Editor’s note: This is the first article in “Rethinking Civ-Mil,” a series that endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding civil-military relations in the United States. Read all articles in the series here.

Special thanks to MWI’s research director, Dr. Max Margulies, and MWI research fellow Dr. Carrie A. Lee for their work as series editors.

New technologies are changing the way that militaries prepare to fight wars, emerging domains are changing the range of actions that states have to deter and defend against, and the rapidly changing information environment is challenging states’ ability to signal intentions and respond to accurate information. What’s more, domestic security concerns have sprung to the forefront in the United States, challenging traditional conceptions of threat as domestic extremist groups seek to undermine democratic processes and encourage political violence.

What do these changes have in common? They all blur the lines between American civilians and the military. These emerging challenges demand new, clear thinking about civil-military relations—an area of study best thought of as the relationship between the military, government, and society. We solicited ideas from a wide range of civil-military relations scholars and curated them into a series of articles to tackle this challenge head on. Each author offers a new idea to help guide American strategy making in the complex environment of modern civil-military relations.

Security in the United States has never been about simply defending borders. However, the range of actors, potential threats, and targets that blend civilian and military capabilities and vulnerabilities continues to grow in the modern era. Whereas traditionally we think about war as a primarily military phenomenon, novel technologies, domains, and threats now clearly involve commercial and private interests as well. Cyber capabilities threaten not only military targets but also civilian infrastructure and the intellectual property that forms the basis for American competitive success. Space assets, which can be held hostage by foreign anti-satellite capabilities, enable GPS (used by both military and civilians) and, in turn, the global banking and investment system. Domestic threats to democratic political processes require intense coordination between civilian law enforcement and National Guard leaders who may be called upon to enforce peace. And military leaders today must attract a different kind of recruit who can meet these new demands.

Today, the very civil-military norms thought essential for developing effective strategy are eroding, leaving the United States unprepared to deal with the complex challenges ahead. The fresh ideas in this series offer ways strengthen American civil-military norms and practices to meet contemporary national security challenges.

Breaking Ranks

Scholarship on both civil-military relations and strategy point to two norms as fundamental for managing military conflict successfully: (1) respecting civilian control of the military; and (2) internalizing professional military ethics, including a nonpartisan identity. While both norms are essential for a society’s democratic health, their relationship to effective strategy is less well understood. Civilian control—by which we mean the ability of civilian leaders to guide, influence, and authorize national security policy—limits the extent to which the organizational biases of the military can drive strategy. Similarly, professional military ethics require members of the military to obey lawful and ethical orders and to hold each other accountable for maintaining professional standards. A key, but by no means the only, dimension of this ethic is maintaining a nonpartisan identity, which allows political leaders and American society to trust that the military is acting in the interests of the entire nation rather than partisan goals.

However, these norms have been eroding at a rapid pace over the last ten years, and have drawn notice from the broader national security community. Scholars and practitioners alike have raised significant concerns about eroding civilian control, partisanship, extremism, recruiting challenges, and more—arguing that eroding norms result in diminished democratic resilience, the militarization of foreign policy, and recruiting and retention challenges that threaten the future effectiveness of the all-volunteer force.

This erosion has clear implications for effective strategy in the modern world. For example, military leaders are more frequently taking liberties to maneuver for their preferences over those of civilian leaders; while this has occurred occasionally across every administration, the problem accelerated under President Donald Trump in ways that are concerning to the national security community. Rebellions during the Barack Obama administration against what many military leaders declared to be “micro-management” led to severe distrust between the Pentagon and the White House, undermining cooperation on important strategic decisions such as the 2009 surge in Afghanistan, 2011 intervention in Libya, and nonintervention in Syria. Under the Trump administration, military leaders routinely sought to mitigate presidential directives and messaging that threatened alliance relationships. They further pressed for increased involvement in foreign conflicts that President Trump had declared a desire to withdraw from, and participated in hiding US involvement in some conflicts such as Syria. In other cases, military leaders were empowered to make decisions traditionally reserved for civilian authorities due to both a shortage of confirmed civilian personnel and the preferences of then Secretary of Defense James Mattis. As a result, some have commented that defense policy took a decidedly more aggressive tone and was shaped in ways that benefitted the services’ interests rather than following presidential priorities.

While this pattern seems to be improving under the administration of President Joe Biden, it has not always been easy to claw back portfolios from uniformed staff and gain support for civilian guidance. For example, military leaders in the Pentagon were quick to blame civilian administration officials for what was perceived as a bungled Afghanistan withdrawal, undermining presidential authority and supremacy.

Compounding these internal pressures on strategy making are public perceptions of civilian control that are inherently shaped by partisan attitudes. This reduces the incentives for politicians to refrain from involving the military in polarizing political disputes, and we see that civilians in government have made deliberate efforts to involve military leadership in partisan fights for political gain. President Trump regularly called senior military leaders “my generals,” while recent reporting indicates that he explicitly sought total personal loyalty. These actions further undermine trust between the president and his or her military advisors as military leaders seek to balance their obligations to the Constitution with their duty to obey lawful orders from the executive branch.

All this has also undermined professional ethics in the military. The current hyperpartisan and polarized domestic environment means that military leaders today must walk an increasingly fine line to avoid becoming involved in domestic political fights. Indeed, in a world where decisions about schools, clothing, healthcare, religion, and other personal preferences are increasingly aligned along partisan identity, previously uncontested military policies around readiness, recruitment, and retention are similarly becoming increasingly divisive and partisan. Political leaders have brought the so-called culture war to the military, challenging leaders on standard training and education programs on diversity and inclusion and accusing senior military leaders, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, of being partisan political actors.

As a result, military efforts to increase the diversity of recruits, improve retention of women and racial minorities, and acknowledge the contributions of LGBTQ service members are increasingly viewed through partisan lenses. Once considered to be necessary for maintaining professional cohesion and unity, trainings that discuss racial, religious, and gender challenges in the military are now considered by some to be partisan (and, by extension, illegitimate). And as civilian political leaders take aim at nontraditional members of the military, senior officers must struggle with the desire to defend those under their command or risk the condemnation of a Department of Defense that prefers its senior members not make waves.

What’s more, professional norms have deteriorated as political elites have encouraged service members to disobey lawful orders that ensure members’ deployability in the face of a global pandemic—significantly weakening bonds of cohesion across the force and reducing readiness. Right-wing militia groups actively recruit members from the military’s ranks, and the military faces a sexual assault crisis that threatens the entire premise of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. The insurrection on January 6 further polarized the force, as military leaders struggle with how to frame and address the events when some veterans openly express sympathy for those who stormed the Capitol building. All this has implications for the ability to maintain good order and discipline, as individual service members—sometimes in positions of authority—feel emboldened to publicly break from official positions. If, as many suggest, professions are responsible for self-regulation, maintaining ethical standards, and defining the scope of their influence, the US military risks losing its claim to professional status.

The decline in professional ethics is not limited to the active duty. Retired military officers are also breaking traditional norms of silence in elections to increasingly endorse political candidates—particularly for the presidency. In the 2020 election, both the Trump and the Biden campaigns advertised endorsement lists that heavily featured retired military members and argued that the opposing side presented a grave national security risk. During the midterm elections last November, the number of congressional candidates who touted their military service—often in ways that implied that military service is a prerequisite for policy decisions—dramatically expanded. These actions further degrade the ability of the country to develop a holistic and balanced national strategy as it privileges military voices above those belonging to other citizens.

The National Security Challenge

Declines in civilian control and professional norms are occurring at precisely the moment when the character of warfare is changing in a way that requires more—not less—trust and coordination between civilian and military leaders. This leaves the United States ill equipped to deal with modern threats, and in need of dramatic reformation in civil-military relations.

Modern challenges that blur the lines between military and civilian targets will require political and military leaders to work in close consultation with one another and significant levels of trust. No longer will the classic Huntington division of labor—always an imperfect construct—suffice when military operations will so clearly have consequences for civilian life and political decisions may have military and security impacts. For example, new technologies, like hypersonic missiles and artificial intelligence, raise important questions about speed of decision-making on the modern battlefield and the potential for escalation that call into question long-standing assumptions about the structure of civilian oversight. And yet, trust in the military is declining both among the general public and the political elite.

This lack of trust will reduce the government’s ability to engage in iterative strategy making—something that will become increasingly important as military operations have father-reaching second- and third-order effects. Modern war will require strategists to understand and account for the vulnerabilities introduced by domains and technologies that affect both civilian and military power: space assets, digital infrastructure, and economic interdependence to name a few. As a result, strategies will need increasingly regular assessment and reassessment that measure both the military value and the political and economic costs.

Healthy civil-military relations are essential to ensure that this iterative process can continue between parties in good faith. Trust is particularly critical to ensure that each side in the political-military relationship has the space to admit mistakes and adjust as necessary to reach the political ends of war. As trust declines and military leaders increasingly attempt to insulate themselves from political discussions, it follows that we will then observe less and less space for honest evaluation and adjustments of strategies at exactly the moment when commitment to evaluation is necessary.

Finally, the insurrection on January 6 revealed the presence of organized domestic actors that pose a threat to US democracy and national security. As these segments of society have grown and found continued support from foreign and domestic actors, we have already seen calls to use the military to solve domestic disputes—even when well outside the bounds of military authority. Such calls take important attention and resources away from efforts to address external threats through sound strategy. Healthy civil-military relations and, particularly, maintaining trust between civilian society and the US military will be critical to successfully navigating the coming tensions and legitimately maintaining the military’s obligations to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

The Need for New Thinking

This series recognizes the need for new thinking about civil-military relations in the United States. Modern warfare will increase the need for trust, holistic planning, and civilian control between political and military leaders. The authors in this series offer a variety of perspectives on the problems civil-military relations needs to address and possible ways to bolster the national security establishment in this new environment. One recurring theme they address is the need for new organizational and leadership practices that better integrate civilians and civilian perspectives into the military, whether through everyday language and jargon, professional military education reform, or formal hiring and promotion procedures. Others address how the military presents itself to the public, while still others address the challenges in particular military subcommunities, like special operations. Together, these pieces offer refreshing and important takes on new and understudied challenges.

As norms continue to change, we must ask how the United States can continue to ensure a healthy civil-military relationship that supports good strategy. Which norms should be reinforced? Which should evolve? What are the policies and systems that the US government and US military should enact to ensure they are prepared to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century and preserve American national security? This series, with some of the brightest minds from across the civil-military spectrum, tackles these questions and offers some solutions and ways ahead. What got us here won’t get us there. It’s time for some rethinking.

Dr. Carrie A. Lee is an MWI research fellow and the chair of the Department of National Security and Strategy at the US Army War College.

Dr. Max Margulies is MWI’s research director.

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

Image credit: Maj. Jason Elmore