Recently, a post regarding a Senator’s position on a pending government procurement resulted in some rather interesting comments on civilian control of the military. I exchanged some messages with LTC Terry Baldwin (USSF, Ret) and we agreed that it needed to be addressed. This is what he came up with. It’s a good historical reference, and well worth the reading, whether you are an informed citizen or a student of the profession of arms.
There is legitimate purpose, coherent logic and sound reasoning behind every element and mechanism associated with our Constitutional Republic. None is more fundamental to our form of government than iron clad civilian control of the military. In peace and war. In June of 1787, James Madison addressed the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on the dangers of a permanent army. “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.” Based on the European model of his day Madison declared. “The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.” The fact that Madison, one of the most vocal proponents of a strong centralized government—an author of the Federalist papers and the architect of the Constitution—could evince such strongly negative feelings against a standing army is significant and telling(1).
The final draft of the Declaration of Independence contained numerous references to King George’s militarism (particularly his attempts to render the army independent of civilian authority). By the end of the War of Independence, distrust and even hatred of a standing army had become a powerful and near-universal article of faith among the American people. Many felt that the professional British army was nothing less than a “conspiracy against liberty.” The Quartering Act, which required colonists to provide housing and provisions for troops in their own buildings, was an especially obnoxious symbol of the corrupting power represented by the army. An issue which was later directly addressed in the 3d Amendment of the US Constitution. Many colonists held the sentiment that the redcoats stationed in the colonies existed not to protect them but to enforce the king’s unpopular policies at bayonet-point(1).
Other members of the founding generation worried that an armed, professional force represented an untenable threat to the liberty of the people generally. As Samuel Adams wrote in 1768, “Even when there is a necessity of the military power, within a land, a wise and prudent people will always have a watchful and jealous eye over it”. In our Republic that watchful oversight on behave of the people is exercised by our elected officials. Moreover, in Federalist No. 51, Madison argued that no single branch of government ought to have control over any single aspect of governing. Thus, all three branches of government must have some control over the military, and the system of checks and balances maintained among the other branches would serve to help control the military(1).
The powers of the individual Branches of government concerning the United States Military are clearly outlined in the Constitution. The separation of those powers concerning their duties and responsibilities are precise and distinct to each Branch. Article I which covers the governmental responsibilities of the Legislative Branch distinctly places the responsibility of provision for and maintenance of the military specifically in the duties of the United States House of Representatives and Senate. Article I, Section 8 – The Legislative Branch – “To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years; To provide and maintain a Navy.” Article II, Section 2 – The Executive Branch – “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”
Most military professionals, myself included, are in fact strong advocates of civilian control. Highly respected writing on War from Clausewitz to Sun-Tzu universally recognized and advocated an unbreakable link between political goals and military means. Historically where unrealistic or poorly defined political objectives became unsynchronized or decoupled from operational and tactical military actions, National mission failure is the likely result. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan would be some recent examples. Given the broad strategic implications that a decision to declare a war, invade a country, or end a conflict, have on the citizens of the country, those deliberations are best guided by the will of the people (as expressed by their elected representatives), rather than left solely to an elite group of military experts. The military serves as a special government agency, which is supposed to implement, rather than formulate, policies that require the use of certain types of physical force. Dr. Kohn succinctly summarizes this view when he writes that: “the point of civilian control is to make security subordinate to the larger purposes of a nation, rather than the other way around. The purpose of the military is to defend society, not to define it.”(2)
It can also be argued that militaries possess capabilities that are too powerful to be placed at the discretion of just a few people. Rather, they must be at the service of all citizens and used in accordance with the democratic will of the people. So concerns about maintaining an appropriate subordinate relationship between the military and civil authorities elected or appointed over them did not end in the 18th Century. In 1961, President Eisenhower warned in his farewell address of a military-industrial complex, where the military could wield indirect power or undue influence over Congress by enlisting arms manufacturers to lobby for increased military spending to benefit themselves and incidentally the military. This very real and troubling dynamic represents a potential end run around effective civilian control. And also presents an effective argument in favor of more civilian scrutiny and oversight of the military not less.
Of course, the most important institution supporting civilian control must be the military itself. The fundamental assumption behind civilian supremacy is the abstinence by the military from intervention in government and political life. The military should advise civilians, represent the needs of the military inside the government, but not advocate military interests or perspectives publicly in such a way as to undermine or circumscribe civilian authority. While a country may have civilian control of the military without democracy, it cannot have democracy without civilian control. Democracy is a disorderly form of government, often inefficient and always frustrating. Maintaining liberty and security, governing in such a manner as to achieve desirable political outcomes and at the same time military effectiveness, is among the most difficult dilemmas of human governance.(2)
Our Founding Fathers envisioned and built a most amazing governing construct. A mechanism designed with component gears that purposely grind against one another rather than mesh. An apparatus that is maintenance intensive and that we the people have a sacred duty to constantly repair and preserve. A machine that intentionally doesn’t save time, energy or manpower. An engine of liberty that deliberately works better when more of us participate and yet will still never function smoothly. A strange and marvelous instrument indeed. Ensuring that the military always remains firmly subordinate to civilian control was and remains a critical cog in that machine. Every aspect of when, where, why, against whom and how the Nation goes to war, prosecutes a war, or prepares for war is the peoples’ business. Attempting to argue that the military should have the autonomy or discretion to somehow dodge that oversight in time of war is simply wrong and directly contradicts our history and our Constitution.
For the purposes of this article I modified and paraphrased a great deal of the work of the two gentlemen below. But I happen to firmly believe in everything that is stated above. TLB
(1)Historian Christopher Hamner teaches at George Mason University, serves as Editor-in-Chief of Papers of the War Department, 1784-1800, and is the author of Enduring Battle: American Soldiers in Three Wars, 1776-1945.
(2)Richard H. Kohn is professor of history and chairman of the Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as executive secretary, Triangle Institute for Security Studies. Further, he is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of American Diplomacy.