In late 2020, news of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen’s tragic death made headlines. Military leaders instantly fell under intense scrutiny from both the public and Congress. Unfortunately, stories similar to Guillen’s are not infrequent in today’s news cycle—and scrutinizing military leaders is just as commonplace. Such scrutiny is both natural and proper. But while commanders at all echelons certainly bear responsibility, there is another factor—a hallmark principle of American government—that gets less attention: civilian control of the military. Civilian oversight has an important role to play, especially given that issues like sexual assault and harassment detract from readiness, lethality, and the ability to focus solely on tackling the challenges of twenty-first-century warfare. While the ideal balance between the military and civilian officials charged with overseeing it remains the subject of an enduring debate in the minds of civil-military relations scholars, the need for proactive, effective civilian oversight is paramount and uncontested. The question remains: Whose responsibility is it to solve these issues, and how is resolution best achieved?

Without doubt, the Constitution expressly charges Congress with overseeing the military. The highest-ranking civilian leaders rely on congressional committees to provide real-time, in-touch oversight—which is often limited by busy schedules, complex agendas, and the bystander effect. These constraints are apparent in the tragedy at Fort Hood, Texas that has driven ongoing criticism of the base’s culture and command climate since last year. The incident calls for assessment and reform of current congressional oversight practices when it comes to military affairs. When civilian control and military oversight are poorly regulated and executed, the result is inhibited defense operations. Simply put, success on the battlefield relies on a healthy civil-military relationship.

Oversight and Civ-Mil Relations: What the Scholars Say

Scholars who study oversight propose three key findings: (1) oversight is innately political, (2) the agency being overseen often has a problematically large influence over how its oversight committee performs, and (3) multiple or overlapping jurisdictional issues undermine the effectiveness of oversight. The response to the Fort Hood tragedy arguably fits Walter Oleszek’s definition of “political oversight” (he distinguishes this from “programmatic” and “institutional” oversight), which “involves actions such as embarrassing an agency and its officials for their incompetence, focusing on policy scandals, or generating favorable publicity for lawmakers in the media and with their constituents.” While the recent attention given to Fort Hood by Congress is important and certainly warranted, it would have been far more favorable as a preventative measure rather than a retroactive response.

In Armed Servants, civil-military theorist Peter Feaver calls for a delicate balance of military and civilian leadership in which the former maintains the strength to execute any action demanded of it by the latter, yet is subordinate and disciplined enough to limit its actions to said civilian will. This concept seems straightforward in the context of war but is far from easy to achieve in a peacetime Army plagued by internal issues affecting cohesion. Joel Aberbach suggests that reality deviates far from Feaver’s idealistic notion because bureaucracies often develop an unhealthy influence over oversight agendas. In light of recent issues, General James McConville, the US Army chief of staff, has established three clear priorities: eradicating (1) sexual assault and harassment, (2) suicide, and (3) racism throughout the force. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it places attention on measuring progress and detracts from current problems, thus changing the oversight agenda from identifying failures to evaluating success—just as Aberbach warns.

The third finding of scholars—about redundant jurisdictional issues—is especially important for the oversight process. Joshua David Clinton, David E. Lewis, and Jennifer Selin highlight an example of this in their discussion of the limited productivity, and consequently diminished effectiveness, of committee overlap in Congress—what they call “the irony of congressional oversight.” They note that bureaucrats self-report that their agencies are overseen by an average of three to four congressional committees. While counterproductive for the agency, this occurrence is logical from the congressional perspective. Committee membership provides several benefits to members of Congress, boosting their credibility in the eyes of their constituents and thereby improving their reelection prospects. This paradox ultimately undermines oversight, is detrimental to bureaucratic function, and reinforces Aberbach’s findings. Fundamentally, progress is implausible and productive oversight is disabled when too many players, each with competing interests, are involved.

Case Study 1: Fort Hood and Congress

After the disappearance and homicide of Specialist Guillen, Congress launched an investigation of the installation and its leadership. In a letter to then Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, the chairwoman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Personnel, and Congressman Stephen Lynch, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee for National Security, wrote of their intent “to seek justice on behalf of those in uniform, and their families, who may have been failed by a military system and culture that was ultimately responsible for their care and protection.” In the letter, Congresswoman Speier and Congressman Lynch reference six additional servicemembers who were assigned to Fort Hood. Three of the servicemembers were found deceased after being reported as missing; an additional three are currently under investigation as homicides. The legislators also cite the Army’s previously published statistic that “there were an average of 129 felonies committed annually at Fort Hood, including cases of homicide, sexual assault, kidnapping, robbery, and aggravated assault” between 2014 and 2019. The numbers of violent crimes are evidence of systemic, cultural issues, rather than a problem that law enforcement can address on its own. Yet, despite the available and concerning statistics, Congress did not effectively intervene until after Guillen’s death.

While the military chain of command undoubtedly failed Guillen and other servicemembers at Fort Hood, the absence of oversight from civilian officials prior to the fall of 2020 should also be concerning. Given the cited examples in Speier and Lynch’s letter to former Secretary McCarthy, it appears likely that they were aware—and if not, should have been aware—that there were crime-related issues at Fort Hood. The inaction by military leaders at Fort Hood was wrong, but we must also consider the faults in the civilian oversight methods that failed to recognize the issue before it spiraled out of control. Guillen’s death made headlines and sparked widespread attention on social media—and it is shameful, but unsurprising, that it took the publicity of an immense tragedy to stimulate sufficient congressional attention, and subsequently oversight.

Case Study 2: The United States Military Academy Board of Visitors

A look at the United States Military Academy’s Board of Visitors (BOV) illustrates the positive impact that stems from proactive, regulatory oversight and heightened social awareness by oversight bodies. The Board of Visitors is a fifteen-person delegation charged with ensuring that West Point meets the required demands to commission Army officers and leaders of character each year. The BOV is composed of nine members of Congress, including, strategically, the chairs of both the House and Senate armed services committees (or their designees) and at least two members of each chamber’s appropriations committee, according to its charter. The remaining six positions are filled by presidential appointees conducting de facto executive oversight. The service academies’ respective BOVs have garnered unusual publicity this fall, as President Joe Biden has terminated the membership of all those appointed by former President Donald Trump. While certainly his prerogative, the move is a departure from past practice and could have implications for civil-military relations, particularly relating to American trust in the nation’s service academies and the nonpartisanship surrounding them.

While the West Point BOV’s charter specifically designates it as an “advisory” committee, in practice, it functions as a forum by which informal oversight occurs and as a pathway to formal oversight. For example, an engagement between a member of Congress on the BOV and senior academy leadership may not legally require the latter to take any reformative action, but the same member of Congress can make legally binding inquiries of the same nature while acting in his or her official capacity in committee. Information acquired while participating in BOV meetings is often the basis of formal concern during future hearings and other proceedings, which is a seemingly intentional aspect of the BOV’s functionality despite its proclamation to simply fulfill an advisory role.

On the other hand, the presidential appointees’ knowledge about West Point, in general, coupled with their rapport with senior military leaders, makes them key proponents of change in their own regard. The BOV was not necessarily designed with the intent that the presidential appointees would hold such authority, but that has certainly been the outcome. My research suggests that the congressional members retain influence by virtue of their ability to impact change in official capacities, whereas the presidential appointees possess far more direct influence as board members. For these reasons, the presidential appointees play a key role in determining the academy’s actions and effectiveness. Thus, President Biden’s recent decision will undoubtedly impact its future direction. Of course, given the generally positive and trusting relationships between presidential appointees and senior academy leaders, care must be taken to avoid the issue that Aberbach cautions against—of an agency gaining too much influence over its own oversight. If the relationship becomes so intertwined that the lines between overseer and overseen are blurred, oversight may be compromised. Thus, professionalism and a clear delineation of respective roles must endure.

When Congress first authorized the attendance of women at West Point in 1975, the BOV’s oversight was highly ineffective. I conducted interviews with several women from the first integrated classes and found that harassment and feelings of lack of acceptance were common threads among their respective experiences. Yet, a 1976 BOV statement held in the West Point library archives states: “Reports of the first year’s experience tend to confirm the Board’s confidence. This summer the entrance of the women in the Class of 1981 has been, from all reports, equally successful. The Academy has built upon the early experience and is adjusting admirably to one of the most radical changes in its history.” The BOV’s ignorance of the issues that many of the women were facing, to include sexual and other forms of physical assault, was unacceptable. One graduate I interviewed felt that most assaults went unreported due to a culture in which upper-class female cadets “educated” their younger counterparts that they should not raise gender-related issues as it would only hinder their ability to assimilate. Kris Fuhr, a 1985 graduate, echoed these sentiments when she was interviewed by the West Point Center for Oral History.

While there is still work to be done, the BOV has made significant progress toward awareness of social issues at West Point since the 1980s, in large part due to diversification of the presidential appointees and their commitment to, credibility with, and influence over the academy. BOV reports in more recent years more accurately reflect the sentiment of the Corps of Cadets and offer far more scrutiny of social issues rather than simply claiming success. In essence, the refined relationship between the BOV (particularly the presidentially appointed members) and senior academy leadership has favorably impacted the social dynamic at West Point. The increased diversity of BOV members has in turn increased the board’s awareness of and attention paid to social issues like gender integration. This enhances the degree to and methods by which they hold military leaders accountable. The relatively large influence that the presidential appointees hold as compared to their congressional counterparts also suggests the benefit of less convoluted, noncongressional oversight. This advantage is also seemingly highlighted by the work of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee (FHIRC), which fairly quickly produced a comprehensive report on the details surrounding the events leading up to Guillen’s murder and the cultural and systemic factors that contributed to it—along with, by extension, pitfalls to be avoided in the future.

The FHIRC was formed under the directive of the secretary of the Army, and like the West Point BOV, serves as a strong example of an effective alternative civilian oversight model. While certain aspects of military relations (e.g., budget, use of force, etc.) must be managed by Congress, there are issues that can be delegated to other forms of civilian oversight. Cases of poor oversight suggest that perhaps Congress’s responsibilities are far too large to allow for effective oversight of all issues. In creating noncongressional committees or joint congressional and noncongressional bodies (such as the BOV), certain issues—like the social issues of gender integration at West Point and criminal issues like sexual assault—can be overseen with adequate attention, limited distraction, and increased objectivity. The nature of appointments to these boards (i.e., by approval from the president, Congress, or other senior civilian leaders), ensures that they still have a stake in their decisions and remain connected to the oversight process without detracting from its effectiveness.

The Future of Oversight

Since 1976, West Point has made measurable strides in its integration of female cadets and assurance of equal treatment. Yet, as the Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies highlights, the issue is still significant at the academy—as it is across in the Army. Incidents themselves, in addition to fear of reporting, remain a challenge that the Army as a whole must overcome. As the service continues to work to end unequal treatment, discrimination, and toxic behavior amid continued integration of women into combat roles, the reluctance to report incidents that once plagued West Point is paralleled in many Army units. Guillens sister shared that Vanessa “was afraid to report it. . . . She didn’t want to do a formal report because she was afraid of retaliation and being blackballed, and she, like most victims, just tried to deal with it herself.” While West Point, alongside its fellow service academies, is sometimes subject to oversight from Congress itself, the BOV is its most direct and frequent overseer. Rather than bearing oversight responsibility for all aspects of military operations like the congressional armed services committees, for example, the BOV is solely charged with evaluation of the academy. This smaller scope increases the board’s effectiveness. My research indicates that when the BOV became more attentive to social challenges, quality of life improved for female cadets. My subjective, personal experience as a cadet from 2016 to 2020 reinforces my view that this is the case. While issues still arise and the BOV is not unflawed, my research suggests that they are handled far better than they were in the initial integrative phases.

In comparing the evolution of the relationship between West Point and its BOV to the recent issues at Fort Hood, a few primary lessons emerge. First, military oversight bodies must be empowered to overcome the common downfalls described in the scholarly literature. They must strive to mitigate partisanship in the execution of their duties, create an effective method of dividing roles to reduce the impact of social loafing, and maintain civilian control as intended by our Founding Fathers. Second, since electoral constraints are inevitable, the creation of oversight bodies such as the BOV enables congressional involvement with overt reliance on wholly committed noncongressional members with relevant experience to carry a considerable portion of the weight. Independent assemblies and executive-appointed civilian overseers are often able to conduct better oversight by virtue of their availability, investment, and expertise. The newly created Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military appears to offer promising efforts toward rehabilitation, and reinforces the executive branch’s and DoD’s emphasis on the issue. But Congress, by law, must remain involved in military oversight operations. The BOV’s distinguishing characteristics—presidential appointees, diversity of membership, and a strong civil-military relationship—should serve as a framework for the formation of other regulatory oversight bodies that can gather information to inform future legislation. Finally, oversight committees, like more recent BOVs, should be especially conscientious of social issues in order to proactively prevent discrimination and criminal activity before it occurs.

The Army is working hard to eliminate toxicity and establish programs that foster a culture of acceptance and respect. However, effective civilian oversight surrounding these principles is a necessary accountability mechanism. Moving forward, strong, proactive civil-military relations will serve to prevent future tragedies similar in nature to the one at Fort Hood and will thereby improve military preparedness to tackle the challenges of modern warfare. Congressional oversight is and will remain vital, but its inherent limits must be acknowledged. When it comes to socially charged issues that impact defense operations, other forms of civilian oversight should be implemented that maintain equilibrium in the civil-military relationship and focus on proactive solutions instead of retroactive investigations.

Leah E. Foodman studied American politics at the United States Military Academy (USMA), where her undergraduate thesis focused on civilian oversight conducted by the USMA Board of Visitors in the context of gender integration. Leah’s work has previously been published in the Journal of Strategic Security. She currently serves as an active duty Army officer.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Tommy Gilligan, USMA (adapted by MWI)