Military Leaders Advise, Civilians Decide

A breach of civilian-military etiquette.

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President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and the service secretaries, service chiefs, and senior enlisted advisers to discuss sexual assault in the military in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 16, 2013.

This past week has been a busy one in the realm of American civil-military relations. A week ago the Washington Post published an op-ed by retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales where he argued against the wisdom of strikes in Syria. That is fine. After all, he is a retired officer and a citizen and entitled to his own opinions. The problem in this case, however, was that he was not just making a personal argument, he was claiming to be making an argument on behalf of other serving officers. Scales writes (and I add the emphasis):

Dempsey's unspoken words [during Congressional testimony] reflect the opinions of most serving military leaders. By no means do I profess to speak on behalf of all of our men and women in uniform. But I can justifiably share the sentiments of those inside the Pentagon and elsewhere who write the plans and develop strategies for fighting our wars. After personal exchanges with dozens of active and retired soldiers in recent days, I feel confident that what follows represents the overwhelming opinion of serving professionals who have been intimate witnesses to the unfolding events that will lead the United States into its next war.

They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration's attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it. So far, at least, this path to war violates every principle of war, including the element of surprise, achieving mass and having a clearly defined and obtainable objective.

They are repelled by the hypocrisy of a media blitz that warns against the return of Hitlerism but privately acknowledges that the motive for risking American lives is our "responsibility to protect" the world's innocents. Prospective U.S. action in Syria is not about threats to American security. The U.S. military's civilian masters privately are proud that they are motivated by guilt over slaughters in Rwanda, Sudan and Kosovo and not by any systemic threat to our country.

They are outraged by the fact that what may happen is an act of war and a willingness to risk American lives to make up for a slip of the tongue about "red lines." These acts would be for retribution and to restore the reputation of a president. Our serving professionals make the point that killing more Syrians won't deter Iranian resolve to confront us. The Iranians have already gotten the message.

They are tired of wannabe soldiers who remain enamored of the lure of bloodless machine warfare

Our military members understand and take seriously their oath to defend the constitutional authority of their civilian masters. They understand that the United States is the only liberal democracy that has never been ruled by its military. But today's soldiers know war and resent civilian policymakers who want the military to fight a war that neither they nor their loved ones will experience firsthand.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

(This also follows an internet campaign of purported soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in uniform posting photos claiming that they didn't join the military to "help fight for al-Qaeda in Syria". After the Marine Corps website was hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army, however, Pentagon officials claimed that they believed that these images had been staged to sow disinformation and dissent.)

As retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno of the Center for a New American Security notes, also in the Washington Post, Scales' op-ed is problematic because:

Whatever one's opinion of an all-volunteer military or of diminished military experience among civilians, our men and women in uniform must avoid the temptation to expand the military's role in war-making decisions. They advise through their most senior service leaders and, after a decision is made, execute the mission to the best of their ability. For the military to take on a larger role would erode civilian war-making power and, eventually, civilian control of the military.

Arguments such as Scales's imply that the military has a voice, and vote, of its own — and suggest that channels outside the chain of command are fair game to publicly express dissenting views.

This breach of the proper civilian-military relationship is disruptive and potentially corrosive to our constitutional division of powers. It must be publicly rejected by our uniformed military leadership, who must reassert throughout the ranks the proper role of the military as faithful servants of the nation in the profession of arms. Military leaders must remind their troops that the chain of command represents their outlook to our civilian elected leadership. And despite the disquieting reports, I am confident that respect for these core values of civilian control of the military remains strong throughout our armed forces.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

In our system of government civilians decide, military leaders advise. Senior military leaders have the right and obligation to register dissent with courses of action before they are decided upon, but in the vast majority of instances this should be done behind closed doors up until the point of decision. The long-term implication of breaches of civil-military etiquette such as offered by Scales is that if regularized they could lead civilian leaders to select senior military leaders that are yes-(wo)men that feed into groupthink and don't give the best military advice. That would be potentially catastrophic.

But civil-military relations isn't just about the nexus of strategy where senior civilian and military leaders interact, it is also about relations between the military and civil society writ large. Since 9/11 the American public has overwhelmingly embraced the men and women that have served. But this isn't always the case, especially for groups such as the Westboro Baptist brood. Another example of this negativity was on display this week at the City University of New York where students or protestors hounded retired General David Petraeus on his way to teaching a class referring to him as a "scumbag" and a "war criminal." The general kept his composure, not giving in to making the angry moment on video that the protestors likely wanted to elicit. These student protestors are well within their rights to speak out as they see fit, but it says something about civil discourse in this country that they feel the best way to get this point across is to scream at and slander a man as he is trying to teach at a university where ideas are meant to be debated in reasoned ways.

Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.