In June, U.S. President Barack Obama acted swiftly and wisely in relieving General Stanley McChrystal of command of the war in Afghanistan. In removing McChrystal for making disparaging comments about civilian leaders in a Rolling Stone article, the president reasserted the constitutional principle of civilian control of the military. He also immediately appointed General David Petraeus as the new commanding general in Afghanistan, with the U.S. mission continuing as before. Republicans did not try to exploit the situation for political advantage. There was no crisis, no rending of the fabric of political-military relations, and no threat to the U.S. Constitution.
In fact, the current state of relations between the United States' highest civilian and military leaders is quite good. This is a welcome change, and it began with the tenure of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who changed the climate at the Pentagon from one of suspicion to one of collaboration. Gates has established an atmosphere of trust and respect, combined with an unflinching demand for accountability. Although Donald Rumsfeld had a reputation for leading by fear and intimidation, in his six years as secretary of defense, he fired only one service secretary, Army Secretary Thomas White -- largely over personal differences -- and no flag officers (the hundreds of generals and admirals who compose the country's senior military leadership). In contrast, Gates has dismissed two service secretaries, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the air force chief of staff, the commanding admiral of Central Command, two commanding generals in Afghanistan, and the surgeon general of the army.
Yet Gates and Obama have also shown forbearance. Last October, in the midst of the administration's review of the country's Afghanistan policy, McChrystal publicly warned of "mission failure" if a significant infusion of U.S. troops was not made. But instead of removing McChrystal, who had become commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan less than three months earlier, Gates and Obama gave McChrystal a clear message about his place in the political-military partnership. Obama had a private chat with the general on Air Force One, and Gates delivered a highly publicized speech in which he reminded his listeners that "it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations -- civilian and military alike -- provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately."
Nonetheless, McChrystal failed to heed the warnings. It remains inexplicable why the general and his staff engaged in locker-room antics and spoke so contemptuously of their civilian superiors. Some have suggested that McChrystal's career in the shadowy environment of special operations left him unschooled in dealing with the media and ill equipped for the political demands of a four-star position. Such an assessment, however, gives him too little credit and ignores his time at Harvard and at the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as his two stints on the Pentagon's Joint Staff. McChrystal is not naive.
The problem, then, is not one of ham-fisted media relations but that McChrystal and his inner circle of handpicked, highly experienced officers held such attitudes in the first place. McChrystal has not denied the offensive quotations cited in the Rolling Stone profile; indeed, he apologized to those who were maligned. He and his staff expressed an intolerable level of disrespect for and mistrust of their superiors, which is completely at odds with the military's professional ethic, the constitutional principle of civilian control, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Respected observers of political-military relations, such as Richard Kohn and Andrew Bacevich, have suggested that something greater is amiss than rogue behavior within McChrystal's coterie. They are concerned that contempt of civilian leadership is widespread within the military and that the problem is getting worse with the passing years of seemingly interminable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If they are right, then the situation is indeed grave. But I have yet to see evidence of such a cancer among the hundreds of military colleagues with whom I regularly work. The McChrystal affair was a sign of an emerging crisis not in political-military relations but in military professionalism. Erosions of military professionalism, in turn, threaten both political-military relations and the public's trust in an apolitical, competent fighting force.
Political-military tensions have been a recurring theme throughout U.S. history. During the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, President James Polk had poisonous relations with the two commanders of U.S. troops, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. In 1951, President Harry Truman famously removed General Douglas MacArthur as commander of U.S. forces in Korea after MacArthur made repeated comments critical of Truman's war strategy. Such tensions are built into the structure of the U.S. federal government: the Constitution divides control over military affairs between the executive and the legislative branches. There is the additional issue of personalities and individuals: mixing together ambitious, powerful, highly skilled, and strong-willed people with diverse perspectives and different experiences to collaborate on solving problems is bound to create friction.
This tension, however, can be either destructive or constructive. To the extent that political-military tension fosters informed decision-making through analysis and debate, it can produce effective policy and strategy. For example, President Franklin Roosevelt had testy but productive relations with his military service chiefs during World War II. Political and military leaders -- and the scholars who study them -- should attempt to understand political-military relations with a view toward making the tension constructive.
Unfortunately, history does not always place forthright, well-meaning, talented, and stable individuals at the nexus of political-military relations. During the American Civil War, in the period when Abraham Lincoln was president and George McClellan served as commander of the Union army, the North found itself in a state of strategic stasis and confusion compounded by repeated embarrassing defeats at the hands of an inferior enemy. When Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of Union forces, he and Lincoln won the Civil War in little more than a year through relentless campaigning. But then, when Andrew Johnson took power after Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, other political actors were able to exploit Johnson and Grant's dysfunctional relationship, resulting in a crippled presidency and three years of failed reconstruction.
The current political-military climate is good in both absolute and historical terms. Moreover, historically speaking, the public standing of the military is high. According to annual Gallup polls, the military now enjoys the trust of 82 percent of Americans, compared with under 60 percent for the decade that followed the Vietnam War. Americans appreciate the sacrifices that soldiers make and generally believe that they are carrying out their responsibilities bravely, competently, and, for the most part, ethically.
Contrary to the musings of some pundits in the wake of the McChrystal affair, the military profession supports civilian control. Officers are educated in the theoretical and practical ramifications of that responsibility -- from the moment they take their first oath, cadets learn that they have sworn to protect the U.S. Constitution, and their political science and history courses teach them that civilian control of the military is essential to the safe and effective functioning of government.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Although the U.S. military has maintained its professional credibility, the country's two long wars are becoming increasingly taxing. Under this strain, the military is not doing enough to maintain and expand its professional expertise. Over the past nine years, a large portion of the U.S. armed forces have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, U.S. soldiers are exceptionally seasoned, experienced, and proficient. However, the strain on the military services has been evident for some time -- especially in the army and the Marine Corps, which together have suffered over 95 percent of all U.S. combat deaths and injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq. The toll of these losses and of repetitive combat deployments is far-reaching: military families are overstressed, and junior and midlevel officers are leaving the force in large numbers. As a result, the army now promotes almost 100 percent of eligible captains to major and about 90 percent of majors to lieutenant colonel; less than 15 years ago, these figures were 25-30 percentage points lower. If these trends continue, the army will soon have an entire generation of officers who for the first 20 years of their careers did not face the prospect of not being selected for a merit-based promotion.
Further, the military is paying less attention to professional education than in the past. Granted, this is not unusual -- the U.S. armed forces have repeatedly shrunk the time devoted to professional education in wartime and expanded it again in peacetime. Yet the duration of these current wars has made the education deficit more chronic. The demands of two wars require frequent rotations of officers to combat assignments, meaning that some officers are opting out of professional schooling in order to return to the field. Those who attend command and staff schools -- the institutions where midlevel officers learn how to control larger units and more complex forces -- are there for shorter periods, and the curricula are focused more on readying them for the next operational assignment than on offering a broader, deeper education.
In January, I attended an army conference aimed at coming up with new ways to train officers for strategic leadership, including preparing them for responsibilities at the nexus of the political-military relationship. There was much talk of "finding the next Petraeus" -- in other words, stamping the label "soldier-scholar" on combat-hardened officers in the hope that they will become strategic leaders, rather than committing time and effort to formal education. This is a shallow-minded formulation that indicates little commitment to professional reform. If the military selects its generals simply as a function of their 25 years of perseverance, demanding combat assignments, and abbreviated professional schooling -- with no qualitative winnowing -- the U.S. military's strategic leadership will only get weaker, with disastrous consequences for its ability to provide sound military advice to its civilian masters.
ACTIVE RETIREMENT COMMUNITY
The military is not working hard enough to maintain its standing as an apolitical instrument of national policy. The problem does not lie with the active-duty officer corps. Although many studies over the past two decades have shown that military officers tend to self-identify with the Republican Party, there is little evidence that these political preferences affect their performance. Rather, the problem is with a small but vocal number of retired flag officers. Since 1992, when William Crowe, a retired admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorsed Bill Clinton for president, the floodgates have opened.
In the 2008 election, more than a hundred retired generals and admirals publicly endorsed one of the presidential candidates. Retired officers have the right to endorse any candidate, of course, but by abrogating the ethos of nonpartisanship, they create problems for the military profession. In 2000, Charles Krulak, then a recently retired Marine Corps commandant, endorsed George W. Bush for president. Shortly thereafter, senior military officials told me that no matter who won the election, the new president would have reason to suspect the political loyalty of all the sitting military chiefs. Sure enough, not long after Bush was elected, some Republicans in Washington began referring to "the Clinton generals" in the Pentagon. Rumsfeld soon began to personally interview candidates for three- and four-star nominations in all the services, a highly unusual practice that created the impression, and perhaps the effect, of politicization.
The spate of inappropriate political activity continued. In the spring of 2006, six retired generals publicly called for Rumsfeld to resign, which preceded Bush's decision to replace him that November. Equally troubling was the revelation in 2008 that numerous retired officers who had become military commentators on television had parroted talking points provided by the Department of Defense. Some of these former officers -- most of them former generals -- also had undisclosed financial ties to defense contractors. In all of these cases, former officers cloaked themselves in the honored garb of retired professionals and claimed to speak on behalf of military officers -- while engaging in activity that none of them would have considered or allowed while on active duty.
Although such instances are becoming more prevalent in today's political and media environment, they do not raise altogether new questions. In 1959, Omar Bradley, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, spoke eloquently on the topic:
"Several weeks ago, I . . . read the television commentaries of a distinguished wartime colleague of mine. On the basis of that episode, and others, I am convinced that the best service a retired general officer can perform is to turn in his tongue along with his suit and mothball his opinions. The military service equips a man for a good many things, not the least of which is the exercise of initiative. Verbally, this initiative has often been exercised with great zeal. I could only wish that it might more often be exercised with prudence. It is not my purpose to contest the right of anyone -- even a retired officer -- to speak what he chooses. But when he presumes to speak with an authority which derives from his retired rank, he should exercise a sensible degree of circumspection and be discreet in the choice of causes to which he lends his name."
If retired officers want to engage in political advocacy -- including criticizing current policy or serving officials and endorsing political candidates -- they should explicitly distance themselves from the armed services, stating that they are speaking for themselves alone. If they do not, the Joint Chiefs of Staff should take steps to curb their activity: first, through private persuasion, and then, if needed, by publicly disavowing such behavior as harmful to the profession. Of course, retired officers who choose to run for political office should not be subject to these sanctions, since by virtue of their entry into partisan politics, they will be removed from their old profession.
Finally, the U.S. military may be jeopardizing its reputation for professionalism by not being vigilant enough in protecting its professional jurisdiction: the practice of ethical and effective warfare in pursuit of national policy. The overwhelming majority of people in the defense community -- ranging from civilian and military leaders to national security scholars -- believe that ever since the military began to shrink after the Cold War, it was inevitable that the country would come to rely on contractors to meet the heavy demands of fighting active wars. This idea is so advanced within defense circles as to be almost beyond challenge -- yet it is wrong. It is not the nature of warfare that has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union but rather U.S. policy choices. The Defense Department has allocated a growing proportion of resources to private enterprise rather than to the professional military. This has led to decreased legislative and public oversight as well as less rigorous professional control. To be sure, this military-industrial partnership can be a boon to national security when properly overseen. In many cases, however, private contractors have assumed responsibilities that were previously considered inherently military, such as providing logistical support and protecting installations and high-ranking officials.
Relying on Halliburton, DynCorp, CACI, and Blackwater -- to name just a few of the thousands of such corporations -- to perform military functions represents a return to the failed policies of Machiavelli's time. And as The Prince shows, operational complications and fiscal corruption follow closely behind military contractors. Contractors now outnumber soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq; although the majority of these contractors are responsible for noncombat duties, such as providing food or laundry services, an alarming number are authorized to bear arms while guarding high-ranking officials and sensitive facilities. A military that permits civilians to employ armed force on the battlefield tolerates mercenaries, the antithesis of professionals.
The predicament extends beyond the battlefield. As USA Today has reported, over the past several years, the U.S. military has hired 158 retired flag officers as advisers and senior mentors at rates ranging from $200 to $340 an hour. Eighty percent of those had financial ties to defense contractors. Despite such conflicts of interest, there are no regulations regarding these advisory positions. Furthermore, a 2008 Government Accountability Office report found that as of 2006, 52 defense contractors employed 2,435 former generals and admirals in contracting and acquisitions positions senior enough to be subject to lobbying rules. Although the law bars retired military officers for life from representing corporations on matters that were in their active-duty portfolios, it allows them to lobby the Pentagon on other matters for one year after retirement.
Defense contractors do not hire retired flag officers for their business acumen, and their military currency atrophies quickly. Contractors hire retired officers for their access to former colleagues and subordinates. Military leaders should work to change these practices: specifically, they should ask Congress to extend the strictures on lobbying to a minimum of five years, and they should refuse to hire any advisers who have financial connections to defense contractors.