TYR Tactical

Terry Baldwin on Civilian Control of the Military

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 It’s a good historical reference, and well worth the reading, whether you are an informed citizen or a student of the profession of arms.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.


36 Responses to “Terry Baldwin on Civilian Control of the Military”

  1. orly? says:

    Thank you.

    Though, how does the Judicial branch work in such regard?

    Also, many still wonder (or just want) the justification to cross the Rubicon/Potomac River.

    Still, I personally don’t see a justifiable cause besides the Civil Rights Era.

    • SSD says:

      Most probably don’t know this but all Flag Officers / General Officers must request permission to visit Washington, DC. They are not allowed to just show up.

      • Riceball says:

        That’s very interesting and I had no idea. But in what context does this pertain to? Can a general/flag officer visit DC as Joe Citizen while on leave or on their own time, out of uniform to see the sites as a tourist or does this apply to any visit for any reason? Regardless, it’s very interesting and rather reminiscent of the old Roman law stating that no on of senatorial rank could visit Egypt.

      • Rob says:

        Cite please. AFI36-2901 and OPNAVINST 1000.1M require coordination and notification, but not permission, and I can’t find any similar policies providing even those minimal requirements on the Army, Marines, or Coast Guard.

        • SSD says:

          That’s GO speak for permission.

          • Rob says:

            No it isn’t. It’s a travel plan not a country clearance. The Navy and USAF regs look like standard DV/VIP travel (just with more notification), and last time I checked the protocol office doesn’t have veto power.

            For your assertion to be true there would have to be _something_ similar (and binding) for the other services.

            • SSD says:

              If someone wasn’t keeping tabs on where they were, why would they have to report anything at all?

    • Terry B. says:


      The military in our country (institutionally and individually) is never above the law. In many cases we are subject to normal civilian courts and civil or criminal law. And like any citizen those kinds of cases can eventually make their way to the Supreme Court.

      Even under the special rules afforded to the military under the UCMJ all cases prosecuted in military courts can and sometimes do eventually make their way to the Supreme Court.

      And of course the Supreme Court weights in as required on the constitutionality of any legislation related to the military including procurement and contract related laws.


  2. Brian says:

    Consider the countries that military isn’t controlled by civilians. Egypt and several dictatorships. Is there a single “democracy” where military isn’t controlled by civilians?

    • Terry B. says:


      Yes, there are a number of democratic countries where the civilian control is very weak. From time to time in recent years the militaries of those countries have deposed of elected officials to put someone more to their liking in power.

      Thailand and the Philippines come immediately to my mind but there are others. Those tend to be “soft coups” that don’t usually result in much loss of life.

      However, any time a military imposes its will on the people the fabric of that democracy is severely damaged.


  3. Russ says:

    Well said.
    The military industrial complex does have a lot of influence over the policy of lawmakers due to the lobbyists. It has been said that the clothes make the man. Well in the case of politicians its the money makes the laws. When the dollar is more important than individual liberties we will always have tyranny. It is juts human nature. Even communism does not work for that reason. The people at the top of the pyramid always want power and control. Our founding fathers realized the potential for corruption within themselves and our future government. That is why they set up the constitution that way and made the amendments. So many people seem to forget that freedom is difficult to maintain. Paid for in blood by so many in the past and unfortunately it is probably going to have to continue into the future. We must be diligent in maintaining what was so hard fought.

  4. Forrest says:

    You forgot to tell us what was said about McCain’s ideas to treat handguns like sunglasses.

    I think it’s the greatest idea that’ll never work. Armorers would just start shooting people if we told them they had to learn to work on, and stock parts for, 5 or 6 pistols instead of just 1.

    • james says:

      Civilian armorers do it all the time……

      • majrod says:

        Maybe you are talking about gunsmiths.

        They get paid more by the hour, don’t have to move their shop at the drop of a hat, don’t operate in austere conditions and aren’t required to have on hand the most common parts that break which is why it can take months to get one’s firearm back waiting for the manufacturer to ship a spring.

        • james says:

          True gunsmiths are a rare thing .Most guys that work on or customize guns merely replace parts, ocassionaly fitting them when needed.

    • PbLead says:

      Why not? They work on multiple weapons systems already, we’ve got M9s, M4s, M2’s M240B, M249s, M107s, M203s, M320s all in our arms rooms. If you pick reliable pistols, unlike the M9s, that’s fewer parts to replace. Hell, my 1911 has very few parts to it at all. To add 1911s, Sigs, Detonics’, etc to the fray would be small potatoes IMO as they’ve proven themselves to be highly reliable. I really don’t care what happens so long as the M9 goes bye-bye.

  5. Chausser1814 says:

    Not so much a comment but a question. During combat operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan how many rounds have been fired from necessity from pistols in actual combat operations? Knowing this number, might be a good starting point in any discussion to determine the future requirements of that item. If relatively few rounds were fired during actual combat operations, then perhaps having individual soldiers purchasing and supplying their own with their own limited supply of ammunition (which cost they could deduct from their income tax) might actually be a very good and cost effective option. . If an excessive amount of rounds were fired in anger then perhaps the need for the item to be procured by the services and logistically supported by the services might make more sense operationally and economically.

    • james says:

      That sounds logical, but it doesn’t hold up. We can’t base our priorities on the last war or even the expected next war.

    • majrod says:

      How many nukes have we used over the last decade? What about the last half century?

      How often an item is used doesn’t necessarily dictate it’s utility.

      Make the same comparison against B2 bombers, amphibious aircraft or parachutes…

    • Airborne_fister says:

      I can say my gunner used mine when our truck mounted 240 went down. And I would say he went thru a bunch. Along with some of my face. Stupid pistol leash. I forgot to unhook it from my self.

  6. majrod says:

    The proper was to list someone’s branch of service/specialty is “Special Forces, USA”.

    We don’t wear USSF branch service tapes.

    Love Terry Baldwin’s stuff and appreciate his lifetime of service. Just trying to promote the proper attribution.

    Great and timely article. As a nation (ans sometimes a service) we don’t know our history as well as we should.

    • SSD says:

      I know what the right way to do it is, but I did it the way I wanted to because I figured it would upset a regular army guy. Plus, it’s how it was done during Viet Nam and I love history.

    • Steve says:

      The proper way to refer to a retired Army officer would be ‘name’, ‘rank’ (USA Retired); however, I side with SSD in that USSF is much cooler, and this is a rather informal setting. Besides, even though we don’t wear USSF branch service tapes, we were assigned to USSOCOM under its Title 10 authorities (10USC 167.b) when in CONUS.

  7. Chris says:

    I have no problem woth civilian control for the most part, but if they let our military loose to fight a war, don’t be piggy backing along by watching it from home though some edited 15 second clip, and tell us how to fight it. You say fight, but don’t tell us how. I think too much civilian involvement is what has been partially to blame for the two drawn out wars. They tie our hands and expect us to finish it quickly and without bloodshed it seems.

    • Terry B. says:


      I have to disagree with you. We fight wars on the peoples’ behalf and in their name. We spend their money and put their sons and daughters in harms way.

      They indeed have every right as citizens of this Republic to know how we are going about it. And if they don’t like how we are doing it they have the right to demand we do it differently.

      I would suggest to you that the reason we (the military) have struggled in these recent conflicts is not because of any civilian “meddling” (real or perceived) at the tactical level.

      Rather it has been a failure of political clarity and direction at the strategic level from the beginning. Long story short, if you give the military a mission that cannot be achieved by military means, i.e. establish a stable democratic government in Iraq or Afghanistan. Don’t be surprised that it is all but impossible for the military to accomplish that mission.

      And to your last point, killing more people won’t make the Host Nation’s government anymore legitimate in the eyes of their people or convince local security forces to fight and die at the behest of said government.

      And those last two things (legitimacy and will to fight) need to be fixed by other than military means before we can achieve anything approaching success.


  8. Matt says:

    Politicians are not citizens. Atleast not now a days. They are progressive liberal (rino) aristocrats.

    • Terry B. says:


      I’m glad you stopped by. I hoped you specifically would learn something from the article. Although from your comment it doesn’t appear to be the case.

      Every one of the politicians you keep denigrating were elected by the citizens of their districts to represent them.

      You don’t like your representative vote him or her out. If you don’t see a candidate you can support then run yourself. That is our system.

      And name calling doesn’t make it work any better.


      • Matt says:

        First of all. Thanks for responding. Just because we disagree doesn’t mean we can’t have a conversation. Alright. Now here comes my reply.

        As far as running myself if I don’t like the candidates. I think that is a great idea. The problem is it isn’t real world applicable. To run for office, other than local stuff, you must have, wait for it…, money. That’s right. Big shocker. This world runs of money, wether real or not. Outside of a very few folks, like Trump, the citizen, in the current way of things, cannot hope to finance a campaign without bankrupts him, his family, and his friends. So what must a person do? They have to take money from a myriad of different sources like special interest groups and super Pacs. In exchange for this money, you have to pretty much make promises that onces your in office you will favor your donors. So that is the first go no go situation you have to over come. Most people don’t get past this stage. In fact, most of the candidate we see are products of the special interest groups and super Pacs. Next, moving on. Ok. We have the money and we feel a little dirty by promising stuff that shouldn’t be promised. But the picture is we are a go for the next round. Now you have to be approved of by…Dom Dom Dom … The Media. That’s right! Everyone’s favorites. You better hope you are a liberal because if not you will only be taken seriously on one major network. If you can get the shady power brokers behind the scenes of the media to approve of you then you have a realitivly good chance of being able to run for office. Then and only then do you have to “worry” about The voters, aka We The People.

        So in summary you have to be approved of by the money people and the media people. They have a strangle hold on the fatal funnel and they are not going to give it up. Why would they? It’s working for em.

        Yes, the politicians were voted in to office by We The People but we are only “allowed” a certain few that sell their souls to get in the position to run in the first place.

        Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules. Look at Trump. He is one of the handful of people that can by pass the Money Folk and The Media Folk and make a run of it. To date, that is the reason The Media Folk are flipping out because they have no CONTROL. And that’s the name of the game. To have controls where it matters.

        The whole process of choosing our top echelon leaders is too important for the Money Folk and the Media Folk to NOT try to control it. They would be idiots not too. Corrupt and Unscrupulous they are, but stupid they are not.

        What say you?

        • chooch says:

          It sounds as though you are letting adversity get in the way of your aspirations. Money and media support are challenges indeed but look at the yahoos who’ve been able to put it together and win. What I’m getting from you is the standard hue and cry one hears too often these days. Which is worse, quitting or never even sacking up, reaching down and seeing if you’ve got a pair. Maybe it’s just a cold day at the swim Qual for you, maybe not. Any way you look at it, complaining about unfairness is the realm of the weak twittering jacka$$es/sub-par whiners who are electing the clowns running the country.

          • Matt says:

            Get real. What your spewing is the equivalent of telling a person to literally jump to the moon. When they tell you they can’t with facts you say “man/sack up!” And the person just stares at you like you should be wearing a helmet and just got off the “special”bus.

            Stop wasting our time. Facts are facts. Wether you agree with them or not.

            • Terry B. says:


              I wouldn’t say it the way chooch did but he has a point. Anything worth doing is usually challenging in some fashion. But not impossible. If you convince yourself not to try because the system isn’t entirely fair then I would say you are selling yourself short.

              Here is a fact, although you probably won’t agree. The system and the citizens involved in politics are generally honest and hard working people. Try not to lay on the cynicism too thick.

              You could find a candidate who seems to represent your views and volunteer to work on his or her campaign in some capacity. You might discover that the process isn’t as dirty as you think it is.

              To your specific point about money potentially corrupting the process; that is a legitimate concern. But much of the money that comes into campaigns comes from perfectly appropriate organizations that represent groups of citizens who have pooled their resources in order to have a greater impact.

              The NRA would be one such organization that has a specific agenda to promote. Those individual members have a greater voice because they have banded together – as the Founders intended – to petition the government to redress grievances.

              I’m sure you are a member of (or are sympathetic with) one or more such organization’s agenda.

              I suspect that I am quite a bit older than you and I can assure you FWIW that our institutions of governance are healthier than you seem to believe.


              • Matt says:

                We will just have to agree to disagree. My cynicism comes from almost a decade of time spent in and around the meetings and daily life of politicians. Basically being a fly on the wall, someone they don’t see. I’ve been witness to some shady crap. Can’t talk about it of course because of contracts but whatever. At the end of the day it all comes down to the powerful having “control” and being able influence policy.

                As far as our institution of governance being healthy than I believe? That may be true. But when I look at the, I believe this number is correct, 18 trillion in debt and 128 trillion in unfunded liability (our countries net worth is 94 trillion), I have to think something is majorly wrong. These numbers were from 2013, so who knows how much higher they are now. Oh, and just for giggles let not forget our “representatives” just raised the debt ceiling again, which went against pretty much every normal citizens wants. Last but certainly not least, let’s not forget the absolute abysmal state of VA hospital and veteran care system. These HEROS come home, after giving everything…EVERYTHING! And what do they get? Wait times and sub standard service and care. Do our government of the people, by the people and for the people do anything about it? Does those responsible get fired atleast? Nope. Why? Politics. Which is a freaking crime.

                I could go on about how unhealthy this once great government is but I think you get the point. Here me when I say this nation and it’s people is great. However, This nations government is broke.

                Have a good un.

                • Matt says:

                  Come on. Let’s finish this! As Mortal Combat used to say. lol

                  • Terry B. says:


                    These types of discussions can / could go on indefinitely. There is nothing wrong with having widely divergent opinions or perspectives on important cultural and social issues like this.

                    But if we have both made the points we wanted to make (and I have for now) then I propose we call a truce. We may resume on another day or different subject.