Looking Beyond the Generals in the Room: The Real Cause of America’s Civil-Military Malaise


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Policy Roundtable: Civil-Military Relations Now and Tomorrow,” from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

Generals in American politics are nothing new. George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower all rode successful military careers to the White House. Others, most recently Wesley Clark in 2004, tried and failed to capture the office. All recent administrations have, to varying degrees, turned to former generals to serve in senior civilian positions. President George W. Bush chose Colin Powell as his Secretary of State and Michael Hayden as his Director of Central Intelligence. President Barack Obama similarly picked James Jones as his National Security Advisor, David Petraeus as his Director of Central Intelligence, and James Clapper as his Director of National Intelligence. Retired general officers have routinely endorsed presidential candidates since at least Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.

Given the established history of military or former military serving in senior positions in government, President Donald Trump’s choice of current and former generals as his cabinet secretaries, his chief of staff, his first two national security advisors, and a host of subcabinet positions is a change in degree, although perhaps not a change in kind, from the past. And yet, the Trump administration’s decision to fill its senior ranks with military officers is nevertheless troubling, for reasons that have little to do with the individuals themselves. One year into the administration, these personnel choices are not the cause of any particular problems (if anything, probably the opposite is true), but reflect a deeper, growing ill within American society. The American public’s increased isolation from and romanticization of the military, combined with an increased skepticism of other American institutions, has left the broader civil-military balance off-kilter.

Not the Cause (at Least So Far) of Any Particular Problem…

Although many observers eventually concluded that, given the unique present circumstances, they could support the appointment of many general officers to their present posts, civil-military relations scholars gave a host of reasons why presidential administrations should avoid drawing senior political leadership from the ranks of the general officer corps. And yet, a year into the Trump administration, most of these problems have either not materialized, or the evidence supporting them remains inconclusive.

Perhaps, the chief concern is the militarization of foreign policy. This seems to lie at the center of Daniel Drezner’s objections to these appointments. Even before the Trump administration, scholars worried about the expanding role of the Department of Defense in U.S. foreign policy. To its critics, the Trump administration exacerbated these concerns when, shortly after taking office, it proposed a so-called “hard power budget” with increases to the Defense Department paid for, in part, by civilian agencies like the State Department.

While the Trump administration has emphasized the Department of Defense over the “softer” side of foreign policy, the former generals in the room do not seem to be driving this policy preference. To the contrary, when the administration announced the budget, 121 former flag officers took the unusual step of writing an open letter to congressional leadership advocating for the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Peace Corps, and other diplomatic and development agencies’ budgets. Similarly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis often emphasized his relationship with now-ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and highlighted how the two departments work in lockstep.

Yet another commonly cited concern is the politicization of the military’s senior ranks. As David Barno and Nora Bensahel argue,

If politicians begin to see generals as political figures (or even future political opponents), the vital trust that exists between the nation’s elected leadership and its uniformed military will be lost. As a result, future presidents and other elected leaders may well keep suspect military leaders out of the room when major decisions are made, even on military issues.

The authors argue these dangers are particularly acute if former general officers serve in “unremittingly political” senior positions like a chief of staff (but presumably there are others as well), rather than in national security-related positions.

Barno and Bensahel are certainly correct that if currently serving military officers are painted with a partisan brush, it could jeopardize the civil-military dialogue. That said, it is less clear what effects, if any, former military officers serving political positions today will have on politicians’ perceptions of the military in the future. Moreover, the authors’ argument is more applicable in the context of generals running for political office — directly challenging politicians for their jobs — than serving as senior political appointees, even in highly partisan roles like chief of staff. Even this latter phenomenon has occurred occasionally in American history, without catastrophic results. For example, Gen. George McClellan challenged his former commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, for the presidency, but still, the civil-military balance did not break. And so, while generals serving as political appointees likely does not help promote continued trust between generals and politicians, it may not sound its death knell either.

A third objection examines the practical considerations of appointing former flag officers to senior civilian posts. Eliot Cohen warned that selecting the Secretary of Defense from among its uniformed ranks comes with a host of potential management challenges — from a perceived bias towards their own services to risk of favoritism among the general officer corps. He notes, “Even the appearance of such biases, let alone their reality, would make effective leadership of the Department of Defense difficult or impossible.”

Not until the archives open decades from now will future historians be able to fully assess the inner workings of Mattis’ Pentagon. It is similarly too early to judge whether the prominence of Marine officers in the political ranks of the administration will translate into service bias in resource decisions or in determining plumb general officer assignments. Still, at least from press accounts so far, the Department of Defense is relatively absent from the headlines. Indeed, multiple news accounts refer to Mattis’ “low profile” and the comparative lack of infighting within the Department. And while we still need a few more budget cycles to see how Mattis balances competing service resource needs, it is interesting to note that the only defense investment priority called out by name in the State of the Union address was nuclear modernization — a focus that primarily favors Air Force and Navy budget equities, rather than Marine ones.

A fourth objection relates to ensuring that a full range of expertise informs decisions. As Kathleen Hicks has concisely argued, people naturally turn to those with similar backgrounds for counsel — academics to academics, business leaders to fellow business leaders, and military officers to fellow military officers. Sound decision-making, however, requires

guarding against an over-reliance on military viewpoints, just as it relies on ensuring those coming from civilian backgrounds act as respectful and knowledgeable counterparts, with expertise and responsibilities typically distinct from those of their military colleagues and subordinates.

Ultimately, placing former military officers at the head of an already military-dominated national security space may encourage groupthink.

Like the aforementioned objections, Hicks’ concern over the loss of diversity of opinion is valid, but only to a point. As noted earlier, the Trump administration chose former flag officers to fill some cabinet-level posts, but also some of the subcabinet ranks and below. The slow pace of filling other civilian political positions in the national security establishment — leaving only the uniformed side of the Pentagon in place — did not help the balance. Still, to their credit, all the former general officers have civilians as their deputies and the Pentagon’s senior leadership today, while including former generals, also features former business executives, Capitol Hill staffers, and appointees with similarly diverse backgrounds.

Finally, there are other potential long-term problems with turning to former general officers to fill senior civilian posts — from eroding the American ability to advocate for civilian control of the military abroad, to undermining the very ideals that led to the Declaration of Independence in the first place.

The fact that most civil-military relations scholars’ objections have — at least so far — not materialized does not necessarily invalidate their apprehensions. A year is likely an insufficient amount of time to judge the wisdom of these appointments. Moreover, the fact that selecting these particular general officers has not yet yielded the negative consequences does not necessarily invalidate the general rule of balancing civilian and military appointments. Still, whatever the reason, a fair assessment must conclude that the United States has so far avoided most of the pitfalls of drawing leadership from former military ranks.

…But Rather the Effect of a Deeper Societal Ill

Perhaps, the real lesson of the last year is that overrepresentation of general officers within the civilian political ranks is less a cause for concern and more of an effect of a deeper problem. Politicians place military officers in prominent positions on campaigns and in government because the military remains one of the few institutions that most Americans still respect. And that is a far greater problem than any specific policy issue stemming from who is in what position.

According to annual Gallup polling, confidence in the military has grown steadily since Gallup began asking the question — from 58 percent expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in 1975 to 72 percent in 2017. Moreover, those expressing “a great deal” of confidence in the military (the highest rating possible) has risen even more sharply, from 27 percent to 44 percent over the same period.

As striking as the actual numbers, however, is the durability of the trend. While there have been some spikes, particularly during key victories, for example, the Gulf War or the start of the 2003 Iraq War, and dips during perceived failures, like during the height of the Iraq War, the trend line for the most part ticks steadily upwards. Americans’ confidence in the military has not been shaken, despite the number of high-profile general officers who have pled guilty to felony crimes or the major scandals that have afflicted the services over the years — from the handling of the nuclear arsenal, to accusations of fraud and corruption, to allegations of widespread sexual harassment. At the end of the day, roughly three-quarters of Americans still place their confidence in the military.

Such staunch confidence would not be concerning — and might even be a positive development — if it were not for the erosion of Americans’ trust in the civilian institutions of democracy over the same period. The same Gallup polls that show the growth in confidence in the military also show that Americans’ confidence in the other American institutions — be it Congress, the presidency or the Supreme Court — has declined sharply. In 2017, only 40 percent of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court, 32 percent in the presidency and a mere 12 percent in Congress.

A recent RAND Corporation report on “truth decay” reached a similar conclusion. Comparing today with previous periods in American history, it found a “lack of trust across the board — in government, media, and financial institutions — and a far lower absolute level of trust in these institutions than in previous eras.” This decline in trust, in turn, contributed to a variety of other problems in American society, from “political paralysis,” to “the erosion of civil discourse,” and ultimately to the “alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions.”

Indeed, a series of surveys suggest that substantial numbers of Americans are questioning democracy itself. In October 2017, a Pew study found that 17 percent of Americans would consider rule by the military “a good way to the govern the country,” 22 percent said the same of “a strong leader,” and 40 percent believed that of “experts.” A separate Washington Post and University of Maryland study, also published in October of 2017, found a steep decline in Americans’ pride in how democracy functions in the United States compared to similar surveys taken over the last two decades. The same study also found that 71 percent of Americans believe that politics has reached a “dangerous low point.”

Why then in this era of cynicism has the confidence in the military remained so high? Perhaps, it is because, thanks to the end of the draft in 1973 and the decline in the overall end-strength after the Cold War, fewer Americans have any direct connection to the military. In 1980, about 18 percent of the American adult population were veterans, but by 2016, the proportion stood at less than half that number — roughly 7 percent. The percentage of American men who have served has declined even more dramatically, from around 37 percent of the population in 1980 to 16 percent in 2014. Finally, the decline of veterans among American political elites has been the most precipitous of all. At its peak between the late 1960s and early 1970s, some three-quarters of the House of Representatives and 80 percent of the Senate had military experience. By 2017, the number for both chambers of Congress stood at about one in five.

This isolation has led to a romanticization of the military. Without direct experience, for many Americans, military service becomes a caricature, the subject more of Hollywood than reality. Americans paint the military as a paragon of patriotism, selflessness, and efficiency, even if in reality the military attracts all types of individuals for a range of motives — good, bad, and otherwise.

This overly romanticized vision of military service creates a host of perverse incentives. It incentivizes politicians to hide behind the uniforms, by placing them in front of key policy decisions. As one political figure recently quipped, “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.” Such adulation also inhibits a clear-eyed valuation of military pay and benefits, a crucial component of any fiscally sound defense policy, and promotes the idea that servicemembers are somehow superior to the citizens they serve. Above all, it encourages Americans to turn to the military for solutions, rather than fixing the problems in the civilian institutions of their democracy.

The American public’s continued isolation from and idealization of military service combined with increased skepticism about its other institutions, arguably, should be the real focus of civil-military relations concerns today. The prominence of current and former military officers in senior civilian positions is symptomatic of this more general societal ill and could profoundly impact American democracy. After all, this trend extends beyond any particular policy decision or policymaker and will continue long after the present administration leaves office. It is not a problem that’s easily fixed.

What Is to Be Done

If the root cause of the United States’ civil-military problem were simply a matter of how the Pentagon is run or who serves in what position, it would be relatively easy to fix. Indeed, many of the concerns about military appointments may dissipate now that the national security advisor position will soon be filled by John Bolton, a civilian. The problem will be further mitigated if other high-profile general officers leave the administration, as is rumored, for example, about John Kelly. Not so for broader societal problems.

Restoring the balance between Americans’ trust in the military versus their trust in civilian institutions runs headlong into a fundamental endogeneity problem. Americans may not trust the media because they perceive it as biased, but they look for news that caters to their own ideological preferences. They may not trust Washington because of its political gridlock, but then back politicians who cater to the far ends of the political spectrum. In sum, Americans do not trust their institutions because they are dysfunctional, but those institutions are dysfunctional in part because Americans do not trust them.

The answer here is not simply to increase public skepticism of the military. While excessive admiration of the military is an unhealthy dynamic, a situation where Americans lack confidence in any of their institutions — military or civilian — is just as bad. And there is much to admire about the military, even if servicemembers and their leaders are not always the heroes Americans tend to typecast them as.

If there is a solution, it lies with civic education — teaching Americans to see civilian institutions for what they are, with all their strengths and weaknesses. After all, American democracy has never run with military-like efficiency, nor did the founders intend for it to function that way. And while it is easy to lose faith in American institutions by focusing in on the problems of the moment, if Americans could take the longer view, they would see this system — with all its inherent ugliness — can still produce remarkable accomplishments

At the same time, Americans also need to better understand their military. Absent a catastrophe on par with another world war, ever smaller percentages of the American population will serve in uniform. Even if there was the political will to return to conscription (which there is not), modern warfare — with its emphasis on high technology rather than manpower — simply does not require vast numbers of soldiers. The assiduous study of strategic issues and of the military as an institution can partially compensate for this lack of firsthand knowledge.

The key then is for Americans to regain a sense of historical perspective on their government and their institutions. And in a small way, this starts by recognizing the number of current and former military officers at the senior rung of civilian office for what they are: less as a cause for concern, and more the effect of a deeply troubling trend. But perhaps not an insurmountable one.


A former active Army officer and Iraq veteran, Raphael S. Cohen is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and an adjunct professor of Security Studies in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Airman Donald C. Knechtel