Daniel Maurer On Civil-Military Relations

Major Dan Maurer is a combat veteran, former engineer officer, and has practiced military law as a prosecutor in courts-martial, as an appellate counsel, and in leadership positions within the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He is a contributing author at the United States Military Academy's Modern War Institute. His book Crisis, Agency, and Law in US Civil-Military Relations offers a close look at the uniqueness of civil-military relations in the US and the extent to which the follow prescribed 'laws'.

Why civil-military relations?

Civil-Military Relations (CMR) refers, broadly, to two somewhat-related areas involved in governing any state that doesn't have a military dictator as its sole executive and legislative authority.  In other words, when civilians share with the military some responsibility for funding, organizing, equipping, and employing the military for external defense, CMR is an important element of the quality of that governance.  The most commonly-described front of CMR is the relationship between the military and the public from which is it is drawn--what demographics get recruited or drafted; how divergent are military members' social and political views from civilian society's; how isolated does the military make itself, or how entwined is the military with the civil governance at local, regional, and national levels?  These are important questions to study, and there is no lack of modern day critics of the trends appearing in the American example.  Professor and retired officer, Andrew Bacevich comes quickly to mind: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/books/review/breach-of-trust-by-andrew-j-bacevich.html; but of course the starting point in this field is Sam Huntington's The Soldier and The State, which proposed the famous "objective control" theory and defined the military's role in CMR for generations of officers as rigidly apolitical.

The other front of CMR, the one I approach in this book, is a study of the relationship between senior "strategic" military leaders, like the Combatant Commanders, Chiefs of Staff of the individual Services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps), and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and political leaders responsible for defense: the President, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, to name but a few.  This relationship is complicated, involving technical aspects of military planning and decision-making balanced against and deeply-related to, what Clausewitz called, the political objective ("war is but a continuation of politics by other means").  Given the vast differences in experience, temperament, expertise, and responsibilities, these relationships are ripe for conflict at the highest levels of governance.  Why they interact the way they do is a fundamental question as important as how they choose to behave in any given context.

What does the 'crisis' in you title refer to?

The word "crisis" is upfront in the title of this book in large part because the idea of CMR "crises" at the strategic level is rampant in public media accounts of any apparent split between the political leadership and the senior military advisors.  The term was used with abandon during the early days of the Clinton Administration when the president, to the shock of many unprepared in the Pentagon, began to look for ways to de-stigmatize homosexuality in the military with the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law, and adored public figures like General Colin Powell were outspoken in their views on intervening with military force in the Balkans inconsistent with the prevailing political agenda.  The term was used again in the early days of the Iraq War when Donald Rumsfeld, a polarizing Secretary of Defense, was adamant about using that conflict as a proof-of-concept for lighter, more special-operations-focused, and technologically-enhanced warfare against the advice of his senior field commanders and the Army Chief of Staff.  These problems go much farther back, of course, as the relations between President Lincoln and his first Union field commander, George McClellan, were notoriously icy (McClellan would often refer to the Lincoln in ape-like terms, and ignored him when he came calling to his headquarters).  Unfortunately, disagreement and divergence is part of the expected nature of the CMR at that level: the Constitution gives civilian leaders, regardless of their knowledge or wisdom, ultimate authority over what Eliot Cohen call's the "unequal dialogue."  In essence, this makes it very difficult to truly diagnose whether such critical relationships are pathological or instead perfectly healthy in that they conform to  Constitutional expectations.  One way to objectively make this diagnosis is to first understand that the CMR is functionally a "principal-agent" relationship, analogous to the client-attorney, patient-doctor, and even clergy-penitent relationship in many regards.  Like these other principal-agent dynamics, CMRs can be described and defined by various duties of care ("fiduciary duties") that bind the military agent to the civilian principal, guide the expert advice he or she provides, and controls the ways and means the agent may use to provide such expert services to the non-expert principal.  Duties such as candor, diligence, confidentiality, and a mutual meeting of the minds when it comes to the agent's scope of authority/responsibility prove to be useful diagnostic tools when applied to these historic examples of CMR "crises"--they often present a much different, or more nuanced, picture of who is accountable for what.

Is there a better legal model somewhere else for managing this? Is this model unique to the US?

The difficult nature of the American strategic CMR is in part the "fault" of the Law for failing to adequately define its parameters.  The Constitution of course sets the baseline: Civilians "own" the military, and the military (regardless of how expert or how powerful) is always subservient to the civilian authority under our political system.  But beyond that, very little of the CMR is controlled or dictated by the law--it is far more the result of practice, custom, and tradition, and the military's repeated (but rightfully so) self-subservience in its doctrine and regulations.  However, the Goldwater-Nichols Act, first enacted in the late 1980s to unify the Service institutions into a more "joint" and efficient Department of Defense organization, also describes the roles of the strategic military elites like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and is therefore is a potential vehicle for articulating the jurisprudential agency duties that this book explores.  Ultimately, the law is both a source of the friction and a potential diagnostic device to assess the health of these critical relationships; such a model is potentially useful in any democratic state with clear civilian authority over the military but with less than sharp lines blurring their respective responsibilities.