A Look in the Mirror

September 4, 2013

David M. Kennedy, ed., The Modern American Military, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

This is a very timely book designed, in the editor’s words, “to survey, the evolution, character, missions and possible futures of the modern U.S. Armed Forces.”  Dr. David Kennedy, the book’s editor and an award-winning historian at Stanford University, hopes that this volume will help close “the gap that exists between those who serve from those who do not” and the palpable tensions between civilians and the military he sees as threatening our social comity and discourse. He also seeks to advance our thinking about the complex interrelationships between our armed forces and the mechanisms we have established for civilian control and political accountability.

One critical issue influencing today’s defense policy debates is the character of modern conflict, and how it relates to an “American way of war.”  A chapter by Dr. Brian Linn, a well-respected historian with expertise in U.S. Army operations in the Philippines and on the culture of the U.S. Army, stands out. Linn examines how the U.S. military looks at war, offering useful insights about the limitations of faddish conceptions of war like Effects Based Operations (EBO) or Netcentric Warfare (NCW). In particular, Linn’s assessment gives credit to the Marines and leaders like General Chuck Krulak for espousing a philosophy that is closely tied to Clausewitzian precepts like friction, change, and the primacy of politics. He also applauds Krulak’s prophetic vision of future conflicts as likely to be bloody, urbanized and brutish (what Krulak calls “the Stepchild of Chechnya”) rejecting the more fashionable techno-centric conceptions of pristine wars.  Suspicious of some of the intellectuals that have crafted faddish concepts and buzzwords in the past, Linn reminds the reader that the initial campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan “were hailed as vindicating the armed forces’ commitment to the Revolution of Military Affairs (RMA) and EBO/NCW. They are now cited as proof of the fallacies in these visions-in some cases by the same pundits.”  Yet these questions are far from settled, and Linn’s warning about our past embrace of new intellectual constructs can and should inform our thinking about how tomorrow’s smaller force should be adapted to best address America’s security interests.

A second major theme of this book involves what is broadly called civil-military relations. Boston University’s Dr. Andrew Bacevich, a former U.S. Army colonel, has a very thoughtful chapter on the subject. Bacevich makes a notable distinction between two distinctive forms of civil-military relations, those among the elites and those between society and the military. Debates tend to be dominated by issues of strategic leadership and decision-making by elected leaders and senior military officials (questions raised, among others, in Eliot Cohen’s book Supreme Command). But we ignore the larger relationship between the military and the populace base of Clausewitz’s trinity at some peril.

Augmenting Bacevich’s concerns is a chapter from another retired Army officer, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, who has served with distinction in several political-military positions, including as commander of US forces in Afghanistan and later as ambassador there. The general’s controversial cables from Kabul during his ambassadorial tenure were pessimistic about the success of counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan, but his analysis about the shortfalls of host nation leadership was not misinformed. Here, he raises a number of additional concerns that warrant close reading and debate, especially about the declining quality of media coverage and congressional oversight. Both of these are considered to be institutional contributors to the health of public institutions, and the military is no exception.

General Eikenberry also probes the American military ethic, particularly its accountability for frequent failures at the strategic level, the growing trend towards post-career employment in the defense industry, and clear demarcations in professional expertise. To this he could have added the trend towards overt political party identification or the erosion of the historically professional advisory role of military strategists. This chapter warrants a rigorous discussion amongst our officer corps, and the development of a formally codified military ethic for educating tomorrow’s officers.

Retired Air Force Major General Charles Dunlap, a judge advocate now teaching at Duke, adds a great chapter on military justice, adding some concerns about our failure to enforce professional standards in Iraq. Collectively, the chapters raise concerns about gaps between American society and its professional military, despite an abundance of positive polling data and a plethora of veterans assistance programs.

I know I am supposed to review the book in front of me, and not grade it against the book I wanted the editor or author to put out. But in this case, I do wish the editor had branched out and constructed a more forward-leaning look, with fresh insights about tomorrow’s American military.

While several retired generals are featured in The Modern American Military, they did not objectively evaluate the performance or role of their contemporaries in our most recent conflicts. It would have been valuable to augment these senior officers’ contributions to the volume with views with critiques on American generalship itself from observers like Tom Ricks or Paul Yingling.

Moreover, there are numerous other critics of the “American way of war,” and I’d like to see someone outside the Army take on that issue. Furthermore, the book would have benefited from a chapter representing our Special Operations Community. Whether we yet recognize it or not, Special Operations Command is the equivalent of a Service in some key respects, and a global combatant command at the same time. It has unique skills and equally unique insights. Jim Thomas from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments or David Maxwell at Georgetown would be great contributors to tackle the topic.

Professional military education remains a hot topic after a decade of war. This would seem to be a likely topic for an important contribution. A chapter by Dr. Williamson Murray or General Jim Mattis on the value of history to Americans in General or military professionals might have been particularly timely.

There are a host of young military officers with insights on innovation that will affect the future of our military. Many of these folks, including veterans Phil Carter, Nate Fick, and Andrew Exum, have been prominent in government and policy circles.

In addition, there are numerous younger authors qualified to explore the subject of the relationship between the Armed Forces and the society they protect. The latest issue of Orbis has a pair of articles authored by Major Heidi Urben of the U.S. Army and Risa Brooks from Marquette. An essay from these scholars would be a great addition.

One perspective that is often overlooked, ironically, is the perspective of the U.S. Congress, which is charged with raising Armies and preserving the Navy for the common defense. Congressmen Mac Thornberry, Randy Forbes, and Adam Smith are the most obvious choices out of 535 potential authors.

The Modern American Military certainly covered a lot of breadth, but it fell short of what it could have been in terms of depth and constructive recommendations. Several writers raised concerns about the status of the All Volunteer Force, while others highlighted cracks in the ethical foundation of the profession of arms. The late Samuel Huntington once observed that democracies have to find a balance between the functional imperative of security and the societal imperative to preserve their values and political institutions. He claimed in his seminal work, The Soldier and the State, that nations failing to maintain such a balance ‘‘run uncalculated risks.’’  This book captures many critical aspects of the risks that challenge our society and its security professionals, with insights from a distinguished collection of scholars. It represents a first step toward finding the right balance in this turbulent century.


Frank Hoffman is a Contributing Editor to War on the Rocks, and serves as Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, at the National Defense University, Washington DC.  These insights and comments are his own.

Photo Credit: The U.S. Army