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US Army War College

Dr. Patrick Paterson – Civil-Military Relations: Guidelines in Politically Charged Societies

Released  5 May 2022.

Current events warrant a review of US civil-military relations doctrine. This article examines eight principles of military subordination to elected civilian officials and addresses the fundamental question at the heart of civil-military relations theory and practice—what options, if any, does the military have when civilian leadership disregards military advice? Examples drawn from US history provide an important framework to understand the complex interrelational dynamics at play.

Click here to read the article.

Keywords: civil-military, apolitical, civilian, defense policy, US Constitution, professionalism

Episode Transcript

 Stephanie Crider (Host)

Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the podcast guests and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

The guests in speaking order on this episode are:

(Guest 1: Patrick Paterson)

 (Host)

Decisive Point welcomes Dr. Patrick Paterson, author of “Civil-Military Relations: Guidelines in Politically Charged Societies,” featured in the spring 2022 issue of Parameters. Paterson is a professor of practice of national security studies in the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He completed his PhD in conflict resolution at Nova Southeastern University. His latest book, The Blurred Battlefield, published in 2021, addresses the need for hybrid doctrines on the use of force for Latin American militaries combating violent crime groups.

Thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. Paterson. Your article lays out eight standard practices for military officers regarding civil-military relations in a politically charged society. Please, briefly walk us through them.

 (Paterson)

Sure, I’d be happy. Thanks for the opportunity to speak about it.

I’ve studied civil-military relations here at National Defense University very, very closely, both in foreign countries as well as in the United States. And what I realized is that there’s lots of material available, and you could look at Samuel Huntington or Thomas Bruno and Peter Feaver and Eliot Cohen and all the top scholars on civil-military relations.

But what we’re missing, in my opinion, is clear guidance, practical rules that military officers should follow when they’re trying to adhere to the expectations of civil-military relations. And so what I tried to do was provide a succinct description—what I believe are the eight practices that are the most important for senior military officers as they interact with their civilian counterparts.

The first key principle is perhaps the most important characteristic of a professional armed force. It’s to remain apolitical. Take, for example, the posture of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the president’s annual State of the Union address. The chairman, the vice chairman, and the chiefs of staff of each of the armed forces sit near the front row of Congress, but they don’t respond. They don’t applaud. They don’t react in any way, sitting unemotionally in their chairs, because any sort of reaction would be construed as political advocacy.

Number two is to provide candid military advice. Senior military officers are required to provide the objective truth about military policy. It should be nonpartisan, nondeliberative, and oftentimes must include advice that’s contrary to what the politicians want to hear. Or there’s something that goes against the current policy. So the rule is to advise on how to use the armed forces not to advocate for a specific course of action.

Number three, civilian authorities retain extensive control over all aspects of defense policy. This is contrary to a lot of the conventional thinking that I encounter. The belief among many students of US national security are that there’s two distinct spheres of authority between civilian and military officials. Civilian officials will oversee the larger, strategic interests of the country, including when to deploy the military, whereas the armed forces, on the other hand, make the operational and tactical decisions on how to use the military if it’s called to action.

But scholars today disagree with that conventional thinking, and most civil-military relations scholars like Dr. Richard Kohn or Dr. Peter Feaver believe that civilians have extensive control over nearly all aspects of military policy. Civilians have most of the authority and can make decisions about the employment of the military.

The fourth rule is that senior military officers must be very cautious when providing congressional testimony. The military has a dual responsibility to both the executive and the legislative branches. According to the Constitution, the military serves at the direction of the president in his role as commander-in-chief and certain designated officials, such as the secretary of defense. However, to maintain the checks and balances that are so critical to our system, Congress also provides oversight, identifies the military budget, determines the size of the armed forces, and has the authority to declare war. For these reasons, senior military officers oftentimes are called before the elected leaders of Congress to testify on military strategy and operations. This can be very tricky though, serving these two coequal branches of government: the executive branch represented by the president; the legislative branch represented by the Armed Services Committee.

So then the question is what should senior officers do when they’re required to testify before Congress on a policy that they may have disputed with the president or the secretary of defense. And the answer is follow the institutional requirement to provide candid advice and options on using the military.

The fifth rule is to never publicly criticize defense policy or civilian officials. To do so is a form of insubordination and disrespect that may undermine the authority of civilian leaders or the confidence that other servicemembers have in him or her.

The sixth principle is perhaps the most debated. Should military officers remain apolitical once they retire from active-duty service? Retired senior military officers are normally held in very high esteem, according to public opinion polls. They continue to wield a lot of political influence. And the conventional thinking is that retired officers should avoid criticizing defense policy or civilian defense officials, just as they did while they were in uniform. It’s also against the Uniform Code of Military Justice, even though these prosecutions for this kind of stuff are rare.

The seventh and eighth of the principles of civil-military relations both concern how to respond to legal and illegal orders. And these are the last two. When given a legal order, either from a civilian or military officer or from a civilian official, military servicemembers are expected to comply with the order without delay.

The last: Military personnel must not abide by orders that are illegal. That sounds very simple, very straightforward. However, what constitutes illegal is often ambiguous and confusing. Subordinates who received dubious orders may find it challenging to determine if the order is truly contrary to an established legal precedent. Most military officers do not have a lot of legal background and may not be privy to all the decisions that went into that command, and therefore they may not know that it’s actually illegal to do what they’ve been instructed to do.

So what does a senior military officer do if he or she is confronted with an illegal order? What are their options? I think they have three choices. First, comply with the illegal order. Second, agree to follow the order but move slowly; do some foot dragging or shirking of the order and hope somebody intervenes to correct the situation. And third and last, refuse to follow the order and keep a clear conscience.

So this concludes the eight practical guidelines that I’ve identified for civil-military relations in the United States. It’s really important that we teach these topics to our rising senior officials so that when they are in front of Congress or facing dubious commands from their senior civilian counterparts, they know exactly what guidelines they must follow.

(Host)

Why are these sometimes difficult to apply?

(Paterson)

Yeah, that’s a great question, Stephanie.  First of all, we had . . . the constitutional loyalty of senior military officers is to the Constitution, not to the secretary of defense or to the president. And that’s why we have two coequal branches of government to provide oversight of the military.

Most people believe that the senior military officers’ allegiance should be straight to the commander-in-chief. But that’s not true. You have to respond to Congress and the congressional figures as well. In addition, it’s also difficult because the courses of action that the military may prefer—that they feel very strongly about—may be contrary to what the president or the secretary of defense prefer.

Hence, therefore, they have to abide by orders or by commands that they don’t personally agree with. But part of their military discipline and part of the subordination to civilian officials that’s so important in our system is for senior military officers to abide by those commands from the civilian leadership without question.

(Host)

Please tell us a little bit about how officers can find a balance or strike a balance in this arena.

(Paterson)

Yeah, that’s another great question. Knowing these rules and having specific examples of how to apply them based upon our history, I think, is the most useful. At National Defense University, we teach about these issues all the time. There’s lots of examples to draw from. It’s one thing to sit in our ivory towers and talk about how important it is to do this, but to actually put it into practice on the ground, under stress, under time limitations is an entirely different thing. Using those examples, many which I cited in my article, I think, are the most useful. It’s almost like a tabletop exercise of sorts for a senior military officer to be presented with this ethical or legal dilemma and then asking them and seeing how they would respond, seeing what their decision process is, and then advising them if their decision was appropriate or inappropriate.

These days, in Washington, really the motivation for me to write this article, Stephanie, was because of the very controversial civil-military relations tensions that we saw during the last couple years of the Trump administration. The June 1st, 2020, Lafayette Square incident; the civil rights protests over the murder of George Floyd; the question about the use of the military and domestic law enforcement support was another very delicate issue that was raised; and then, finally, the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol—the first time that our Capitol has been attacked by a mob since the War of 1812. All these are perhaps indicative of what senior military officers must wrestle with in the future. Our society is very, very divided at the moment over the political issues, and I don’t see that getting any better, unfortunately. So senior military officers must understand what their guidelines are, what their rules are on how they abide by these orders.

For example, if the military had been ordered to support National Guard and police during the domestic disputes, for example, if the Insurrection Act had been activated, would the military have complied with that? That’s a very dangerous situation because generally most of our military are not trained in police law enforcement tactics, escalation-of-force tactics. And as many senior military officers said after the Lafayette Square incident, they recognize that it was very, very dangerous to use the US military in that sort of role.

So these kind of questions come up. And then, at the end of the last administration, when General Milley had to decide if he was going to perhaps support a diversionary attack by the president, when he contacted his Chinese counterpart to confirm that there was no military operation underway—is really an extraordinary event in the US civil-military relations history.

It’s unlike anything we, I think we’ve ever seen since the very tumultuous days of the Vietnam War, when the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and President Johnson were trying to use the military and means and methods, which they disagreed. And if you read the book Fourth Star, there was almost a point in 1967, I believe it was, when the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff were about to resign in protest over the policies of the secretary of defense. I don’t think we’ve reached a point as bad as that until recently. And for these reasons, it’s really important to understand and revisit not just a theory, but also the practical guidelines of civil-military relations in the United States.

(Host)

This was a real pleasure. Thank you for joining me. Thank you for your contribution to Parameters.

Listeners, if you’re interested in diving a little bit deeper into “Civil-Military Relations: Guidelines in Politically Charged Societies,” I urge you to read the article. Paterson includes quotes, insights, and examples that we did not cover in this episode. You can find it at press.armywarcollege.edu/parameters. Look for volume 52, issue 1.

 

Author information:
Dr. Patrick Paterson is a professor of practice of national security studies in the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He completed his PhD in conflict resolution at Nova Southeastern University. He has a master’s degree in national security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School, a master’s equivalent from the Argentina Naval War College in Buenos Aires, and a master’s degree in political science from American University. His latest book, The Blurred Battlefield (2021), addresses the need for hybrid doctrines on the use of force for Latin American militaries combating violent crime groups.

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