Symposium | Rebalancing National Security

Civil-Military Relations: Repairing Fractured Ties

By Alexander Vindman

Tagged Militarynational security

Over the past two decades, there has been a steady erosion of civil-military relations in the United States due to the politicization of the military. My own experience, in which both my position as director for European affairs on the National Security Council and promotion to colonel were derailed after I reported a case of presidential corruption in 2019, is one high-profile example of this.

After my service, I had the option to stay silent and hope to avoid further political attacks. I chose instead to use the notoriety thrust upon me to protect democracy, feeling a higher calling as a citizen and public servant. My decision reflected a core belief that my experience had taught me to embrace. I have always believed, and still do, that military officers must remain nonpartisan while in service. But I have also come to believe that it may not be possible, or even desirable, for serving military officers to be apolitical. What’s the difference? Nonpartisans are free from party affiliations and biases, which have no place in the military. But senior military officers cannot and should not conflate nonpartisanship with standing outside of politics, and they must recognize that the senior-most military ranks cannot abstain from involvement in political affairs when foundational democratic values are under attack.

The active-duty military has an obligation to nonpartisanship; indeed, it should be a fundamental characteristic of all active-duty military personnel. But this does not mean that senior officers can never take political stands. Military leaders have taken the mantra of apolitical military service to such extremes that they have set aside institutional values in order to abide by nonpartisanship and stay out of the political fray. The Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage were the values I thought of and adhered to when reporting presidential corruption. This conflation of the apolitical with the nonpartisan has itself propelled politicization. Too often senior leaders have chosen to determine that even when thrust into politics, they must remain apolitical. This approach may protect their careers and appeal to a misguided notion that nonpartisan and apolitical are one and the same, but it also invites further political attacks and politicization as self-serving partisans take advantage.

Much of the discussion around how to reverse the degradation of civil-military relations has focused on the unrealistic hope of convincing political actors to be mindful of the damage that politicization causes to military readiness and national security and thus to stop their politically motivated activities. In this era of hyperpolarization, however, trying to get a leopard to change its spots does not seem like a particularly fruitful endeavor. Instead, the military and military leaders should recommit to preserving and supporting institutional values at all costs. They must reject the impulse to shrink from confronting those actors who attack the military and military values, and they need to be prepared to sacrifice themselves by denouncing attacks on the military when necessary.

Certain actors in the political class are unlikely to restrain their politicization of the military because they perceive little cost. That will continue as long as senior officers are willing to remain silent and tacitly compromise military values to preserve their own careers. History demonstrates the importance of taking a stand. After Joseph McCarthy launched baseless attacks against the armed forces, the end of McCarthyism was precipitated by a courageous defense of propriety, civility, and justice on the part of the Army’s legal counsel, Joseph Welch, who denounced McCarthy’s attacks in a widely publicized hearing.

The Three Challenges We Confront

What are civil-military relations? Simply put, they are the norms governing the interaction between civilian authorities and the uniformed military. The conventional model dictates that military leaders provide military advice to the civilian authorities who control the armed forces, and that the military remains a nonpartisan institution.

It’s no secret that these relations are badly frayed right now. A significant body of research examining this phenomenon has emerged in recent years, with studies coming from academics, military thought leaders, and think tanks. The overarching conclusion from this body of work is that civil-military relations have worsened to such a point that their deterioration is starting to undermine the military’s effectiveness in executing its core mission of national defense. This trend should be deeply concerning to all who support American democracy; maintaining a delicate equilibrium between career military officers, who hold invaluable expertise and experience, and the elected civilian leadership, who ensure critical political accountability, is vital for our nation’s security. In my career, I’ve directly experienced the impact of this degradation in civil-military relations. As the target of political enmity, I’ve navigated through instances where the lines between military service and political maneuvering blurred, undermining the integrity of our armed forces and the safety of our nation. Fearing the damage of this worsening in relations should not be a partisan concern; political, national security, and military leaders must all work together toward restoring balance.

This essay examines three fundamental contributors to the breakdown in civil-military relations: the politicization of the military by politicians; increasing partisan politics within the military; and the need for a proper balance of power between military and civilian leadership, including Congress, the branch of government closest to the people.

The Increasing Politicization of the Military

In recent years, politicians have ever more frequently used the military as a prop for political ends. Following the 9/11 attacks, public support and respect for the military skyrocketed. Politicians took note, becoming more and more willing to disregard civil-military norms and attempting to capitalize on public goodwill toward the armed services for their own personal aims. To this day, political speeches are increasingly given with uniformed military on display. Such politicization serves as a striking example of how politicians have started feeling comfortable wielding the military and what it stands for as a tool against political adversaries. One of the most notable, and offensive, examples here was Donald Trump parading Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley through Lafayette Square in combat fatigues during the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020.

The military has also been taken hostage at times by politicians seeking political gain. In perhaps the most galling example of this, for most of this year, Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville maintained a blanket hold on military promotions and hires, including for the senior-most officers—members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Tuberville’s rationale for the hold, which has undoubtedly undermined national security at a time of heightened geopolitical tension, was his disagreement with a Pentagon policy that allows service members to travel for reproductive health care. By blocking hundreds of promotions for months and continuing to block the highest-level ones, Tuberville has held military readiness hostage to a political dispute over a domestic policy issue.

Political Partisanship Within the Ranks

The 2016 election saw something unusual. At both major party conventions, retired generals spoke on stage in support of their preferred candidates. General John Allen, a retired four-star Marine general, spoke in support of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. On the Republican side, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a retired Army officer who had served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, spoke in support of Donald Trump. Flynn took it a drastic step further by leading chants of “Lock her up,” referencing Clinton.

While retired military officers have certainly earned the right to participate fully in their democracy, such a level of public support for political candidates undoubtedly raised serious concerns about the military’s perceived neutrality. In response to both generals speaking at the political conventions, General Martin Dempsey, who had retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the previous year, discussed these developments in The Washington Post: “The military is not a political prize. Politicians should take the advice of senior military leaders but keep them off the stage. The American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference. And our nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines should not wonder about the political leanings and motivations of their leaders.”

In the years since, the amount of political and partisan behavior within the ranks has only increased. One notable example is a 2021 open letter released by a group calling itself “Flag Officers 4 America.” In it, 124 retired military officials argued, falsely, that the 2020 election was rigged for President Joe Biden. They further warned that the United States was “in deep peril” from “a full-blown assault on our Constitutional rights.” The letter took an explicitly partisan view, stating, “Under a Democrat Congress and the Current Administration, our Country has taken a hard left turn toward Socialism and a Marxist form of tyrannical government.” This unfortunate change is further exemplified by more mundane examples: In 1976, almost half of senior military officers did not identify with a political party. Today, nearly three-quarters do. A slight majority of officers identify as Republican, but with narrowing margins due to a far-right shift in the party. With more and more ostensibly nonpartisan institutions becoming mired in contentious political disputes (think of the current Supreme Court), these developments contribute to the perception of a military establishment deeply entangled in partisan politics, a dangerous precedent that risks undermining the institution’s trustworthiness and authority.

Congress’s Degraded Role in National Security

Civilian control of the military is a fundamental principle of a healthy democracy. It allows for a politically accountable civilian authority to have the final say on national security and defense policy. This concept is deeply rooted in the Constitution, with the uniformed military and the armed forces being intentionally designed to answer to the elected civilian leadership, both the President and Congress. The modern national security apparatus was born in 1947 with the National Security Act, through which Congress built institutions designed to maintain this relationship. But in recent decades, civilian control has quietly but steadily degraded. Under presidents of both parties, Congress has largely abdicated its responsibilities when it comes to key decisions on foreign affairs. Lawmakers need to reclaim their rightful place in matters of national security. Through rigorous oversight, active participation in defense policymaking, and reasserting its war powers, Congress can restore the intended balance of power between civilian and military authorities.

Three Necessary Solutions

Restoring stronger and more balanced relations necessitates decisive action, both from within the military and from civilian leadership. As we navigate this increasingly challenging landscape, three key solutions emerge.

First, education stands as a cornerstone of remedying the growing divide. Military academies, professional military educational institutions, and civilian universities should emphasize the importance of preserving civil-military boundaries. By ensuring that future military and civilian leaders alike are well versed in the historical context and contemporary significance of these relations, we lay the groundwork for a future where mutual respect and understanding can thrive.

Second, on the political front, politicians must resist the temptation to exploit the military for partisan gain. However, we cannot trust them to make this important decision for themselves. This goal might be achieved through instituting Department of Defense guidelines for uniformed military personnel and senior military retirees and passing legislation that strictly limits the use of military personnel and symbols in political events and campaigns. By keeping the military nonpartisan, we safeguard it from becoming a pawn in the hands of opportunistic civilian leaders.

Third and finally, it is essential to foster open dialogue and promote an environment where service members can express their concerns without fear of retribution. Allowing active-duty officers to speak out about potentially illegal actions by politicians, as I did several years ago, and protecting them against any resulting attacks will lead to constructive outcomes. No other officer should face the attacks I did for doing what is right.

The erosion of civil-military relations is not just a challenge; it is an existential crisis tied to the very health of our democracy and national security. By embracing solutions that prioritize education, political restraint, and open dialogue, we can mend the growing chasm and ensure that both civilian and military entities work cohesively to uphold the democratic ideals upon which the United States was founded.

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Alexander Vindman served as the director for European Affairs on the White House's National Security Council and authored the U.S. National Military Strategy for Russia. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, he leads the Institute for Informed American Leadership, is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS Foreign Policy Institute, and wrote the bestselling book Here, Right Matters.

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