Strong civil-military relations are crucial to national security. If the bond between America’s armed forces and its civilian leadership corrodes, it will damage our military effectiveness and readiness.
The key to civil-military relations is mutual respect and understanding. Competent civilian leaders need to understand military matters. They can’t outsource their leadership responsibilities to generals saying, “Call me when the war I started is done.” Nor can military leaders operate in a vacuum, oblivious to the political consequences of their actions.
That’s not to say that politicians should pretend to be generals or admirals should play politics. But both need to understand and deal with the context in which they operate, respectful of Constitutional responsibilities and the need to safeguard the people’s security and interests.
Today, however, there are troubling signs this generation of military leaders will not get the respect and understanding it needs from civilian leadership. The Biden administration seems bent on imposing its woke progressive agenda and teaching on our armed forces, apparently indifferent to the very real danger that it will undermine the readiness and capacity of our military to win actual shooting wars.
The list of questionable items on the administration’s “military” agenda is long, from climate change and gender policies to forced instruction in critical race theory and an effort to blackball conservative officers as extremist threats to good order and discipline.
One egregious example is an Army “recruiting ad” that has zero to do with recruiting and everything to do with celebrating alternative lifestyles.
The Army well knows that this cartoon (that’s right, it’s a CARTOON!), holds no appeal for those most inclined to military service. Moreover, it sends the wrong message about what the military is all about. A soldier’s preferred pronoun ought to be “soldier.”
How did this happen? It’s hard not to argue that today’s military leaders have been caught unprepared for the tumult of rapid political and social change. This leaves them incapable of meaningfully engaging with civilian leaders in a constructive manner.
Perhaps, the armed forces busy with their day jobs of over a decade of heightened military operations and prolonged combat didn’t have the time or space to think deeply about the future or how America was changing around them.
Perhaps, in not robustly educating military leaders on economics, politics and culture, their intellectual arsenal is empty.
Maybe the military relied too much on advanced civilian education that was heavily weighted to leftist politics.
Or maybe we have become too lax about holding military and political leaders accountable when they start meddling too much in the operational side of the other’s affairs.
It is time to talk about why our military can’t deal with politicians who play politics with the military, or why some military officers have become partisan political actors while in uniform (a phenomenon of the Trump administration as well as Biden’s).
Most importantly, we need to start talking about how we fix this before it really gets out of hand.
One answer, of course, is to stop electing politicians who play politics with the military.
But we also need to educate military leaders on how to properly serve both elected civilian leaders and the oath they took when they put on a uniform — and to serve both equally well no matter how difficult that might be.
While people in uniform are always required to follow lawful orders, they are not there just to say “yes” to every politician. Nor should an officer remain silent, failing to stand for the right thing, because it might endanger their career or advancement.
Military leaders are there to provide for the common defense no matter how outrageous or out-of-kilter domestic politics gets. Sometimes that can be as challenging as fighting a war. It’s every bit as important. Because you can’t fight or deter a war with a military that can’t fight.
• Retired Army Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano is a Heritage Foundation vice president, overseeing the think tank’s research in matters of national security and foreign relations.