One of the many beliefs on which the United States Constitution was founded is that the military should be controlled by a civilian. The president of the United States is designated in the Constitution as this civilian commander-in-chief. No military training is required in order to become president, and no training is given the president upon his being sworn into office. So how does this affect military and political affairs? And what is the reasoning behind civilian control of the military?
Separation of Powers
According to Article II of the Constitution, the president is commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces. The Constitution also states that all three branches of government, namely the legislative, the executive, and the judicial, have some share of control over the military. The president has the highest authority but maintains his status as a civilian by having no military rank.
Second to the president in military control is the secretary of defense, who also holds civilian status, or at least, cannot have served in the armed forces within the seven years prior to his/her appointment. The secretary of defense is the chief executive officer of the Department of Defense, the team in charge of all national security and armed forces operations.
Why Civilian Control of the Military?
While many of the ideas presented in the U.S. Constitution were novel for their time, some were inspired by British rule. Civilian control of the military is a tradition the Founding Fathers adopted from the British.
There are many reasons why civilian control of the military is supported as a practice. Some argue that it prevents the formation of a state within a state. A state within a state occurs when an entity within a nation, such as the armed forces or a church, does not acknowledge the greater civilian political government.
Subjecting the military to civilian authority is also a characteristic of democratic models of government. Many political theorists argue that the people must control the military in order to be free rather than allowing the military to control the people.
Exactly how the theory of civilian control is carried out varies from country to country.
There have been moments in American history (and in present America) when commanders-in-chief and high-ranking military officers have rubbed each other the wrong way. To secure their control over policy or strategy, a few presidents have even dismissed high-ranking officers.
For example, early in American history, John Adams fired his secretary of war. Later, James Polk faced trouble with his generals seeking the presidency on an opposing ticket. Abraham Lincoln fired George McClellan during the Civil War for acting contrary to military policy, and Harry S. Truman dismissed Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War for similar reasons.
In 2010, Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, resigned his post under President Obama after ridiculing members of Obama’s administration in a Rolling Stones article.
In contrast to these, there are many examples of mutual trust between U.S. presidents and their generals, one being John F. Kennedy and General Maxwell D. Taylor. After the Bay of Pigs incident, Kennedy felt he could no longer rely on the expertise of his joint chiefs of staff. His relationship with Taylor was such that he requested Taylor come out of retirement and be his military advisor. Later, Lyndon B. Johnson would prove largely deferential towards General William C. Westmoreland when it came to the war in Vietnam.
The Mixing of Political and Military Affairs
There are those in the military who think military affairs are too often politicized. They strongly prefer political leaders who trust military officials to accomplish objectives according to their judgment and experience as opposed to leaders who micromanage every military action.
One study of the last 200 years of U.S. foreign policy shows government tendencies to act aggressively in war if a non-veteran is in command and defensively if a veteran is in command. Another study revealed that the American people are more supportive of wars or other military operations if government leaders have personal experience serving in the armed forces.
The political and military workings of our great nation are complex and carry a rich history. To learn more about the military and its diverse operations and culture, as well as our many veterans, visit our blog.