Post-CHAOS Homework on Civil-Military Relations


From the moment his nomination was hinted, Secretary of Defense James Mattis presented a rich canvas for the civil-military relations wonks and amateurs to ply their trade. There are no comparable moments in recent history where the role of the military — or, more specifically, former general officers — in U.S. politics, policy, and society was so widely and arduously debated. In his career, Mattis gave his mind and body and offered his life for his country; in the last two years, he involuntarily offered his name as an object lesson for those taking to the op-ed pages seeking more complexity — more, perhaps, than a “Mattisism” — on matters of peace and war, civilian and military, veteran and uniformed.

And then Mattis departed. Many scholars of civil-military relations continue and will continue to study his tenure and whether the exceptional Mattis was worth the exception to the law established in the foundations of the Department of Defense barring recent general officers from such roles. Jim Golby does a most admirable job dissecting these two years and how they shaped civil-military relations, for better and worse. But while there is merit in history and beauty in eulogy, the civil-military field would do well to assess the aftermath of “CHAOS” and consider where it goes next: Where has the balance of civil-military relations been reset? What precedents did Mattis, in his effort to preserve stability at all costs, establish? Where did the role of the secretary become that of the marine? As President Donald Trump’s trusted generals have all departed, do the authorities they were delegated remain in the hands of their less experienced successors?

And it’s not only the civil-military wonks who have homework. For two years, Mattis led the most trusted institution in America as the most trusted cabinet member. He was also held in high regard inside the Department of Defense as compared to his predecessors, particularly by uniformed personnel. As in all bureaucracies, his most thoughtless habits became bureaucratic law, as did his personal prejudices, his ideals, his discretion, the tasks he left in the inbox, and his unspoken hierarchy of advisors. And both in and out of government, it became common to assume that a general was all that would — or could — save us. Given the near-cult of personality Mattis represented, a smart successor and a wise Congress should closely examine the civil-military grooves Mattis left behind.

The following represents some of the homework Mattis’ successor, Congress, and the broader civil-military field should undertake to consider and address the aftermath of this tenure. Much of this consideration is due to no fault of Mattis; he did not choose the caricature he often became, though he also did not cast it off. Much of it represents deliberate choices, however, and offers a lens on the results of optimistic and blind trust in the military.

Mattis’ Successor

Transparency: Through his owns habits and policy direction — and perhaps to protect his organization — Mattis limited his and his staff’s engagement with the press and shrank outreach on military deployments. As the high-water mark of trusted officials, Mattis could perhaps get away with abusing the public trust necessary for military employment in a democracy. His successor will likely not inherit this trust and may find that Congress and his press corps are not so tolerant of memes and quips offered in lieu of data or strategy.

The next secretary of defense should examine the formal policies put in place under Mattis to constrain external and media outreach. He or she should likewise give careful attention to the informal practices that arose out of adherence to his leadership culture in order to consider their true cost and benefit. The best outcome of these reviews would be the secretary committing to greater transparency on military operations, resourcing, and activities, and setting an example for his organization toward this end. Elements within the Defense Department will suggest (as the Air Force has) that in an era of great power competition, greater secrecy is needed in discussions of defense policy and military activities — ignoring that most of the department’s information clampdowns focused on Afghanistan and the broader war on terror. Further, this prescription both vastly oversimplifies “reveal for deterrence…conceal for warfighting” public strategies and applies them with too broad a brush where U.S. forces are presently at risk.

Policy advice and decision support: All senior leaders shift bureaucratic patterns by selecting key actors to rely on and ones to remove from the circle. Likewise, they naturally prioritize matters deserving their limited time and attention and those which are delegated or not done at all. It’s no surprise that in making his stamp, Mattis chose to rely far more heavily on uniformed voices, including giving the Joint Staff the lead pen on key memos and preparatory documents and relegating his civilian staff to a distant also-ran. In their comparative downfall, key policy processes led by the Office of the Secretary of Defense have also taken a backseat, including formal review of major contingency plans. The civilian policy apparatus exists for a reason and was meant to offer perspective distinct from their Joint Staff counterparts; to weaken it destroys the seed corn of future successors and to ignore it is a deliberate blind spot. Mattis’ successor should take a hard look at how his policy advice is developed before it lands on his desk, whether he feels comfortable exercising civilian control with his decision support arrangements, and what major elements of his job description may merit more attention than Mattis chose to or was able to give them.

Delegation of authority: Trump made a show of delegating authority to the Pentagon, and, within it, to lower-level commanders on a range of military activities. Many defense experts welcomed this change after a perception of micromanagement during the Obama administration. Perhaps such delegation was appropriate in concept — particularly with a highly experienced secretary — but it led to a perception that Mattis and perhaps even the combatant commands were running their own foreign policy. Indeed, there was an undercurrent of foreign policy elites hoping he’d do so. Mattis’ successor should reexamine all delegation of authority to and within the Pentagon to ensure he understands the breadth of activity approved in his name and readjust systems for coordination and collaboration to rebalance political-military interests.


Maintining the “dash”: In his article, Golby highlights Mattis’ unwillingness to act as the “dash” in civil-military, a symbolic role for the secretary of defense many predicted would be a natural fit for the former general officer. There is no statute requiring that secretaries spend time explaining defense and military matters to the American people and connecting society with those serving in uniform, but there are none better positioned to so. While a critical role for a secretary of defense, Congress has become astonishingly lax in its own participation in civil-military relations. As I wrote last year, Congress’ “ability to stage and amplify policy debate for the American people is without parallel, and it has tremendous latent potential to restore greater balance in civil-military relations.” If the conventional wisdom that Mattis regularly restrained the president’s more extreme policy reactions is true, then Congress’ role in explaining U.S. military matters and challenges takes on even greater importance. In the absence of private influence on the president, Congress’ ability to lead public debate and pushback on high-risk interventions or poorly planned shifts in security policy must play a larger role in shaping the president’s thinking.

Civil-military balance in the Pentagon: In recent authorizations, Congress has signaled interest in reasserting the authority of the under secretary of defense for policy (USDP) within the Department of Defense, including in the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act a more detailed articulation of USDP responsibilities in defense strategy, planning, and capabilities. In parallel, stories of Joint Staff dominance and destructive civil-military interactions have come to light. While well intentioned, such legislative efforts will fall on deaf ears unless Congress continues this messaging in private engagement with Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford’s successors and in public hearings to set expectations.

Appointees: Civil-military relations and appointee or general officer understanding of civilian vs. military roles rarely comes up in any substantive way in confirmation hearings. While less sexy than many topics du jour, the balance of this relationship is fundamental to the basic functioning of the national security field, from basic understandings of responsibilities to less concrete dynamics of respect, elitism, and accountability. Congress should, in private and in public hearings, add a series of questions for uniformed and civilian nominees facing senate confirmation to their screening repertoire. While such queries can sometimes be more theatrical than probing, they send an important signal to nominees and are often a useful way to generate public dialogue on national security matters.

The Civil-Military Field

Civil-military norms inside government: Scholars remain curious about the perceptions of veterans in political life. This is logical, but scholars should likewise devote attention to how civil-military norms and perceptions have shifted within the current uniformed force and among their civilian counterparts over the last several years. Nearly two decades of combat, topped by a hurricane of civil-military norm upending led by the president, have surely shifted expectations, perceptions, and judgments that will pervade in national security policy for decades to come. Studying these, and considering what education and exposure might be recommended to reestablish a balance of respect and role differentiation, is critical for the civil-military field.

Retired general and flag officers: Mattis’ “promotion” to secretary received most of the attention, but Lt. Gen. (ret.) Mike Flynn’s forays into foreign agent activity raises questions about general officer’s preparation for post-military life, the scrutiny placed on them post-retirement, and whether further regulation or assistance is necessary to support the field. As a start, civil-military relations scholars should study trends in post-government employment for general officers, their evolving roles in public life and business, the formal and informal guidance and checks offered, and how these compare to other countries. In parallel, military transition authorities should examine their engagements with retiring general officers and whether they are sufficient to guide them in preparing for post-military life.

Politicization of the military: Wonks across the country have rung repeated alarms on the politicization of the military by the president’s use of them as an audience or as an election pawn.  What has not been done is a detailed assessment of how these actions have shaped public perceptions of the role of the military, what the force understands about the president’s political maneuvering and how it impacts its view of itself, and how the press has covered these instances. Such questions deserve more attention before further condemnation or correctives.


Civil-military relations often attracts process-minded people who value the clear assignment of responsibilities and a script for problem solving. The reality of this relationship is far messier. The Trump administration and the appointment of Mattis as secretary of defense did not fundamentally alter these dynamics; rather, they surfaced potential and opportunity that already existed beneath a veneer of roles and rules. Civil-military relations are constantly being rewritten; until these last two years, few paid attention. Now that Mattis has departed, the civ-mil field should continue to do its homework.


Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security and the co-host of the War on the Rocks produced podcast Bombshell. She served in senior staff positions at the White House National Security Council and the Department of Defense.

Image: Department of Defense