makes the case that Goldwater-Nichols needs revisiting. On the other hand, liberal social engineering projects such as the push for gay rights have assaulted the supposed prerogatives of the military leadership to dictate military personnel policy.

Getting the military-civil mix right is terribly important. Karl Von Clausewitz first pointed this out in his analysis of the French defeat of Prussia in 1806. The Prussian people did not care if the French defeated their army and humiliated the government and army of Prussia; it meant no more to the average German than a corporate takeover means to the average American today. The bond between the people, the nation’s military and the government is the key to a healthy national security strategy.

Today, the American people view the military as a beloved sports franchise. They celebrate its successes and mourn its failures, but very few have a personal connection to any of the players. A dead soldier is too often viewed as a middle linebacker who gets cut from the team. Americans are no more engaged than the 18th-century Prussian citizenry, but they should be.

Mr. Owens is a scholar and a warrior. He is a distinguished faculty member at the Naval War College and a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam and the Cold War. Few are more qualified to write on this subject. His book has reached key members of the military and government. I would encourage him in his next effort to reach the population as a whole. To paraphrase Clemenceau, “War is too important to be left to the generals.”

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps officer, is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Studies.

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