Greater Deference to Generals Has Undermined Civilian Control of the Military

I'm in the New York Times' "Room for Debate" with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Duke's Peter Feaver.

US Army Lt General Flynn testifies before House Intelligence Committee in Washington

I appear, along with US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Duke political scientist Peter Feaver, in the New York Times‘ “Room for Debate” on the topic of General Jim Mattis for Secretary of Defense.  My contribution:

With Michael Flynn already in place as national security adviser and names like Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton and Newt Gingrich being floated for key foreign policy posts, I breathed a sigh of relief when General James Mattis was announced as Donald Trump’s choice for defense secretary. Yet, while we could certainly do worse, we should be troubled by the prospect of a military man running the Pentagon at a time when the public is so isolated from its armed forces.

While I share the concern of “War on the Rocks” senior editor, Erin Simpson, about whether General Mattis is temperamentally suited to wrestle the Defense Department’s massive bureaucracy, his sterling reputation as a warrior-scholar would earn him instant respect. Yet there’s a reason that Congress, in establishing the position, was emphatic that it be “appointed from civilian life” and specified that the nomination would not be “within seven years [initially 10] after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer of a regular component of an armed force.” The military exists to implement policies set forth by civilian leaders. Recently separated officers are likely to reinforce the advice given the president by the Joint Chiefs rather than offer a political perspective.

Kori Schake, who co-edited a recent volume on civil-military affairs with Mattis, assures us that he would be “superb” in the role and dismisses concerns about militarization of the post on grounds that Mattis scrupulously deferred to civilians as a general. Yet she also paints the picture of an American society where few are “directly affected by decisions about our military forces.” Not only is the public therefore “enormously deferential to the military” but “elected leaders seek greater legitimacy by wrapping themselves in public confidence for the military.”

The consequence of this attitudinal shift, completely understandable more than four decades into an all-volunteer military, is to turn the old presumptions about civilian control of the military on their head. While it’s true, as Schake notes, that the brass has been overruled on such issues as gender and homosexual integration, elected leaders show much more deference to generals and admirals than they do to senior bureaucrats in other agencies. This is also true of major news media outlets, who regularly lampoon Congress for having the temerity to buy weapons systems that the Pentagon didn’t ask for or refusing to close military bases the brass insists are excess. Generals who are particularly charismatic and good at courting the press, like David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal or Mattis, are especially influential.

America’s generals have mostly been appropriately deferential to their civilian masters. But the temptation to court a deferential public as an end-around is always there. President Obama was rightly furious when McChrystal’s ambitious Afghanistan surge plan was leaked at a time when the administration was considering moving in the opposite direction. The Pentagon, frustrated by sequestration, has openly challenged Congress, repeatedly exaggerating the consequences of a mere half trillion dollar annual budget and even threatening to close bases without legislative authorization if lawmakers don’t act.

Having a civilian perspective atop the department is vital in this environment.This is doubly important given Trump’s utter lack of knowledge of, or seeming interest in, national security issues. It’s highly problematic, then, that he will have to defer on these matters to his national security adviser and defense secretary, both recently retired generals.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Such attitudes are inevitable when you’re continually at war. War should be a last resort rather than a first resort and we should only fight wars for which there is a clearly understood definition of “done”.

    It doesn’t help that our media are as ignorant of our military as they have become. We haven’t had journalists so ignorant of our military in living memory. A declining reputation of journalists, earned or unearned, doesn’t help. Right now the U. S. military is a highly respected institution while newspapers are among the least respected.

  2. Slugger says:

    I don’t understand America’s attitude toward Generals. Since 1945 our record in war has not been stellar. The Korean War was a desultory stalemate against a third world country. The Vietnamese War was not glorious. The Iraq War hasn’t been impressive. Now, certainly most of the blame goes to the civilian planners of these misadventures, but shouldn’t have smart military leaders have counseled the guys in suits?
    I have not been in the military, but it is my impression that a certain amount of backside smooching is essential for promotion.
    When Mr. Trump gave us his views about McCain’s performance, I thought that Trump was disrespectfully expressing a healthy skepticism about the military establishment.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: I think it’s an inevitable consequence of the All-Volunteer Force. Military service is now highly specialized rather than a shared burden, so elites tend to have no more knowledge of it than they do with, say, farming or coal mining.

    @Slugger: While I make a similar argument with my students to be contrarian, it’s really tongue-in-cheek. As Dave notes, the nature of the wars we fought has changed since WWII. We toppled the regimes in Bagdad and Kabul in record time. We’re better at the kinetic aspects of war than ever. We’re not very good at Phase IV rebuilding and sustainment operations, which are exceedingly difficult and not traditionally military.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    there’s a reason that Congress, in establishing the position, was emphatic that it be “appointed from civilian life”

    And yet watch how fast the feckless Republican Congress rolls over on this appointment.
    This Congress will do nothing to stop the Trump agenda.
    Dark days…

  5. michael reynolds says:

    First of all, congratulations!

    Second, I strongly suspect that Trump picked Mattis for the simple reason that Mattis reminded him of George C. Scott playing Patton. Trump heard, “Mad Dog” and thought he had himself another “Blood and Guts.” He may have accidentally stumbled into a good man – who should not be running the Pentagon for reasons laid out in the piece.

    But, hell, the American voters have set us well on the path to becoming the world’s biggest banana republic, so I suppose it’s inevitable.

    @DaveSchuler: I don’t think that’s true. Reporters like Sebastian Junger have had as close a view of the military at grunt level than anyone since Ernie Pyle. There are any number of excellent war correspondents with deep experience and access to the brass and the soldiers. Contrasted with the years the media spent swallowing spoon-fed pap from the Vietnam-era military, followed all-too-quickly by disillusionment, the current media does a better job. Even WW2 tends to be romanticized – the British media were a constant problem, forever stoking US/UK strife, often aided and abetted by American media.

    @Slugger: We never have been great producers of generals. Who was our Napoleon? Or Zhukov? Or Shaka Zulu? Or William Slim? Or Vo Nguyen Giap? We’ve produced legends but few really great or innovative generals. Who are the go-to’s of US history? Patton? Good general, but great? Not even close. Winfield Scott would qualify as an amazing general and no one even remembers him, and a number of Civil War generals, but since WW2 we’ve been punching down, fighting the kinds of small wars the British used to carry out on a weekly basis with native troops and a fop waving a fly whisk.

    We’ve built ourselves up in our own minds as military geniuses. In fact we are industrial and scientific geniuses. We won our big wars – Civil War, WW2 – essentially by crushing our enemies with sheer weight of planes, trains, ships and the occasional atomic bomb. We’ve fought exactly one war where we could even pretend to be at a disadvantage, WW2, and compared to other combatants we barely strained a tendon. We are the only people who managed to grow fatter during the war. (True.) And had we had competent generals we’d have ended that war six months earlier.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’d say more a conference of future journalists not volunteering and not enough vets being hired by major news outlets.


    It’s not just the reporters. It’s the editors and publishers.

  7. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We never have been great producers of generals

    Generally speaking, I would agree, but I have to cite George Marshall as an exception to that rule. He was an exceptional general.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Yeah, I was talking about him in another thread, and like I said there, we should probably have cities named after that man, a genuinely great man. But his war experience was staff not combat. He apparently wanted Eisenhower’s job but when FDR kept him in Washington, Marshall hand-picked and backed Ike. Like Ike, though, he was essentially a politician-in-uniform, not a guy snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against superior odds.

    Winfield Scott, by contrast, fought in the 1812 war, and in various Indian wars, and in the Mexican war landed troops at Veracruz and marched them straight across to Mexico City, outfighting stiff resistance and occupied the city with very little loss of life. Even Wellington thought that was kick-ass.

  9. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Marshall’s strengths were military strategy and logistics planning. The guy was phenomenal at both. People forget that Marshall, as a mere major / LTC, entirely planned Cantigny and was heavily involved in the planning of Meuse-Argonne. His period of service at the Infantry School in the late 1920s (and the changes he implemented while there) proved to be greatly beneficial later in WW2.

    I think his strengths unavoidably slotted him into the chief of staff role (and I don’t remotely think that was a bad thing), but I have no problem believing that he’d have been equally effective in a line role. The guy was just that good.

  10. Slugger says:

    @James Joyner: I was also a bit tongue-in-cheek. However, since we are on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I find this a good occasion to reflect on the utility of military solutions to political problems. The attack was a success from the “kinetic aspect,” but resulted in destruction of Japan’s military. Let me pick on the Imperial Japanese military for a bit; did any of their thinkers tell the Emperor that the cost of a few battleships would buy all the oil of Brunei without anybody getting killed or the Dutch Shell Company getting upset? Likewise has any American general studied the Russo-Finnish War and told his civilian superiors that when big countries attack little countries things don’t work as smoothly as on a chessboard?

  11. MBunge says:

    Politically speaking, we also have to remember that the Vietnam anti-war movement discredited itself with a good bit of the American people, much like liberalism discredited itself on the issue of law and order in the 60s and 70s. That certainly helped open the door to both the excessive militarism and the prison-industrial complex of the last 30 years or so.


  12. JKB says:

    For more than 20 years, all we’ve heard is about trusting what 98% of scientist believe on climate change, or these experts on this or that. Now, suddenly there is concern about trust in the military experts?

    Yes, I understand the political implications, but when you seek to condition the public, don’t be surprised when they take it in a direction you aren’t happy with.

  13. michael reynolds says:


    There is no conflict. We judge scientists by the evidence they produce to support their hypotheses. When they are proven wrong we say, “Okay, let’s try a different direction.” Science is in the end self-correcting.

    We judge military leaders by their product as well, and frankly our military has often underperformed relative to its crushing advantages. A lot of that is a result of political considerations, but there are always political considerations, and generals are paid to win not whine.

    Further, I doubt you can supply many examples of science being improved by the meddling of politicians, whereas we have numerous examples of pols saving us from generals. One of the reasons we succeeded in both the Civil War and WW2 was that we regularly fired under-performing officers. That is no longer the case. We don’t demote or reassign generals nearly as often as in previous wars, the Pentagon has become to some extent just another ass-covering bureaucracy. For example, covering up the report that says the Pentagon basically burned 150 billion (yes, with a ‘b’) dollars, which is more than American science has seen lately.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    Put it this way. On one side we have a general who has complete command of the air and sea, has the very latest technology, including live battlefield surveillance, and a very professional army. And on the other side we have some bearded goatherd with a WW1 rifle. And yet we manage not to win.

    We have, over the years been beat by Canadians, Cubans, Chinese, Vietnamese and Pashtuns. In our biggest war (Civil) we barely beat ourselves, and in our second biggest war we scored an assist against Germany and a solid victory over Japan. We won the Revolution thanks to the French and WW2 thanks to the Soviets and Brits.

    Contrast that won-loss ratio with the French who we endlessly deride for the wrong reasons. All our generals together don’t touch Napoleon or Alexander, and we don’t have a single guy we could honestly stack up one-on-one against Kesselring or Rommel.

    The peak of American generalship was probably in 1864 when our two greatest generals were respectively a drunk and a man who’d been committed for mental problems. But we only got to Grant and Sherman because Lincoln had the strength of character to push back against the army bureaucracy of the time. And just try getting a drunk and a nut to the top of the current Pentagon bureaucracy.

  15. Joe says:

    American deference to and respect for the military is mostly a form of flag waiving. Even by the less flag-happy segments of the body politic, it is an admission that – whether the military is good at what they do or bad at what they do – they do it and we don’t. You may complain about generals or tactics or goals, but you have to be a real douche bag not to start the conversation with an acknowledgement that some people are willing to step into harm’s way and most of us are not.

    But it is not because the military does their job so much better than the press does its job. They are two very different questions.

  16. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Among Marshall’s other accomplishments was that he identified Eisenhower, Bradley, Stilwell, Ridgway, and Joe Collins as candidates for future leadership positions. In more than one sense, he was truly the “Organizer of Victory.”

  17. Andy says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think it’s an inevitable consequence of the All-Volunteer Force. Military service is now highly specialized rather than a shared burden, so elites tend to have no more knowledge of it than they do with, say, farming or coal mining.

    It’s not a consequence of the AVF, it’s a consequence of a relatively small military compared to our population. If a draft were instituted today, less that half of 1% of the military age cohort (18-26) would subject to the draft – that’s assuming 100% of the age cohort of approximately 27 million was subject to the draft and 100% of the accessions were drafted. In reality, there would be many exempted, disqualified of deferred and the force would not be 100% conscripts.

    The point being, the threat of conscription, were it to return, would be very, very low and would not bring about any serious kind of burden-sharing.

  18. Andy says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I don’t think that’s true. Reporters like Sebastian Junger have had as close a view of the military at grunt level than anyone since Ernie Pyle. There are any number of excellent war correspondents with deep experience and access to the brass and the soldiers.

    Those guys are all specialists though. The fact is, despite 16 years of constant war, few in the press understand anything more than an inch deep when it comes to military matters.

  19. Andy says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We judge military leaders by their product as well, and frankly our military has often underperformed relative to its crushing advantages. A lot of that is a result of political considerations, but there are always political considerations, and generals are paid to win not whine.

    War is a ultimately a political enterprise so it would be accurate to say that political communities (usually states) wage war. Military forces, by contrast, conduct warfare, which is an important difference..

    Since the end of the Cold War (and arguably even before), our political leaders confused the two. The greatest military in the world can rarely overcome a flawed war strategy. The simple fact is that our political leaders ask our military to do things that cannot be achieved with military force. Our actual military campaigns were quick, decisive and massively one-sided. They were followed by years of pointless and futile attempts at armed nation-building intended to turn broken societies into semi-secular democracies with a semblance of western values. It was all folly and the failure had little to do with military effectiveness.

    So to me your criticism is like blaming a cat because it didn’t bark loud enough. No one should suffer under the illusion that we could have “won” in Afghanistan, Iraq or any of the other third-world shit-holes if only our military was more competent at warfighting or had better generals.

  20. the Q says:

    I believe there was a General Washington who was superlative? His bravery was a hundred times that of Napoleon in that he actually led his troops in battle.

    And yes, while the French were indispensable, General Washington’s leadership skills were legendary.

    While on his way to his initial inauguration, his carriage was stopped by an old Indian chief who came running across the fields screaming, “I remember you…I remember you….I ordered all my braves to kill you. But you couldn’t be killed. The arrows all missed.” Washington was ferocious in battle since he honestly believed he could not be killed. He may not have been the most brilliant of tacticians, but he was a leader.