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The Political-Military Rivalry for Operational Control in U.S. Military Actions: A Soldier's Perspective

Authored by Colonel Lloyd J. Matthews USA Ret.. | June 1998

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Discussion of the deep involvement of civilian leaders today in operational and even tactical matters formerly the exclusive preserve of the soldier is now the hackneyed staple of international security affairs textbooks.2 Facilitated by the revolution in communications technology that has made possible instant secure voice contact with forces scattered throughout the world, sobered by fears of sudden escalation from local dustup to wider confrontation having global reverberations, and driven by a need to contain adverse political fallout from overseas militaryventures seen as both risky and controversial, civilians in positions of authority over the military have been increasingly disposed during delicate moments to seize the marshal?s baton themselves and bark orders directly to servicemen on the scene. In doing so, they have given rise to a new addition to the soldier?s compendium of command post humor: ?If you want to direct troops in battle, don?t be a general, be a politician.?

But in truth, far from seeing these new developments as funny, professional soldiers view them with a mixture of profound alarm, resentment, frustration, and resignation? and legitimately so. On one hand, under Article II, Section 2, the President as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, acting directly or through his civilian seconds, has absolute constitutional authority to intervene in U.S. military operations at any level in any way he or she sees fit. This is the overriding reality and the bedrock axiom from which all discussion must begin.

On the other hand, warfighting is an extremely complex and dangerous activity, requiring for its successful execution a professional class of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who have made it their career?s work to master the art and science of war. In this hostile world, where other nations have it within their capability to grievously injure if not destroy us as a nation and people, the simple imperative of survival demands that we entrust our fighting to those among us best qualified to do the job. We ignore this axiom at our peril.

What are we to do, then, when these two enshrined axioms of national defense come to a direct clash?when those with the constitutional authority propose to take over the fighting from those with the professional expertise? In the epigraph at the head of this paper, describing how Ambassador Sneider and General Stilwell literally arm-wrestled to determine who should grasp the instrument of command, we observe in brilliantly etched microcosm the larger struggle that will always beset soldier and civilianduring military operations and crises of the information age. Must we continue to resort to arm- wrestling or other questionable expedients that will be noticed in this paper? Or are there not more acceptable approaches to resolving this bedeviling issue?

There are indeed some reasonable and potentially useful steps that can be taken to enhance the mechanisms whereby soldiers and political authorities divide the nation?s warmaking responsibilities, leaving each group to perform its own essential function in an optimal manner. But before turning to these, let us examine, in varying degrees of detail, several representative instances of civilian involvement in tactical and operational matters during the post-Korean War period.


To bring into bolder relief the main points developed in the foregoing discussion, let us eavesdrop on an imaginary conversation between a contemporary General and Politician, both avowed Clausewitzians:

Politician. War is fought not for its own sake, but for the sake of political ends.

General. Yes, but you must first articulate those ends clearly so that we can be certain they are obtainable by military means.

Politician. Fair enough, but in waging war and taking other military actions you must accept such controls as are necessary to avoid jeopardizing attainment of the political ends.

General. Agreed, but you must not place controls on my manner of waging war that jeopardize the military success on which attainment of the political ends depends.

Politician. True, but with the marvels of modern communications I can impose controls in real-time during the battle itself, reconciling military means with political ends in my own personal superintendence.

General. That?s a dubious solution because you are not trained in the art and science of war, and even if you were you could not achieve from a distant remove the intimate situational awareness of the battle that tactical and operational success requires.

Politician. Then what do you propose?

General. I propose three measures. First, institutionalize a planning process that provides for early exhaustive orientation of the operational commander by appropriate political authority on the political goals of the contemplated military action. Second, institutionalize in the planning process collaborative procedures whereby the political sector provides input to the theater plan, particularly on aspects with politically sensitive implications.70 Third, as part of standard command and control protocol, establish that the communication link between the NCA and theater extends no lower than the operational commander himself, and that its purpose is for keeping the NCA informed. If, in exceptional circumstances, directions are passed from the NCA to the operational commander, the latter is always understood to have flexibility to adjust such directions in the light of tactical conditions at the moment of implementation.

Politician. And what if the National Command Authorities lack confidence in the operational commander?s willingness or capacity to conduct the operation with sufficient attention to political imperatives?

General. Then the President should fire the commander and appoint a new one?one who can fight like hell but who demonstrates his understanding that military action is always undertaken for political ends.


2. See, e.g., Richard Ned Lebow, Between Peace and War: The Nature of International Crisis, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981, pp. 285-288; Richard K. Betts, Soldiers, Statesmen, and Cold War Crises, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977, pp. 9-11; and especially Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1971. For a brief historical review of U.S. Presidents in the exercise of their prerogative to command troops in the field, see Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State, New York: Vintage Books, 1957, pp. 184-186.

70. Much of the planning process recommended above is already technically performed, either as standard procedure or ad hoc. Still, one gets the feeling that the military is insufficiently assertive, viewing such collaboration as an obligatory chore rather than an opportunity. Unchecked civilian micromanagement of targeting for Operation DESERT THUNDER, discussed earlier, is an example.