Bush and the Generals

Courtesy Reuters


It is no secret that the relationship between the U.S. military and civilians in the Bush administration has deteriorated markedly since the start of the Iraq war. In 2006, according to a Military Times poll, almost 60 percent of servicemen and servicewomen did not believe that civilians in the Pentagon had their "best interests at heart." In its December 2006 report, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group -- of which Robert Gates was a member until President George W. Bush tapped him to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense last year -- explicitly recommended that "the new Secretary of Defense should make every effort to build healthy civil-military relations, by creating an environment in which the senior military feel free to offer independent advice not only to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon but also to the President and the National Security Council."

But the tensions in civil-military relations hardly started with Iraq; the quagmire there has simply exposed a rift that has existed for decades. During the Vietnam War, many military officers came to believe that their unquestioning obedience to civilian leaders had contributed to the debacle -- and that, in the future, senior military leaders should not quietly acquiesce when the civilians in Washington start leading them into strategic blunders.

For a time after Vietnam, civilian and military elites avoided a direct confrontation as military leaders focused on rebuilding the armed forces to fight a conventional war against the Warsaw Pact and civilian officials were largely content to defer to them on how to do so. But the end of the Cold War uncovered deep fissures over whether to use the military for operations other than foreign wars and how to adapt military institutions to changing social mores.

The Bush administration arrived in Washington resolved to reassert civilian control over the military -- a desire that became even more pronounced after September 11. Rumsfeld vowed to "transform" the military and to use it to wage the global war on

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