Three of the leading figures in the Trump administration are military men. When President Trump refers to “my generals,” he has Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly foremost in mind. By holding powerful positions almost always staffed by civilians, they have provoked widespread concern that civilian control of the military is eroding. As part of its ongoing Congressional Briefing series, the National History Center brought several prominent historians to Capitol Hill to provide perspectives on this subject.
Jacqueline Whitt, a military historian at the US Army War College, moderated the briefing and began by asking whether America is undergoing what the journalist Stephen Kinzer in a recent Boston Globe op-ed bluntly termed a “slow-motion military coup.” While the speakers at the briefing did not endorse that view, they raised serious concerns about the current situation. Richard Kohn, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has written extensively on American military history and civil-military relations. Eliot Cohen, professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has authored various books on the use of military force and served as counselor of the Department of State from 2007–09.
Kohn began by observing that military subordination to civilian authority was “baked into American political culture.” The Constitution assigned the role of commander-in-chief to the president and gave budgetary and oversight authority to Congress. Cohen noted that this system of civil-military relations is distinctive to the United States. Congress has an unusual degree of oversight of the military, and the dual control over National Guard units by the states and the federal government adds a further layer of civilian influence.
Yet civil-military relations have come under increased stress since World War II and the Cold War, according to Kohn. Especially worrisome are several developments that have taken place in recent decades. One is the growing social and professional gulf between the military and civil society. This can be seen, for example, in the declining number of veterans among CEOs, members of Congress, and other civilian leaders, and in the military’s increasing reliance on recruits from particular parts of the country and families with traditions of service. Another problem is the growing willingness of senior retired officers to endorse presidential candidates, which arguably reached its most partisan expression in General Michael Flynn’s fervid fulminations against Hillary Clinton—“lock her up”—during campaign rallies for Donald Trump.
Cohen cautioned that it is normal for tension to arise in civil-military relations and that political generals have appeared at various points in American history. But he noted that the military is a far more powerful and important institution than it was prior to America’s rise to global dominance, making these tensions more serious. Like Kohn (and Whitt in her introduction to the briefing), Cohen is concerned about the growing separation of the military from civilian elites, noting, for example, that ROTC programs are far less common in our leading universities than they once were. He also worries that the high public esteem currently enjoyed by the military harbors hidden dangers. Maintaining civilian control of the military depends as much on “norms” as laws, and those norms are under assault. ...