Magazine Article - Foreign Affairs

The Real Threat to Civilian Control of the Military: The Officer Corps Can No Longer Simply Ignore Politics

| Jan. 18, 2021

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.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Risa Brooks, "The Real Threat to Civilian Control of the Military: The Officer Corps Can No Longer Simply Ignore Politics," Foreign Affairs, January 18, 2021.

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