The "Warrior Monk" As Secretary of Defense
The quantity of former senior military officers under consideration to join the Trump Administration has drawn enthusiasm and ire. Military and veteran communities generally are enthused by the prospect of Jim Mattis as secretary of defense or John Kelly as secretary of state. By comparison, many intellectuals in the diplomatic and national security enterprises, alongside the media, have expressed concern over what they perceive as disregard for the well-established precedent of civilian control of the military. Too many “strong, even swaggering” military men could lead to “an undue emphasis on military force in American foreign policy,” said the New York Times. “The military parade has come early for Donald Trump,” announced the Associated Press. However, what may seem a historic moment to some is wholly unsurprising to astute political observers—it is simply a continuation of the decades-old debate over civil-military relations in this country.
President-elect Trump’s admiration for the leadership capabilities of wartime commanders is nothing new. And neither is the liberal cognoscenti’s critique. In 1949, for example, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck, Albert Einstein and other notable intellectuals co-sponsored the National Council Against Conscription’s (NCAC) publication of a pamphlet titled “New Evidence of the Militarization of America,” which warned that liberal democracy faced an existential threat from the growing influence of military institutions in American society. Similar to today’s critics, these writers believed the widespread presence of ex-military personnel in government would fundamentally transform, or “militarize,” America’s foreign policy. Maybe they were right; former five-star general Dwight Eisenhower was elected president only three years later. However, President Eisenhower’s foreign policy record – managing Soviet-American relations without starting a war, ending the Korean War and, at the end of his presidency, warning of the “unwarranted influence” wielded by the military-industrial complex – suggests otherwise.
Still, commentators too readily revert to caricature when describing military veterans entering government service. Is Jim Mattis, “warrior monk,” merely a “break glass in case of emergency leader,” too short on “patience for management and administration” to succeed atop the federal government’s most complex and dispersed bureaucracy? Not if you understand what his military career entailed. Of his 42 years as a Marine officer, only 17 were served during wartime. Mattis spent the other 25 years preparing for combat, of course, but also being a professional military officer, meaning that he managed people, administered institutional policy, contributed counsel to various staffs, graduated several professional schools and worked to solve problems typical of any large-scale bureaucracy. Any career military person, officer or enlisted, is steeped in management and administration. Contrary to popular mythology, a military officer does not spend the entirety of his or her career launching night raids on enemy combatants. An informed citizenry does not leave its best military leaders locked away in the proverbial “glass case”—it finds new uses for them.
The second, more patronizing case against admired military commanders serving in Trump’s Administration is that this “boss won’t listen anyway.” Good men such as Mattis and Kelly should steer clear of an already-sinking ship, rather than risk their reputations advising a hopelessly bullheaded commander in chief. The American public probably disagrees with this argument. Following an Obama presidency that cycled through four Secretaries of Defense (the most since President Harry S. Truman) and ended prematurely the careers of accomplished combat leaders (Mattis, Army General Stanley McChrystal, and newly appointed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, among others), Americans are concerned about the military’s lack of confidence in the country’s political leadership. Roughly 68 percent believe that it is hurting effectiveness, according to a recent YouGov survey. And while only nine percent of Americans trust Congress, 73 percent have a “great deal of trust” in the military, according to a Gallup poll. What better way to re-build trust, or the appearance thereof, than by appointing exceptionally qualified generals to fill impact positions in government? The country might be calling for its military leaders to ascend to higher offices, especially to advise a president-elect who once said that dating in the 1980’s was his “personal Vietnam.”
Mackubin Owens writes that civil-military relations are best understood as a bargain held between three parties: the American people, the government and the military establishment. “Periodically, the bargain must be renegotiated to take account of political, social, technological or geopolitical changes.” In light of trends exposed by our recent elections, this renegotiation of America’s civil-military relationship is already underway.