In an interview with Le Figaro in 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai lambasted the United States’ inapt military response—an airstrike—to a lone hijacked fuel tanker immobilized in a riverbed: “What an error in judgment! More than 90 dead all because of a simple lorry. . . . Why didn’t they send in ground troops to recover the tank?” Most of the casualties were civilians, drawing criticism that coalition forces were more intent on killing Taliban members than protecting the population.

Why didn’t they send in ground troops? This airstrike is illustrative of an apparent bias toward high technology in US warfighting. Such high-tech approaches are sometimes operationally inappropriate, failing to achieve or even retrogressing political objectives. We have repeatedly seen this play out in unconventional conflicts, where having troops on the ground to live with the population, provide security, and share risks is vital for winning hearts and minds in contests of political will. Yet high-tech approaches to war can also backfire in the complex operating environment of large-scale conflicts, when human perception, emotion, and motive may be more effective than sensors in distinguishing adversary from civilian (or even friendly operator).

Technology or Policy?

Scholars typically attribute this overreliance on high-tech uses of force to flaws in the military. Typecast as techno-fetishist, these approaches portray military leaders as swept up in the revolution in military affairs that promises to clear the fog of war and insulate soldiers from harm. These assumed biases animate many reproofs of the objective model of civilian control, which posits that elected officials make the political decision about when to use force and generals apolitically decide how to use it. Critics contend that, left alone, the military will forget or ignore that war is an instrument of policy, and instead pursue parochial doctrines, organizational interests, or military victory as an end in itself. Technology makes it even easier for military leaders to prosecute war without a clear or important political goal.

The implication is that civilians must intervene often in military operations to ensure that uses of force align with strategic and political goals. The recent open letter on best practices of civil-military relations published by eight former secretaries of defense and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reinforces the necessity of this norm. Like most civil-military research, though, the letter fixes its corrective gaze on the military, sketching what it can and cannot, and should and should not, do. What about the civilians in civil-military dynamics? What about the effects of politics trickling across the civil-military membrane?

While we support norms of civilian control, merely making it more stringent is an insufficient solution to the problem of overreliance on and misapplication of technology. Instead, any civil-mil balance must be paired with other measures designed to shape civilian incentives in policymaking, or risk similarly ruinous outcomes where risk-averting tactics dictate strategy.

The Role of the President

Domestic constraints on political leaders, particularly in advanced democracies, can be equally if not more influential in the selection of military strategy. US presidents are distinctly poised between domestic and international cross pressures, beholden to public opinion yet duty bound to secure against foreign threats. This balancing act is easier to manage when the public is firmly behind a military intervention. Under these circumstances, public approval serves as a green light, signaling to the president that he has constituent backing and wide latitude to devote national resources to the conflict as commander-in-chief.

The nominal domestic constraints on the president translate to similarly nominal political constraints imposed on the military. With a full menu of military options on the table, commanders (in consultation with civilian principals) can optimally contour force employment to an adversary and operating environment. Ultimately, this improves the odds of victory, both military and political.

When hamstrung by low public opinion or suspicion of the use of force, executives have powerful incentives to shield the median voter from the costs of war by fielding technology over troops. To politically self-preserve, civilian leaders can truncate the military options available to only high-tech approaches that avert risks and costs that might reverberate during voting. Preoccupied by a “pervasive concern with acceptability,” political leaders veto force employment options that expose them to electoral liability. Much is known about this in the context of casualty aversion—a public averse to foreign battles soaked in American blood often succeeds in tying the president’s hands.

Political Considerations

If the conflict explicitly calls for a high-tech approach, such as a conventional array of force or infrastructure vulnerable to a standoff precision strike, political constraints from the civilian side will not prove problematic for military planning. But if the conflict requires a denser, enduring cohort of troops and the president blacklists this optimal configuration, the formation of strategy will be more contentious with commanders, and the translation to tactics more incoherent in context. Ultimately, when the constricted menu of options is ill-suited for a given mission, the military will be challenged to attain success. Charge military leaders to win such wars, and they will demand low-tech force employment where soldiers can accomplish what missiles alone cannot.

Problematically, when domestically constrained, US political leaders are loath to comply. Andrew Payne’s account of the drawdown in Iraq illustrates this well. After the 2010 midterm elections, President Barack Obama solicited proposals for a residual force. The closer his 2012 campaign came, the more he truncated the number of acceptable troops. After the White House rejected the initial proposal of twenty to twenty-four thousand troops put forward by General Lloyd Austin, commanding general of US forces in Iraq, Austin revised it down to nineteen thousand, then a “minimally acceptable” sixteen thousand, and then a “bare bones” ten thousand after repeated rejections. When it hit eight thousand, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen sent a rare memo warning the president that the mission could not be achieved. Ultimately, against the strong preferences of a strong military majority, Obama’s political incentives won out.

Thus, civilians can limit military options to high-tech approaches (Obama was labeled the “drone president” for a reason) that are not always conducive to victory. A recent study on civilian deference to the military demonstrates that presidents defer to flag officers by choice, not structure or information asymmetries, implying that civilian defiance of military wisdom is also by choice. The open letter on civil-military best practices underlines that civilian leadership has the right to be wrong, to insist on a course of action against counsel that ends up hamstringing military success.

However, Joint Chiefs chairmen and defense secretaries also asserted, in their 2022 open letter, that “civilian leaders must take responsibility for the consequences of the actions they direct.” It is in this spirit that we urge equal attention to the pressures (and pathologies) of political leaders when interpreting poor war performances. If we ignore the impact of electoral anxieties of civilian leaders, we will miscast the military as incurably stricken with bureaucratic inertia or technophilia. This will lead to flawed inferences, and ineffective prescriptions.

The open letter authors and other experts emphasize that the ideal in civil-military relations is mutual trust and rigorous, balanced exchange. Trust cast upward depends on civilian leaders authentically evaluating prudent options submitted by military authorities regardless of partisan and electoral politics. Furthermore, civilian leaders must shoulder the blame when abrading against military wisdom. Scholarship on these relations lopsidedly levies culpability for civil-military dysfunctions on the latter. We submit that political biases are upstream of any military myopia and affect far more than existing scholarship has excavated. It is high time we dig in.

Prescriptions to Supplement Civilian Control

The world is often on fire, foreign policy is hard, and no one is perfect. Especially in the age of American primacy, leaders will inevitably face cross pressures to activate military force in conflicts at infinitesimal risk and cost. Rather than hamstring victory, we offer three prescriptions to attenuate the tensions and penalties of political-military mismatch associated with an overreliance on high-tech tactics.

First, in some cases the United States should refrain from military action. Democratic constraints are normatively important to limit imperialistic impulses. Although public knowledge of foreign policy is limited and coarse, sometimes such constraints are justified. Especially when civilian leaders are electorally insecure (even more so when an election is imminent), they run a serious risk of rejecting reasonable wisdom out of a motivated bias to self-preserve in power. Importantly, this restraint should not just manifest in difference in form—lobbing munitions overseas is still a military action with consequences. Although certainly weighed against costs of inaction, sometimes military force should be held in reserve rather than deployed in suboptimal configurations to American detriment.

Second, American leaders should look to engage partners in multilateral formats. If intervention is necessary and proper unilateral use of force is too politically expensive for domestic reasons, risks and costs might be shared. Not only does this redistribute burdens, but it also imbues military interventions with more legitimacy as another state endorses the action to the point of participation. We submit that this might be a useful screening mechanism for our first prescription. If public and partners’ wills are hollow for a given campaign, restraint is reinforced. If partners are willing to enter the fray, however, cost-benefit calculus is redrawn across both domains.

A final option is to outsource costs and risks to private military companies, especially for missions that take more time to accomplish such as counterinsurgency, peacekeeping, or security sector reform and support. To be clear, we are not advocating irresponsible applications of force that bypass scrutiny or accountability. Private military force has comparable prowess and professionalism, yet by toggling to a commercial logic it has more staying power than state militaries. When shrewdly contracted and monitored for mission creep, these groups can endure in unconventional conflicts to a degree and for a duration that makes a difference. If public will is wanting and military intervention is truly warranted, private military companies might supplement or stand in for state force to facilitate security and stability.

A Clear-Eyed Civ-Mil Balance

So long as American primacy persists and the threat spectrum remains broad and diverse, the problem of political-military mismatch will challenge modern warfighting. Military effectiveness is not a function of wholesale autonomy to wage war, like the objective model asserts. Nor is it primarily a function of being reined in from going rogue, like adherents to myopia arguments suggest. Solutions lie in incisive problem identification, a healthy hybrid model of civilian control of the military, and creative engagement. Military leaders must extensively, expertly interface with their civilian counterparts to maintain synchronicity across multilevel objectives. Commanders ought to inform and enrich civilian decision-makers, and the latter should resource and constrain the former to hold the line amid the fog, friction, and contingency of conflict.

Kerry Chávez, PhD, is an instructor in the Political Science Department and project administrator at the Peace, War, and Social Conflict Laboratory at Texas Tech University. She is also a nonresident research fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point.

J Andrés Gannon, PhD, is a Stanton Nuclear Security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a nonresident fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation. Previously, he was an International Security Program postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a Hans J. Morgenthau research fellow at the Notre Dame International Security Center, and a PhD Eisenhower Defence fellow at the NATO Defence College.

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: Sgt. Fredrick J. Coleman, US Marine Corps