Warriors & Citizens

American Views of our Military
Warriors & Citizens
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Below is an excerpt from the book Warriors & Citizens: American Views of our Military

Edited by Kori Schake & Jim Mattis:

We undertook this project to better understand attitudes of the American public about their military forty years into having an all-volunteer force and after fifteen years of being continuously at war.  The project’s goal was to produce data to inform both scholarship on civil-military relations and policy debates about a wide range of defense issues. One of the most important gaps evident in the survey data collected for this project is public disaffection with their elected leaders on issues of war strategy (both the data and crosstabs are available at http://www.hoover.org/research/warriors-and-citizens).

         The YouGov data show that Americans understand fundamental responsibility for war strategy lies with elected political leaders.  It also shows that the public is dissatisfied with their leaders’ performance in developing coherent strategy.  The public sees policy elites incapable of winning our ill-defined wars, implausibly expecting military force to produce sophisticated political, economic, and cultural outcomes.

Strategy divorced from politics is unsustainable. As Colin Gray instructs us in The Future of Strategy, “the core challenge of strategy is the attempt to control action so that it has the politically desired effect.” There is no abstract purpose, or practice, of strategy from which politics can be effectively leeched.  It is inherently a political undertaking.  In free societies, politicians must choose the political ends.  They must also determine what price—in blood, treasure, and national credibility—to pay for those ends. 

Yet Nadia Schadlow argues that political leaders wrongly believe themselves to be constrained by public attitudes on defense issues.  Politicians fear public opposition to their policies—and especially public reaction to casualties—as though attitudes were immutable.  President Obama’s vacillation over enforcement of his Syrian red line is said by his supporters to have been significantly affected by the belief that the public would not back another war in the Middle East.26 Yet the YouGov data demonstrate that public attitudes are actually quite malleable.  Political leaders just are not expending the effort to change attitudes; they are instead decrying their lack of public support to justify inaction.  But by expending political capital to engage and educate the public, political leaders could create larger decision space: they could expand their strategic options by fostering an educated public and choosing strategically sound courses of action that would draw and sustain public support. 

Benjamin Wittes and Cody Poplin raise the related point that an uninformed public is less likely to sustain over time policies necessary to succeed at the wars we are fighting. They view the YouGov data as illustrating numerous contradictory attitudes that, while not uncommon in surveys of public opinion, impinge on policies ranging from domestic surveillance to military justice.  They emphasize that the types of threats America currently faces are low in visibility for the public but long in duration, thereby putting a premium on sustained effort—and, unguided by political leaders routinely educating the public about threats and policy trade-offs, the public is unlikely to sustain support. 

We share these concerns about political leaders shying away from their responsibility to shape public attitudes.  There has developed a tendency for political leaders to rely on the credibility of their military commanders to garner support for their policies.  President Bush left to General David Petraeus the task of overcoming Congressional opposition to the 2006 Iraq surge.  President Obama has been mostly silent on the war in Afghanistan since 2009; the case for continuing American troop presence has been made entirely by the military.  And while we believe military commanders have a responsibility not only to carry out, but also to advocate for, a president’s policies, this does not remove elected officials from their responsibility to win political arguments instead of depending on the military to do so. 

Relying so heavily on military credibility to deliver their policy preferences only further erodes the public standing of elected officials.  It sets up military leaders as the guarantors of public support, something that should be anathema to the long-standing balance of civil-military roles in America.  And the near-term gain of public support for a particular policy may result in a long-term erosion of the military’s standing with the American public if the people come to see military leaders as politicized.

Public attitudes are especially inconsistent about legal issues associated with the use of military force.  Law being an area the public has direct experience with, Benjamin Wittes and Cody Poplin suggest there is a tendency by the public to overstate its comparability: the data suggest the public struggles to understand why laws governing our military are different from those governing civilian society.  They have no comprehension of whether the laws of war are applicable in other circumstances nor of how to ethically balance the humanitarian issues that arise with the military necessity also recognized under international law. 

Our enemies have structural advantages in our current wars because they are fighting a total war, and we only limited wars.  They are also proving adept at establishing a higher standard of battlefield conduct for us than for them.  We are limiting ourselves beyond what the law of war calls for because our vibrant civil society recoils from the inexorable human suffering that goes along with achieving political aims by military force.  We believe this is influenced by the fact that so few Americans have experience of warfare.  We have people in policy circles who are as familiar with the humanitarian and legal aspects of human interaction as they are unfamiliar with military necessity and battlefield realities, including what is permitted, from military necessity, under international law and conventions. And we often lack people at the top level of policymaking who have an innate, studied appreciation for what it takes to win wars and who are willing to expend the political capital to build a sound basis for sustained public support.  Here again, political leaders are creating the very conditions they decry for limiting their strategic options by not explaining and defending views for which survey data suggest there is a bedrock of opinion among the public on which broader support could be built. 

Acting strategically does not require intellectual elegance; it requires political leaders making clear but difficult decisions to use military force effectively.  As Carl von Clausewitz wrote in On War, “in warfare everything is simple, but the simple is exceptionally difficult.” An American public unknowledgeable about military issues gives political leaders a pass on their essential function in wartime.  It is not good enough in a free society to shift that responsibility to the military, which is what the YouGov polling suggests the public supports doing.  To do so would absolve the political leadership of their responsibility to aggregate societal preferences within the dictates of sound geopolitical judgment.  That judgment is rightly exercised by elected and politically appointed civilian leaders who weigh strategic choices and make decisions about when to employ military force.  It is their job.

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