Joseph Collins, retired U.S. Army colonel and current professor at the National War College, has a great article in the new issue of Armed Forces Journal. He takes down the misguided notion that a binary relationship exists (or should exist) between politicians and generals when it comes to fighting America’s wars. In short, the prevailing meme is the President sets out an end state and issues the orders, and then the military is given the autonomy it needs to figure out how to win (Congress is supposed to be involved in there somewhere, but since the House and Senate have abdicated their responsibility to declare war . . . not so much). Yet as Collins notes, this makes neither theoretical nor practical sense.
At the highest level, politics, policy, military strategy and operations are often twisted together like the strands of a rope. A new book on civil-military relations, American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era, edited by Suzanne Nielsen and Don Snider of the West Point faculty, concluded that “a separation between political and military affairs is not possible — particularly at the highest levels of policymaking.” One hundred and eighty years ago, Clausewitz recognized the same phenomenon. He wrote that the most senior generals had to have “a thorough grasp of national policy,” and that they must become “statesmen” without ceasing to be generals.
Presidents and defense secretaries . . . can’t simply bow to claims of military’s expertise, or exclusive military domains. It is they, and not the generals, who are ultimately responsible for national security. The people hold the president and, indirectly, his Cabinet accountable through elections, not the generals. Only the president can balance all of the national interests and political tradeoffs involved in a strategic decision.
Collins provides useful advice for how to prevent what is normal friction between politicians and the armed forces from evolving into a full blown crisis. Among them is the idea that the President engage Combatant Commanders and other senior military officers in one-on-one meetings. This allows military brass to avoid the tendency to keep their mouths shut and disagree when other senior military or civilian officials who can impact their careers are in the room. Another, which I particularly like, is for generals to stay out of the op-ed pages right before a national election and avoid going on right or left-wing political talk shows. This latter one is particularly important if the military leadership wants to be seen as being above politics.