Andrew Bacevich has it both right and wrong concerning the current state of U.S. civil-military relations (“Warrior Politics,” May Atlantic). He correctly observes that “hallowed principles of civilian control … have eroded badly.” We have indeed drifted far from the ideal of true civilian supremacy: sound public oversight of legislative oversight of executive oversight of an accountable, self-policing military. Instead, we suffer from civilian subjugation, in which too many civilian officials are militarily and strategically illiterate; are advocates for, rather than overseers of, the military; or are more militaristic even than the military itself.
Bacevich’s concerns, though, about lower-ranking military personnel asserting themselves publicly on policy issues seem misplaced. It would be one thing if these voices were pushing us to war. But they are, at best, seeking to express their opposition to those in authority who misuse them for selfish political ends.
There is a tacit social contract of mutual rights, obligations, and expectations that binds the parties in the civil-military relationship to one another. Where civilian officials show themselves to be strategically incompetent, they have broken the contract. This is where the military must step up to provide strategically sound advice—to involve itself, that is, in the high politics of statecraft. When senior officers fail to do so, who is left to fulfill this obligation?
Had the military’s senior officers spoken up for those in the ranks when it counted—before marching mutely off to war in Iraq—the few civic-minded dissenters in uniform who are now speaking out would have had no reason to do so.
Gregory D. Foster National Defense University
Andrew Bacevich writes: “To assuage uneasy consciences, the many who do not serve proclaim their high regard for the few who do.” I find his cynicism hurtfully shocking. Some of us express our high regard for our soldiers because we hold them in high regard. As the sister of a National Guard soldier who went to Iraq this year precisely because he’s willing to die for the principle of civilian leadership while we at home sort this mess out politically, I can state that my high regard for such a man has nothing to do with an uneasy conscience.
Also, I take issue with his assertion that soldiers should be limited to making themselves heard through voting. In modern politics one’s point of view is worth nothing if it cannot be publicized or advocated collectively. Furthermore, our constitutional rights are expressly not limited to voting. Rather they extend to freedoms of expression, especially where political speech is concerned. To constrain only soldiers, among citizens, from expressing their views is tantamount to disenfranchising them.
Andrew Bacevich replies:
Gregory Foster wants soldiers to involve themselves in “the high politics of statecraft,” apparently assuming that soldiers will see things his way. But there’s no guarantee that the politicking soldiers will share Foster’s enlightened views.
Since writing “Warrior Politics,” I learned of another embryonic soldiers’ lobby, this one the brainchild of a naval officer currently serving in Iraq. Calling itself the “Appeal for Courage,” this initiative (www.appealforcourage.org) is petitioning Congress to “halt any calls for retreat” in Iraq. With that end in mind, the 2,000-plus soldiers who’ve endorsed this petition urge their “political leaders to actively oppose media efforts which embolden my enemy while demoralizing American support at home.” In short, they advocate censorship—an example of what we can anticipate from a politically active military.
I apologize for delivering a hurtful shock to Emily Miller. Apparently, she’s keen to allow soldiers the same rights as citizens not in uniform. If she gets her way, we won’t have an army; we’ll have a rabble. Absent the constraints that she finds offensive, the discipline that is a precondition to military effectiveness will vanish.