As soon as Joe Biden announced that he would nominate General Lloyd Austin to serve as his secretary of defense, critics began to question the choice. Austin retired from a long career in the U.S. Army just four years ago and, like General James Mattis before him, would thus require a congressional waiver of the rule requiring active-duty military personnel to wait seven years before becoming defense secretary. Under Mattis, the critics contend, civilian control of the military had already decayed considerably. Austin’s confirmation, in hearings that begin this week, would risk accelerating that decay by handing the job over to a recently retired general—one who may lack the political experience and comfort relying on a robust civilian staff—for the second time in four years.
But to focus entirely on the implications of Austin’s (or Mattis’s) nomination neglects a much deeper challenge to civilian control of the military—above all, in the culture of professionalism that dominates the U.S. military’s officer corps today. The problem is not, as many might suspect, that officers are too political; it is that they think they can ignore politics altogether. The dominant culture of professionalism in the military today maintains a strict separation between the military and civilian spheres and bars officers from thinking about politics. It consequently undercuts the military’s role in ensuring the United States wins its wars and absolves military leaders of responsibility when the country fails to do so. That culture also leads the military to resent when civilian leaders intervene in battlefield decisions, hindering civilians’ ability to scrutinize military activity and ensure it serves civilians’ goals. Simply put, the prevailing culture of military professionalism undermines U.S. national security.
The most important question about the future of civilian control, accordingly, is not whether Austin does or does not receive the congressional waiver that would allow him to serve. It is whether Austin or any other secretary of defense can catalyze a culture shift in the U.S. military.
Today’s culture of military professionalism reflects the framework that the political scientist Samuel Huntington articulated in his 1957 book, The Soldier and the State. Huntington presented a concept of objective control of the military, which requires that the military and political leadership adhere to a strict separation of spheres. The military cultivates expertise in the management of violence; civilians grapple with the political dimensions of the use of force. Siloed in their respective spheres, each side respects the other’s domain.
The result is a set of informal but widely held expectations about how military officers should think and behave in their jobs and in relation to civilian leaders—a culture of professionalism. That culture affects how military officers understand their relationship to politics and political thinking. It renders them wary of wading into debates with civilian leaders that bear on domestic or intragovernmental politics. It requires an austere politics-free mindset focused on the realm of “pure military activity,” neglecting the fact that there is no such thing. Officers are taught to keep their heads down and stay in their lanes.
In some respects, that approach serves the country well. Officers respect civilian authority and remain committed to keeping out of partisan and electoral politics. They lead a military that exemplifies operational and tactical excellence in its overseas wars. In other ways, though, the separation of spheres concept undercuts national security.
For one thing, this culture of professionalism works crosswise with the demands of civilian control. Civilian control is often taken to mean that the military simply follows orders, but that is too narrow an approach. For the political leadership to shape military policy and activity and align it with their interests, civilians require more than the power to make decisions. They need a military advisory process suited to their style and needs, one that is fluid and interactive and considers military means and political ends in tandem. Civilians often want from military advisers a theory of how force might (or might not) advance some acceptable political outcome—an outcome they may not have decided upon beforehand.
The culture of professionalism also makes many military officers apt to be uncomfortable with, or even resentful, of civilian demands. The process becomes essentially transactional: military leaders expect to be provided definitive guidance from civilians and respond by devising options, in a potentially iterative but inherently transactional process that reflects the notion of clear boundaries between military and political domains. When civilians fail to play their assigned part, military leaders often chalk it up to dysfunction and poor leadership instead of to the character of the political decision-making process.
The separation of spheres creates an aversion to civilian oversight of what officers consider military activity. In Huntington’s approach, military autonomy is not a privilege but a right: the military should control operational and tactical matters free from outside interference. All organizations bristle under scrutiny, but the separation of spheres concept treats civilians as outsiders who violate the rightful character of civil-military relations when they intervene in operational and tactical matters. The problem is made even worse when military leaders think that civilian interventions are driven by domestic politics—an inappropriate imposition, in their view, on the pure domain of military activity. When politicians limit troops, impose timelines on operations, or otherwise micromanage events on the battlefield, they are, the thinking goes, treading on the military’s terrain.
The problem is that strategic effectiveness may hinge on intrusive civilian oversight. The tactical and operational levels of war have their own logic and rhythm and can too easily become disconnected from larger political considerations. As history shows, states can notch many battlefield successes without achieving strategic or political success in armed conflict. Accordingly, domestic political constraints cannot be dismissed as external impositions on strategy and operations. A strategy disconnected from them is almost certain to fail.
Many military commanders certainly know this, but that awareness alone is not enough. There is a reason why the country’s national security architecture includes at its core a civilian-led and civilian-staffed office of the secretary of defense (and why, in creating the position in 1947, Congress required several years between an officer’s retirement and nomination): civilian policymakers in the Pentagon, who administer oversight on a daily basis, help ensure the integration of ends and means. They are the tools through which the president and secretary of defense translate political goals into military means. Civilians might not always be successful, but if their enterprise is viewed with disdain, they are being set up to fail.
Another set of problems flows from the ban on political thinking in strategic assessment. By its very nature, strategy combines political and military considerations. Strategists can’t avoid getting into the political muck: resource constraints, domestic and intragovernmental politics, the politics of allies and adversaries. But military leaders are taught to retreat when discussion veers toward such considerations.
Most insidious of all, these norms of professionalism undercut the military’s sense of ownership for the outcomes of the country’s wars. Military leaders tend to view their job as delivering options and executing the option that civilians choose. Commanders judge success based on whether they achieved the military objective of the mission or campaign outlined in that option. Whether that success translates into enduring strategic or political success falls outside their domain of responsibility. The war—to win or lose—is the civilians’ responsibility.
Addressing such problems requires the creation of an alternative culture of military professionalism—one that encourages officers to engage in political thinking rather than hide from it. That should start with how officers are educated. Service academies and professional military education institutions (such as the Army War College and National Defense University) should prioritize teaching civil-military relations in their curricula. Their lessons should emphasize alternative conceptions of professionalism and scrutinize the separation of spheres as it applies to military officers.
Officers themselves need to cultivate a greater awareness of the assumptions that underpin their mindsets and scrutinize the absolutist formulation of the apolitical ethic popular today. Rather than distancing themselves from engagement with politics altogether, officers should strive to become politically aware and astute. This will prepare them to constructively engage with politics when necessary, such as during strategic assessment, and to cultivate the mindset needed to keep the military out of the partisan fray.
For its part, Congress should mandate that the Department of Defense better institutionalize the study of military professionalism. In the past, chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have occasionally spearheaded such efforts, but a more sustained effort is needed. At various points in their careers, military officers should be required to study military ethics, civil-military relations, and alternative conceptions of military professionalism. Such efforts should not just reinforce the existing culture but debate its strengths and weaknesses.
But none of these actions will bear fruit until civilian and military leaders recognize the limitations of the separation of spheres. That, more than whether General Austin becomes secretary of defense, will determine if they can more effectively work together to advance the United States’ national security interests.
RISA BROOKS is Allis Chalmers Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University.