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Is Civilian Control of the Military in Jeopardy?

President Lyman: All right, Colonel. Let’s sum it up, shall we? You’re suggesting what?

Colonel Casey: I’m not sure, Mr. President, just some possibilities, what we call, uh “capabilities” in military intelligence …

Lyman: You got something against the English language, Colonel?

Casey [1]: No, Sir.

Lyman [2]: Then speak it plainly, if you will.

Casey [1]: I’m suggesting, Mr. President, there’s a military plot to take over the government. This may occur some time this coming Sunday.

Let’s be honest, what classic-movie fan hasn’t thought once or twice about the 1964 film Seven Days in May, a brilliantly paranoid gem exploring the anatomy of an American military coup during the Cold War, since President-elect Donald Trump started announcing his plans to nominate one recently retired general after another to the highest positions of his administration?

One could argue that many elements of the movie’s plot are present today: a military infrastructure bred and fed on decades of war is suddenly threatened by a peacetime posture, defense cuts, and a deal with a rival power that’s unpopular with many in the ranks. In the movie, one general, played forbiddingly by Burt Lancaster, believes it is his duty to right the wrongs of the civilian leadership (a peace deal with the Russians) and, thanks to the size and autonomy lavished upon the post-WWII military-industrial complex, can marshal the makings of an elaborate coup right under the noses of official Washington.


Getting from real-world Trump to celluloid Seven Days is, of course, a fun exercise in hyperbole. But critics say that movies like that exist for a reason—the nation was founded on the healthy fear that unbalanced power in the hands of the military could eventually lead to dictatorship, that the military as an institution is not wired for democratic policymaking, governing, or statecraft. Its coding, rather, is to defend, deter, or kill.

In a post-Kennedy world, where Vietnam was fast becoming much more than a few advisers dropped in to help the French, war seemed an inevitable reality directed from behind the curtain of the political and military establishment. Mixed in with paranoia over fascism and a growing cultural divide, you had the makings of a great movie (writer Rod Serling took great advantage).

Today’s reality is quite different, but no less vulnerable to political manipulations and constitutional crises. It is for that reason that some political scientists and former members of the military who spoke with TAC warn against an overreliance on recently retired “military men” at the top level of the new Trump administration. While they don’t believe we are on the brink of a military takeover, they are invariably concerned with the global optics, how a brass-heavy inner circle would influence decision-making, and whether that could pave the way for a darker turn in the future.

At question: Gen. James Mattis, picked to head the Department of Defense, who will need a congressional waiver to serve;  Gen. John Kelly, selected to head of Department of Homeland Security; and retired General Mike Flynn, chosen as Trump’s national-security advisor. Trump has also tapped Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander who served in the Iraq War, for the position of interior secretary.

Taken separately, nearly all engender enthusiastic respect for their skills and intellectual capabilities, especially Mattis, who by all reports [3] is well-loved in the military community, particularly by veterans who fought under him in Iraq. Outside, he is described as a man of a forthright nature who is well-read, a good listener, and more than capable of handling the leviathan bureaucracy that is the Pentagon.

While Kelly evokes [4] similar strains of confidence, there are rising questions over a retired four-star heading a domestic security post. And with Flynn comes a much cloudier picture: while he’s viewed as a brilliant tactician, there are growing doubts about his temperament [5] and fitness, owing to his personal politics, as well as his reputation as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan and Iraq and as head of Defense Intelligence Agency. Unlike the others, he does not have to be confirmed by the Senate.

As a whole, experts say the problems posed by these selections are—unlike those posed by the fictional Gen. Mattoon Scott of Seven Days in May—more nuanced echos of alarm that could become full-on sirens for future administrations if left unchecked.

Loss of Civilian Control?  

While these men are currently civilians, the fact they just retired from the military (where they served in combat commissions in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars) has evoked some powerful appeals to the long-held doctrine of civilian control of the military.

The commonly held idea is that the founders did not want to replicate England’s monarchical control of the military. Chuck Cushman [6], a veteran and now dean of academics at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs, insists the American resistance to military control dates back even further. He points to Oliver Cromwell, the successful British commander who won the English Civil War for the Parliamentarians and subsequently brought about the execution of King Charles I. Cromwell’s culminating power led to the overthrow of the ruling party, and with help from his supporters he became “Lord Protector of England” in 1653, after which he led a brutal purge of Catholics across the British Isles.

“I blame Oliver Cromwell. He is why the founders were dedicated to building the [American] constitutional structure this way”—keeping powers diluted [7], with the president as commander-in-chief but Congress in charge of raising, governing, and supporting the country’s defenses and declaring war, said Cushman. George Washington could have been Cromwell, having just won the Revolution, but resigned his commission [8], knowing full well the history, Cushman insists. The “founders looked at each other and said, he is the only one among us who is strong enough to not fall into that trap. They built this structure to avoid that trap.”

So what of the “trap” today?

“[The country] is not at risk of a military coup; it is what I call the ‘velvet militarization’ of American foreign and national security policy over the next four years,” writes Gordon Adams [9], professor emeritus at American University’s School of International Service and co-editor of Mission Creep: The Militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy.

Military officers, he says, “view the world differently,” in the “structured, hierarchical, strategic and operational way” that “focuses on the uses of military force.” Meanwhile, civilian analysts, strategists, and diplomats focus on statecraft, broader strategy, nuance, and knowing when to set “one sticky problem aside to make progress on another,” opined Adams. Both are needed in balance for the president to navigate the shoals of today’s security policies.

The federal government has become increasingly militarized already. Trump’s sudden reliance on these men is swinging the pendulum further in that direction, risking “cementing in place ‘the military-industrial complex’ that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of,” Adams charged.

“It’s not automatically dangerous, but, boy, I can see the red lights are turning on my warning panels, saying we got to watch this,” said Cushman, who is more concerned about the lack of foreign-policy and national-security experience among Trump’s other nominees—and Trump himself, who may too easily defer to the “can do” generals more popular with the American public. “I don’t think it would be malicious, no one is going to wake up and say, ‘This is dictator day,’ but the [military guys] may just look around and say, ‘This is not being done correctly and I know what to do.’”

“So many people that Trump’s picking who are not retired generals are not experienced in government, and they are not going to have the weight. Are they capable of looking at General Mattis and saying, ‘I disagree’? You need need someone of similar heft and similar gravitas who can serve as a civilian counterweight to what might be a very military approach to problem solving,” said Cushman.

Another View

This would not be the first time a general served so close to the president in recent times. Colin Powell [10]was still a commissioned lieutenant general in the Army when he served as Reagan’s national-security advisor from 1987 to 1989. He retired as a four-star in 1993 and served as President Bush’s secretary of state in 2001.

Michael Desch [11], professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, says he is less concerned about what Trump’s generals say about the future of civilian control of the military than he is about what it says about Trump’s attitude toward the non-military talent pool.

“What I’m uncomfortable with, is the implication that that we don’t have the depth in the civilian world, in national-security experience, to fill those positions,” Desch said. Moreover, the president-elect appears to reinforcing public opinion that the military is the only branch of government that can be trusted. “What does that say about the rest of us, that only the military can save us? Then we are in more trouble than I imagine.”

“There is a degree of being star-struck by generals, not just with Trump, but with America,” points out Sean McFate [12], a former paratrooper and National Defense University professor who believes the four-stars will be more easily confirmed by the Senate than anyone else. With Mattis, Trump gets to bolster his own lack of military and foreign-policy experience, and position someone in the Pentagon’s plush E-Ring who won’t be swallowed whole.

“[Trump] doesn’t want to get hoodwinked, and Mattis won’t get hoodwinked by the bureaucracy. This gives Trump street cred by association,” McFate offered.

That’s good for Trump, but McFate believes stacking his inner circle with combat generals makes for “horrible” foreign-policy optics. “These are all combat-veteran military men. They have spent the last decade and a half at war. It’s not impossible that other countries make look at this in a very threatening manner, particularly the appointment of Flynn, who once called Islamism [13] ‘a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people’ that ‘has to be excised.’”

Is Civilian Control Any Better?

Still, McFate, Desch, and others acknowledge that civilian policymakers haven’t exactly wrapped themselves in glory over the last 15 years, throwing into question whether the civilian-control doctrine, as Georgetown University professor Rosa Brooks puts it [14], “has become unmoored from its original purpose.”

For one thing, today’s U.S. military has elaborate internal checks and balances and a deeply ingrained respect for democracy and the rule of law. It’s difficult to imagine any active-duty general or group of officers, no matter how popular, persuading the troops to ignore or overturn the results of an election or a properly passed law. (That’s even truer for retired military officers. Technically, they are civilians. They can still give orders if they want to, but even the lowliest private is free to tell a retired general to take a hike, subject only to the constraints of courtesy.)

Brooks goes further, saying that in these modern times with blurred lines, when civilians are prosecuting wars and the military doing civilian work, “civilian control of the military” has “become a rule of aesthetics, not ethics, and its invocation is a soothing ritual that makes us feel better without accomplishing anything of value.”

“What bad things do we imagine would be more likely to happen if retired generals make up half of the next president’s cabinet?”

It was Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993, who unsuccessfully attempted to put some brakes [15] on military force in Bosnia. He was outnumbered by President Clinton’s civilian national-security team. Later, as secretary of state [16], he admitted he was railroaded into using bad intelligence screened by Vice President Dick Cheney’s office to justify invading Iraq.

“I’m much more comfortable with General Mattis for secretary of defense than I would be with a Paul Wolfowitz or some other neoconservative who certainly would continue the same sort of policies that have unfortunately come to characterize our national security strategy for the last 20 years at least,” said Desch.

Sure, says McFate, “there are problems with civilian control as a sort of religious dogma,” with the the civilian drive to war in Iraq as the perfect example. But there must be a balance. “You don’t want to set a precedent that is going to haunt you in years to come.”

Still, as some remember, in Seven Days in May, it was Col. Jiggs Casey (played by Kirk Douglas)—not a civilian—who risked everything to drop the dime on a rogue general, thwarting a coup and saving country from constitutional crisis. If reality follows fiction, such courage will be welcome, whether the official exhibiting it has stripes on their sleeve or not.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Is Civilian Control of the Military in Jeopardy?"

#1 Comment By SHARKXX On December 21, 2016 @ 12:22 am

Patrick’s War Party already dictates pretty much when and where our service men and women go. One can only hope President Trump will learn to stay No! to these foreign extensions.

#2 Comment By libertarian jerry On December 21, 2016 @ 1:12 am

As the article states history is full of instances of military coups and takeovers of domestic civilian governments. Especially,but not confined to,banana republics and Middle Eastern tribal lands. With that said.I believe that the real danger to and the eventual destruction of the American Republic will not be the Warfare state but the impossible to maintain and corrosive Welfare state. Despite the Treasury draining wars of the American Empire,this Republic cannot stand the morally,fiscally or institutional destruction of the Nation when over half of the population produces nothing yet lives off of the wealth that is created by a diminishing number of the productive. In essence,welfare states always degenerate into police states. That is the verdict of centuries of history and America will be no different.

#3 Comment By LouisM On December 21, 2016 @ 9:53 am

Let me offer beliefs that many americans share:
-Bill Clinton was a rapist, an abuser, a murderer and sold secrets to China.
-BushII lied about weapons of mass destruction to engage in Mideast proxy wars for Mideast allies.
-Obama lied about being a US citizen, a Christian and upholding the constitution. Infact he was a Kenyan/Indonesian muslim with anti-American, communist, racist (anti-white), bigot (anti-Christian).
-Obama and Hillary Clinton used the IRS, the FBI, the CIA, the state department and the white house to attack opponents and engage in racketeering, collusion, corruption, bribery, extortion murder for profit thru a secret server.
-Under Obama and Clinton we have had race riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, riots on college campus’s, free speech has been all but extinguished at most colleges and universities. Boys and Men have been disenfranchised from dating, marriage, husbandry, education and the workplace by anti-male feminism and social justice (cultural Marxism).

Argue the above as much as you wish true or false but the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand all have organized leftist insurgence that will tare down the pillars of free and democratic society. Some just want welfare and social programs, others want autocratic superstate communism, socialism or fascism while others want an Islamic politico-theocracy.

When faced with an insurgency that has the potential to bring down both the govt and the nation-state, then I don’t think generals being appointed to political positions is inappropriate. Eisenhower was a magnificent president.

#4 Comment By TomV On December 22, 2016 @ 8:55 am

An excellent well balanced discussion of the very significant issue. My complements to Ms. Vlahos.

#5 Comment By Luther On December 22, 2016 @ 10:45 am

The article quotes a paratrooper saying “There is a degree of being star-struck by generals, not just with Trump, but with America,” but still falls into that very trap.

Here is a quick Mattis quote to show his intellectual vacuity and neo-con bentness:

“I would just point out one question for you to look into: What is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One and it’s Iran.”

Here is Vlahos: “[Mattis] a man of a forthright nature who is well-read, a good listener”

I suggest Mattis read something besides Flynn/Ledeen latest neo-con opus if he thinks Iran loves ISIS.

#6 Comment By TZX4 On December 22, 2016 @ 10:50 am

@libertarian Jerry….. ” over half of the population produces nothing yet lives off of the wealth that is created by a diminishing number of the productive.” With all due respect, I am calling you on this Right Wing propaganda talking point.

A quick check of wikipedia on US Demographics indicates that 33.4% of the US population is under 14 or over 65 years of age. Do you want them to work? There are lots of other people with justifiable reasons for not participating in the labor force.

#7 Comment By Richard A. Hough On December 22, 2016 @ 2:46 pm

Civilian control of the military is by no means under threat. President-elect Trumps’ retired-generals will be kept in check by tens of thousands of over-educated civilians with a mandate to counter-balance the stereotypical “get err done generals” within the Department of Defense. Civilians within the DoD, particular those with doctorates, have transformed the military to such a degree that professional military publications love to contemplate if Clausewitz is dead, killed by a philanthropic style of warfare where the winner is declared based on how little blood they are able to spill as they seek their “interests” and less so the “will” of their opposition – can’t say “enemy” today.

Perhaps some “get err done generals” might get things done faster and end the era of victory(less) decade-long wars that the U.S. appears to be entangled in since JFK rid the Pentagon of its “Heroes”.

#8 Comment By marcus On December 22, 2016 @ 10:56 pm

It’s questionable how much under civilian control the military ever is. Witness CENTCOM commander Lt.Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian’s ordering the attack on Syrian troops to scuttle the Sec of State’s agreement with Russia to negotiate an end to hostilities there. Truth be told, that action was rather an outlier in recent history, however. After Bush II’s Iraq debacle, Generals have more often tried to put the brake on neoliberal chickenhawk foreign adventurism.

#9 Comment By Oakland McCulloch On December 24, 2016 @ 8:26 am

President Elect Trump is not nominating any more retired Generals than most of the Presidents before him. He is surrounding himself with smart people and as long as he listens to their council he is going to be a good President.

#10 Comment By ElteCommInc. On December 24, 2016 @ 8:52 pm

The greater concern or at the initial concerns is the environment that exists in the halls of power. And the is the constant fear mongering. The same tactics used by local official concerning crime and potential mayhem are the same fear tactics that has been pressing the country for the use of force abroad.

And with a press corps as weak as it is as they serve as the mouthpieces for fear — there is little pushback if any that hits the mainstream.

so whether its a war on police or war on the planet by ISIS/ISIL fear priming the pump makes any environment ripe for autocratic leadership military or otherwise.

Today it’s china russia ISIS/ISIL roving blacks looking to take out whites especially the police.

The issues that should be frightening: income gaps an unaccountable financial system budget deficits, unchecked immigration, unaccountable leadership wit a very bad record, trade deficit economic growth below 2% barely hits the meter. Even immigration is likely to take a back seat to all of the fears of foes thousands of miles away.

By the time the generals stage a coup, I am not sure anyone would notice. They might not even care because it just might not matter.

#11 Comment By Jane 5660 On December 25, 2016 @ 2:00 am

I don’t understand what the big deal is about Trump’s selection of three generals for positions in his administration. It’s not an extremely high number compared to recent presidents. Obama had two generals (Jones, Shinseki) and an admiral (Blair) in his first administration, and I heard no fuss about how he was in danger of allowing the military to take over the country.

#12 Comment By Hexexis On January 2, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

The crux of the problem is that during these past 20, 30 yr, the DoD & the W.H. Natl. Security Council have usurped the forn. policy bailiwick of the State Dept.

Melvin Goodman wrote in his “National Insecurity: the Cost of American Militarism” that in 1994 Sens. Helms & McConnell (THAT McConnell) forced Pres. Clinton’s hand on a chemical weapons act by dumping the Arms Control & Disarmament Agency (& U.S. Info. Serv.) into State, thereby rendering State just another bloated Cabinet dept. (SecyState Wm. Christopher approved.)

As SecDef, Gen. Mattis will at the helm of our chief forn. policymakers & forn. intell. analysts; meaning intell. will be (as it has been) in the main mil. intell. that implies U.S. mil. action. So don’t expect those forn. entanglements to be alleviated any time soon.