In June, U.S. President Barack Obama acted swiftly and wisely in relieving General
In fact, the current state of relations between
Yet Gates and Obama have also shown forbearance. Last October, in the midst of the administration's review of the country's
Nonetheless, McChrystal failed to heed the warnings. It remains inexplicable why the general and his staff engaged in locker-room antics and spoke so contemptuously of their civilian superiors. Some have suggested that McChrystal's career in the shadowy environment of special operations left him unschooled in dealing with the media and ill equipped for the political demands of a four-star position. Such an assessment, however, gives him too little credit and ignores his time at
The problem, then, is not one of ham-fisted media relations but that McChrystal and his inner circle of handpicked, highly experienced officers held such attitudes in the first place. McChrystal has not denied the offensive quotations cited in the Rolling Stone profile; indeed, he apologized to those who were maligned. He and his staff expressed an intolerable level of disrespect for and mistrust of their superiors, which is completely at odds with the military's professional ethic, the constitutional principle of civilian control, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Respected observers of political-military relations, such as
Political-military tensions have been a recurring theme throughout U.S. history. During the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, President
This tension, however, can be either destructive or constructive. To the extent that political-military tension fosters informed decision-making through analysis and debate, it can produce effective policy and strategy. For example, President
Unfortunately, history does not always place forthright, well-meaning, talented, and stable individuals at the nexus of political-military relations. During the American Civil War, in the period when
The current political-military climate is good in both absolute and historical terms. Moreover, historically speaking, the public standing of the military is high. According to annual Gallup polls, the military now enjoys the trust of 82 percent of Americans, compared with under 60 percent for the decade that followed the Vietnam War. Americans appreciate the sacrifices that soldiers make and generally believe that they are carrying out their responsibilities bravely, competently, and, for the most part, ethically.
Contrary to the musings of some pundits in the wake of the McChrystal affair, the military profession supports civilian control. Officers are educated in the theoretical and practical ramifications of that responsibility -- from the moment they take their first oath, cadets learn that they have sworn to protect the U.S. Constitution, and their political science and history courses teach them that civilian control of the military is essential to the safe and effective functioning of government.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Although the U.S. military has maintained its professional credibility, the country's two long wars are becoming increasingly taxing. Under this strain, the military is not doing enough to maintain and expand its professional expertise. Over the past nine years, a large portion of the U.S. armed forces have been deployed in
Further, the military is paying less attention to professional education than in the past. Granted, this is not unusual -- the U.S. armed forces have repeatedly shrunk the time devoted to professional education in wartime and expanded it again in peacetime. Yet the duration of these current wars has made the education deficit more chronic. The demands of two wars require frequent rotations of officers to combat assignments, meaning that some officers are opting out of professional schooling in order to return to the field. Those who attend command and staff schools -- the institutions where midlevel officers learn how to control larger units and more complex forces -- are there for shorter periods, and the curricula are focused more on readying them for the next operational assignment than on offering a broader, deeper education.
In January, I attended an army conference aimed at coming up with new ways to train officers for strategic leadership, including preparing them for responsibilities at the nexus of the political-military relationship. There was much talk of "finding the next Petraeus" -- in other words, stamping the label "soldier-scholar" on combat-hardened officers in the hope that they will become strategic leaders, rather than committing time and effort to formal education. This is a shallow-minded formulation that indicates little commitment to professional reform. If the military selects its generals simply as a function of their 25 years of perseverance, demanding combat assignments, and abbreviated professional schooling -- with no qualitative winnowing -- the U.S. military's strategic leadership will only get weaker, with disastrous consequences for its ability to provide sound military advice to its civilian masters.
ACTIVE RETIREMENT COMMUNITY
The military is not working hard enough to maintain its standing as an apolitical instrument of national policy. The problem does not lie with the active-duty officer corps. Although many studies over the past two decades have shown that military officers tend to self-identify with the
In the 2008 election, more than a hundred retired generals and admirals publicly endorsed one of the presidential candidates. Retired officers have the right to endorse any candidate, of course, but by abrogating the ethos of nonpartisanship, they create problems for the military profession. In 2000,
The spate of inappropriate political activity continued. In the spring of 2006, six retired generals publicly called for Rumsfeld to resign, which preceded Bush's decision to replace him that November. Equally troubling was the revelation in 2008 that numerous retired officers who had become military commentators on television had parroted talking points provided by the
Although such instances are becoming more prevalent in today's political and media environment, they do not raise altogether new questions. In 1959,
If retired officers want to engage in political advocacy -- including criticizing current policy or serving officials and endorsing political candidates -- they should explicitly distance themselves from the armed services, stating that they are speaking for themselves alone. If they do not, the Joint Chiefs of Staff should take steps to curb their activity: first, through private persuasion, and then, if needed, by publicly disavowing such behavior as harmful to the profession. Of course, retired officers who choose to run for political office should not be subject to these sanctions, since by virtue of their entry into partisan politics, they will be removed from their old profession.
Finally, the U.S. military may be jeopardizing its reputation for professionalism by not being vigilant enough in protecting its professional jurisdiction: the practice of ethical and effective warfare in pursuit of national policy. The overwhelming majority of people in the defense community -- ranging from civilian and military leaders to national security scholars -- believe that ever since the military began to shrink after the Cold War, it was inevitable that the country would come to rely on contractors to meet the heavy demands of fighting active wars. This idea is so advanced within defense circles as to be almost beyond challenge -- yet it is wrong. It is not the nature of warfare that has changed since the collapse of the
The predicament extends beyond the battlefield. As USA Today has reported, over the past several years, the U.S. military has hired 158 retired flag officers as advisers and senior mentors at rates ranging from
Defense contractors do not hire retired flag officers for their business acumen, and their military currency atrophies quickly. Contractors hire retired officers for their access to former colleagues and subordinates. Military leaders should work to change these practices: specifically, they should ask
Yet corruption is not the worst of it. The military routinely relies on contractors to produce analytic studies and even to write its war-fighting doctrine. In perhaps the most egregious example of this kind of outsourcing, the army relies on a private contractor, MPRI, to draft the manual that governs the employment of contractors on the battlefield. One of the primary functions of any profession is to define its expertise theoretically and to advance it through continuous scholarship. A military that relies on contractors for its doctrine is farming out its thinking -- the armed forces fight with their brains as much as with their arms.
By contracting out many core functions, the U.S. military is not only ceding its professional jurisdiction to private enterprise but also losing its ability to sustain and renew expertise, to develop the next generation of professional officers, and to nurture creative thinking. A military that chooses short-term expediency over long-term professional health is also choosing slow professional death.
Although only a vocal but prominent minority of retired generals and other officers are misbehaving, their offenses threaten the credibility of the entire military. Professions gain and maintain the trust of society with proven expertise derived from a long, formal education, years of practice, and a demonstrated commitment to employing that expertise wisely and ethically. If the military loses the confidence of society, it will be exceedingly difficult to establish the interpersonal trust essential for effective political-military relations.
Matthew Moten is a Colonel in the U.S. Army. He is writing a history of U.S. political-military relations that will be published next year. The views expressed here are his own
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