The Civilian and the State: Politics at the Heart of Civil-Military Relations


In September 2022, a remarkable thing happened: War on the Rocks published an open letter about American civil-military relations signed by almost every living former secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The letter was important not just for what it said, but what it did not — and, crucially, what it could not — say. It revealed how little we know about civilians in civil-military relations and how much practitioners’ retreat from politics has harmed our ability to protect the military profession from partisanship.  

Like much of the literature on civil-military relations, and despite being signed by 8 secretaries of defense, the letter adopts the military gaze. 10 of its 16 points address what the military may and may not do during presidential elections and transitions, the military’s relationship to law enforcement, the military’s relationship to partisan politics, and how the military “reinforces effective civilian control.” Even those items that explain what civilians do are not explaining how they do it, just what the military may and may not do in response. The points that discuss orders are not about what good and legal orders look like, but that orders, so long as they are legal, must be obeyed. The receiver’s perspective is what is important here. 

To be clear, the letter does not ignore the civilian role. For one, the first few points are about civilian control and how it is structured in American government. Throughout the text, “civil-military teams” and “civilian and military leaders” are the explicit subjects of best practices. And even as the points move on to focus on the military, one could argue that civilians need to know what the military is supposed to do with their orders. In a sense, the letter discusses what civilian control looks like, or at least what it produces. 



So, it was not that civilians weren’t addressed in the letter. But if civilians are part of the intended student body, what do the teachers expect them to learn about what they are supposed to do? If, for example, revelations about Gen. Mark Milley were part of the motivation for the letter, then a description of what civilians should have done differently — in the first place or in response — would be helpful. But that is not what we get. The text explains that civilian control is designed to be a democratic mechanism. “Ultimately, civilian control is wielded by the will of the American people as expressed through elections,” the letter says. This is both true and not terribly actionable. Elections are certainly a key accountability mechanism for a representative democracy, giving civilians the legitimacy they need to exercise control over the military. But that is just a predicate — a necessary condition but not sufficient as an owner’s manual. But then, there is no owner’s manual for civilians, because existing work on civil-military relations doesn’t supply one. The letter went as far as it could with the norms and knowledge we have now.

Elections determine who is in power but not exactly what those people should do nor how they should do it. Voters delegate judgment about specific policies or use-of-force decisions to civilians. How should these elected officials and their political appointees at the Pentagon apply the average voter’s will to quotidian choices, like whether to require that an undersecretary approve a combatant commander’s proposal before the secretary sees it? For what reasons should a senator vote against confirming a military officer for promotion to one-star general or admiral? More pointedly and certainly more relevant, when a president of the United States suggests the military should use force against American citizens protesting on American streets, what should the secretary of defense do? What should members of the president’s party in Congress do? And when members of Congress are being attacked by a mob, what role should the military play in protecting them? These are fundamentally political questions about political choices. And for all the wisdom of American civil-military relations law and theory, those disciplines have little to say about politics.

As Risa Brooks describes in her 2020 article, “Paradoxes of Professionalism: Rethinking Civil-Military Relations in the United States,” we have Samuel Huntington to blame for why politics are a neglected part of civil-military relations study and practice. Brooks explains that in his 1957 book, The Soldier and the State, Huntington describes civil-military relations as an exchange between two separate social groups with two separate spheres of influence. Civilians handle politics and leave the military to its expertise. Huntington cemented the “apolitical military” norm in the United States, which Brooks tells us, “shape[s] how U.S. officers are socialized to their roles as professionals.” The letter reaffirms this principle, emphasizing the importance of “keeping the military separate from partisan politics.”

But somehow, perhaps because the military is a more coherent institution and therefore easier to treat as a unit of analysis for academic study, practitioners of civil-military relations also often act like the entire relationship has an apolitical status. The consequence of avoiding politics in the civil-military context is that we do not know very much about what civilians are supposed to do to manage politics so that military officers don’t have to. 

You can see this challenge in the way that recent secretaries of defense talk about their relationship with politics. Robert Gates expresses a genuine repugnance toward it in his memoir of his time as secretary of defense. Referring to his attendance at the State of the Union address, Gates says, “Being part of a political cheering squad was embarrassing for me, especially standing to applaud highly controversial domestic initiatives and views.” Jim Mattis, when on tour for his own book, insisted that his duty as a retired general officer was to remain out of politics — without reference to whether his most-recent job as secretary of defense carried any such standards of its own. In February 2020, then-Secretary Mark Esper issued a memo to all Department of Defense personnel, military and civilian, that asserted, “We uphold DoD’s longstanding tradition of remaining apolitical.” In June of that year, Esper told Politico, “I do everything I can to try to stay apolitical and to try and stay out of situations that may appear political.”

Of course, secretaries of defense are political. They are presidential appointees, members of a political party and an administration. As for more junior civilian employees of the Defense Department, although they are subject to the Hatch Act, which prevents active support for “the success or failure” of political parties or candidates for office, they are not as constrained as military personnel. Nor are civilians prevented from other political activities like advocating for the defense budget or discussing public opinion about military operations with White House personnel or members of Congress. But as Esper’s letter demonstrated, the notion that the military must be apolitical has evolved into the idea that the entire Defense Department should claim to be apolitical as well. 

A major part the problem is the conflation of partisan politics with governing politics. While partisan politics involves seeking power for political parties, governing politics is about institutions and actors in government competing for power, prioritizing and choosing policies, and directing resources toward organizations and programs. The difference between partisan and governing politics is especially dicey for the secretary, whose role is to advance the president’s governing political agenda as a member of the cabinet. Other Department of Defense political appointees are in a similar position. Although they are constrained from working toward partisan campaigns for political office, they are expressly in place to engage in work that is fundamentally political.

The difficulty is partly that embracing politics these days can feel like an unnatural act. Think about the negative connotations many people ascribe to the very idea of “politics,” partisan or otherwise. “I don’t mean to be political” is a common way for someone to assure a listener that they are not trying to be controversial or upsetting. Being political is not just unprofessional for military personnel; it’s also distasteful. At the same time, the increase in partisan polarization in the United States has developed in parallel with a tendency for partisans to see themselves as honest and to see their political opposites as unethical. The belief that politics in general are repugnant, but one’s own politics are simply common sense has made it possible for many in the military to think of their views not as political but moral. This, I believe, is why so many in the military have been politicized in recent years while continuing to think that they are immune from politics.

And here is where we should go back to another basic idea, because lost in these trend lines is what the word “politics” really means. Strip away the layers of recent disrepute and separate out the partisan distrust, and politics merely describes the process of making the choices necessary to govern — and who controls that process. Certainly, politics can be waged cruelly and destructively, but that is not the fault of politics itself. Instead of dismissing all politics as bankrupt, we should want a cadre of people who are very good at engaging constructively in both partisan and governing political processes. 

Losing the more procedural and productive definition of politics is bad for civil-military relations, not just because it blinds military personnel to what is and is not political — including what is and is not partisan politics — but because expertise in politics is the core of civilians’ role in the civil-military relationship. When we neglect politics in the civil-military relations context, we also neglect civilians. And as a consequence, neither military personnel nor many civilian defense leaders know how to manage the intersections of partisan politics and military policies. 

And that is why the letter did not grapple more squarely with the politicization of the military, with the implications of Milley’s walk across Lafayette Square, or with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. People who are embedded in the civil-military relationship do not know what to say because they think they have to distance themselves from politics. But someone has to engage with partisan discourse and it cannot be the military. This is not to say that it is easy leading political experts in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and nonpartisan military professionals in the services at the same time, all while engaging in debates with partisan actors. But the secretary’s job has not been made easier by the civil-military relations subfield or by practitioners themselves pretending that secretaries and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have similar job descriptions. 

That American politics are dysfunctional is hardly breaking news, but it is the context in which former leaders of the Defense Department felt they needed to remind military officers not to follow illegal orders and to remind civilian leaders not to issue them. American politics are breaking down so profoundly that the “regular order” of policymaking is also breaking down — leaders’ frequent inability to resolve issues in public and on the floors of the House and the Senate makes the job of integrating military policies into national politics nearly undoable. 

Consider recent personnel debates: To some politicians and the current presidential administration, the military should embrace antiracism and remove extremists from the ranks. To others, these policies are too “woke” and aimed at purging particular political views from the services. The recent controversy over an Army major general’s use of social media to rebut politicians’ and media personalities’ attacks on soldiers is another case in point. Was the general being “political” by disputing claims made about women in military service? Was he being partisan? The use of force is another area where unresolved politics plague civil-military relations. Successive presidents wanted to align policy with public opinion that no longer supported the war in Afghanistan but faced substantial opposition to withdrawal from military advisers and members of Congress for years. 

The civil-military relationship cannot fix our political processes, but it can recognize the profound effects those processes have on the relationship and acknowledge that the party most responsible for them is civilian. The signers of the September letter said the most they could, given what knowledge we have about what it takes to maintain the civil-military relationship. But we need to know more, especially about how politics — about how civilians — factor into defense policymaking.



Alice Hunt Friend is vice president for research and analysis at the Institute for Security and Technology, and an adjunct professor at the School of International Service, American University, where she received her PhD. She has served at many levels as a civilian in the Department of Defense, most recently as the deputy chief of staff to the deputy secretary of defense. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons.