NEWPORT, R.I. – Mackubin ‘Mac’ Owens, professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College (NWC), offers commentary on American civil-military relations in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. a decade ago in his new book, “US Civil Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.”
“Civil-military relations in America have essentially been a bargain to determine the responsibilities and prerogatives of the civilian leadership on one hand and the military on the other,” said Owens, who until recently also served as Associate Dean of Academics for Electives and Directed Research at NWC.
He says the United States remains fortunate in that its military has defended the Republic successfully on the battlefield while avoiding threats to civilian control. The author added that “tensions have always existed and demonstrate that periodically from the American Revolution to the present, civil-military relations in America essentially have constituted a bargain among three parties: the American people, the government, and the military as an institution.”
“Occasionally throughout U.S. history, certain circumstances—political, strategic, social, technological, among others—have changed to such a degree that the terms of the existing civil-military bargain become obsolete,” Owens said. “The resulting disequilibrium and tension have led the parties to renegotiate the bargain to restore balance in the civil-military equation.”
The author noted the substantial renegotiation of civil-military relations took place at the end of the Cold War and after the attacks of 9/11. He also outlined the major questions that lie at the heart of civil-military relations: Who controls the military and how? What degree of military influence is appropriate in a liberal society? What is the appropriate role of the military? What pattern of civil-military relations is most likely to enhance military effectiveness? Who serves?
“I examined these questions both before and after 9/11 and tried to place them in both theoretical and historical context,” Owens said. “I believe this topic is essential for anyone studying public policy, civil-military relations and securities studies.”
The book uses examples of civil-military relations from the Clinton to the Obama administrations. It recaps the often unhealthy states of civil-military relations during the 1990’s and the unprecedented hostility by the uniformed military toward President Bill Clinton, whose anti-military stance as a young man during the Vietnam War years did not endear him to soldiers.
“Many of the highly publicized disputes between the uniformed military and the Clinton administration reflected cultural tensions between the military as an institution and liberal civilian society,” Owens said. “Most of these disputes focused on social issues such as women in combat and military service by open homosexuals.”
But Owens shows that public criticism of civilian leaders by military officers did not end with Clinton but actually increased during the Bush administration, peaking with the so-called revolt of the generals in the spring of 2006, when several retired Army and Marine Corps generals publicly and harshly criticized Secretary Rumsfeld for his conduct of the Iraq War. And while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has done a great deal to improve the civil-military climate, he contends, tensions remain as recent episodes illustrate.
“These events include Secretary Gates' decision to fire two service secretaries and a service chief, his recommendation not to re-nominate the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a second term, and forcing the retirement of a combatant commander,” Owens said. “In addition there was the public disagreement on military strategy between President Obama and the former ground commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal and the latter's subsequent relief."
He concluded “all these events make it clear that, while mutual suspicion and misunderstanding have abated some since Rumsfeld's departure, the state of U.S. civil-military relations remains turbulent and potentially contentious.”
The book includes his ideas about renegotiating the U.S. civil-military bargain into the future. For instance, Owens points to particular problems arising from a "post-modern" military, a relatively small, highly educated and professional force, reared to conduct constabulary operations rather than conventional inter-state wars. The ultimate goal, he says, is to achieve fundamentally balanced, harmonious, and effective civil-military relations in the future, especially during times of war.
Owens is also a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and Editor of Orbis, FPRI's journal. He was Editor-In-Chief of the defense journal Strategic Review from 1990 to 1997.
By David Reese, Naval War College Public Affairs
NOTE: the views expressed in "Civil Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain” are Mackubin Owen’s own, and do not speak for the U.S. Naval War College. Additionally, his views do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Naval War College, the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense or any other agency or branch of the U.S. government.