What Military Officers Need to Know About Civil-Military Relations
By Macubin Thomas Owens, editor of Orbis
Reviewed by James L. Abrahamson, contributing editor
Making civil-military relations the theme for his May 2013 Ira Eaker Distinguished Lecture at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Naval War College Professor of National Security Affairs Macubin Owens defined his subject as “the interaction between the armed forces of a state as an institution, and the other sectors of the society in which the armed force is embedded.” The civilians, he told the cadets, determine when the military draws the sword. Until that time, the military keeps the sword sharp and when authorized to draw it “wields it in combat, always guided by the purposes for which the war is being fought.” That seems deceptively simple but in fact rests importantly on a frequently renegotiated “bargain” between the American people, their government, and their military.
Owens then sketched four earlier versions of that bargain dating to World War II and predicted that a new negotiation may soon emerge, requiring answers to five questions: How can Americans best preserve civilian control of the military? What is “an acceptable level of military influence on the other spheres of society?” What will be “the primary purpose of the military?” “What pattern of civil-military relations best ensures military success?” Who should be obligated to perform military service?
During his predicted renegotiation, Owens, using historical examples, told his listeners to keep in mind that civil-military tensions are not new and the absence of a coup is not evidence of good relations. Congress and not just the Executive is part of the civilian control. Nor should future soldiers assume that military recommendations have always been correct, but “dissent is not disobedience.” When disputes do arise they often divide both civilians and soldiers who are found on both sides of any issue. Officers must be sufficiently “political” to understand the political context of the differences while avoiding becoming “partisan.” An important point to keep in mind is that that the resulting “patterns of civil-military relations affect military outcomes.”
Owens ended with a claim deserving of far greater attention: “The military must recover its voice in strategy-making.” In short, what is the political outcome the civilians hope to achieve through resorting to war? What specific thingsmilitary, economic, diplomatic, politicalmust be accomplished to achieve a successful outcome? In what ways can military violence contribute? How might the nation’s enemies react to American use of force? In that light, which military uses are most likely to succeedand at what cost? Strategy is not easy, nor is it equivalent to tactics or even the operational level of war.