“Beyond the Beltway” — What’s the Civil-Military Crisis?


 “I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal.”

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s now-infamous June 1, 2020, comment about how best to quell domestic unrest has provoked a storm of angry responses. Those immersed in civil-military issues quickly explored the problems with his statement and the president’s actions from many different angles. However, some whom I’ve spoken with, who are living beyond the Washington, D.C., beltway, found the strong media reaction puzzling. Not because they aren’t engaged citizens, but because they aren’t immersed in civil-military issues. So, rather than focus specifically on immediate events, we also discussed the ever-evolving relationship between Americans and the military. It reminded me that robust civil-military conversations need to reach beyond the defense policy arena. It’s not always easy to start such a discussion, so having some entry points to explore civil-military relations is important. Absent that broader conversation, a small group of civil-military experts will exercise an increasingly outsized voice over the norms and expectations regarding the use and control of America’s military.

Why Did June 1, 2020, Spark a Crisis?

Nations create militaries so that they can call upon the use or threat of organized violence to solve national problems when needed. The American military accomplishes this by responding to four factors: 1) a shared understanding of what constitutes the common defense; 2) a corresponding understanding of how organized violence should be used to provide for the common defense; 3) the associated military organizations and people needed to master and manage this violence; and 4) the best organizational culture to ensure that these organizations are responsive to civilian leadership. The shared agreement over these four factors comprises an implicit contract between the American military and the American people. Assessing how these factors change over time reveals much about this relationship. Esper’s comments and the military’s actions each raised questions about all four factors, on both the military and civilian side.



Location of the common defense. The U.S. Constitution specifies the military’s core purpose, which is to “provide for the common defense.” What it doesn’t stipulate is where this provision should occur — and the answer continues to evolve. Today, the shared civilian-military understanding of the common defense includes defending the United States from overseas threats. With the maturation of space operations, the internet, and cyberspace, these boundaryless “locations” are also considered potentially threatening, but the focus is still on foreign adversaries. Esper’s comments, however, potentially add a third location: American cities and streets. If this becomes part of the common defense, potential threats might not be foreign powers, but American citizens. If used in this role, the military becomes a force dividing the country rather than fighting against foreign enemies to keep it whole.

Use of organized violence. Similarly, the American military’s unique responsibility is to master and, if necessary, employ organized violence on the nation’s behalf. The understanding of organized violence has evolved considerably since the country’s founding, but it almost always entails applying violent means when necessary against foreign threats. Only by invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act can the president use the military for domestic purposes. Although the largely peaceful protests in Washington, D.C., provided insufficient justification to invoke the act, the president nonetheless deployed 1600 active-duty military to the Washington, D.C., area. Such action weakens the fundamental contract between the military and the American people. It also undermines the military’s credibility as the defender of the American people and raises uncomfortable questions about when it might employ violent means against American citizens.

Organization and people. Neither the military services nor joint commands develop expertise in domestic operations to include policing or riot control. The U.S. Northern Command, responsible for protecting the homeland from external threats, does not lead during domestic crises, rather it provides “military support for non-military authorities.” Arguably, even National Guard units, under control of state governors unless federalized, are more motivated when helping fellow citizens through humanitarian assistance or disaster relief than when exercising control over them. To refocus military organizations and their service members on addressing civil unrest requires renegotiating what the American people expect from them. Such a move also would fundamentally change how Americans perceive each other and their leadership. Those who might disagree with national leaders on domestic political issues could now perceive military personnel as adversaries rather than protectors.

Organizational culture. Correspondingly, traditional U.S. military organizational culture recognizes that lives might be at risk when confronting a foreign adversary. As such, a hierarchical military culture emphasizes qualities such as: personal and unit discipline; physical courage and fitness; unit cohesion; and most importantly, commitment to mission completion on behalf of the nation. To all in this culture, serving the nation validates making the associated personal sacrifices. Adding peaceful domestic protesters to the possible threats facing the U.S. military would gravely undermine the “service first” component of its organizational culture.

Thus, Esper’s comments and the president’s actions potentially raise fundamental questions about all four factors shaping the American military, which creates a crisis for the military. Is this initiating a new phase in the relationship between the U.S military and the American people?

What Might This Portend?

Almost 80 years ago, Harold Lasswell published his seminal and controversial article, “The Garrison State,” contemplating a world in which modern technology turned “the specialists on violence [the military]” into “the most powerful group in society.” Lasswell went on to argue that national leaders could abuse the military to their own personal ends, positing the rise of “mystic democracy” which he observed “is not … democracy at all because it may be found where authority and control are highly concentrated yet where part of the established practice is to speak in the name of the people.” In Lasswell’s Garrison State, such a change would give the president almost unchecked power to wield at home as well as abroad — power that certainly exceeds far beyond what the nation’s Founding Fathers envisioned.

Since June 1, Esper and General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have worked hard to explain, apologize, and otherwise mitigate the events’ impact. Nonetheless, their actions revealed distrust in the military and highlighted the need to constantly nurture the relationship between the military and the American people. And, as Lasswell reminds us, if that relationship fractures, the results could be catastrophic.

What Should We Do?

Once we’ve opened up the conversation, how do we better engage those outside the defense policy community? Three ideas come to mind.

First, it might sound trite, but senior defense leaders need to set a better example for the American people. Many rightly revere General George Marshall, the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff during World War II. Indeed, he is an ideal role model in these demanding times. Among other things, Marshall wore a formal uniform throughout the war, reflecting the scope and gravity of his duties. He eschewed informal ties with political leaders, famously discouraging President Roosevelt from calling him by his first name. And, despite his profound frustration with it, he built a trusted relationship with Congress. Milley, an impressive soldier-scholar himself, could do well to look anew to Marshall for guidance on everything from uniform choice, to relationships with the president, Congress, and American people.

Second, “dominate the battlespace … to get back to the right normal” belongs in civics lessons as a contemporary example of how quickly civil-military relations can fray. For civilians, Esper’s reference to American cities as “the battlespace” should elicit discussions about the military’s role in domestic crises — if any. It should also prompt broader discussions about the military’s purpose. Likewise, commanders and professional military educators need to study what prompted the quick downward spiral of events, and think through mitigation measures to prevent a recurrence.

Finally, in America, providing for the common defense needs to be part of a broader conversation. The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service highlighted some national initiatives to expand this discussion. While this is a good start, the dialogue also needs to occur at other levels. This includes redoubling efforts to reach out to local schools and governments, civic organizations, and other non-military entities. Civilian-military experts need to ensure critical conversations about the military occur beyond their professional community, otherwise they’re talking inside an echo chamber — albeit one with significant policy sway. Only when it becomes a routine part of a wide-ranging conversation will the American people better understand their military, its purpose, and those who serve in it. Conversely, such an ongoing conversation will ensure the military remains worthy of the people’s trust. The most recent crisis might be receding, but it provided a stark reminder that the military needs to maintain that trust every day.



Paula Thornhill is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, associate director of Strategic Studies, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS), and author of Demystifying the American Military.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Charles E. Spirtos)