September 12, 2013

U.S. war decisions rightfully belong to elected civilian leaders, not the military

Source: The Washington Post

The Sept. 6 commentary by retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales [“A war the Pentagon doesn’t want,” Washington Forum] marks a dangerous breach of the fundamental civilian-military relationship in the United States. Its corrosive premise — that our civilian leadership is not up to the task of deciding the nation’s course in war — must be addressed before our military begins to believe that it should have the biggest say in decisions to go to war.

Scales, a military historian and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College (from which I graduated), is a powerful voice among the Army’s retired generals. His words are all the more dangerous because they carry such weight.

Civilian control of the military is a fundamental principle of democracies and is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Our Founding Fathers worried deeply about the potential for abuse of military power and designed numerous constitutional safeguards to ensure the military would remain a servant of the state.

Scales purported to speak for a uniformed military leadership that he asserts is at odds with the White House over military action in Syria. Never mind that this decision rests fully with our nation’s elected leaders — Congress and the president — exactly as the Constitution prescribes. Nor that the president’s decision to consult Congress is intended, properly, to directly engage the American people in this debate through their elected representatives.

Scales’s argument implies that, in an era in which the nation’s civilian leadership has less and less military experience, only the military has the expertise appropriate to judge the risks and rewards associated with going to war. But under the Constitution, it matters not one whit whether our civilian leadership has experienced war; Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were neophytes in warfare, and both were superb wartime leaders. Nor does it matter that in the era of an all-volunteer force our population has been largely shielded from exposure to the horrors of war; this is a choice that we, as a society, have made. Civilian leaders are the people’s elected representatives; they alone get to choose.

Our senior military leadership performs an essential but separate role: It provides expert advice on military operations — counsel that our elected civilian leaders in Congress and the White House can accept or reject. That advice comes from the chairman of theJoint Chiefs of Staff and represents the views (if not the consensus) of the service chiefs.

Whatever one’s opinion of an all-volunteer military or of diminished military experience among civilians, our men and women in uniform must avoid the temptation to expand the military’s role in war-making decisions. They advise through their most senior service leaders and, after a decision is made, execute the mission to the best of their ability. For the military to take on a larger role would erode civilian war-making power and, eventually, civilian control of the military.

Arguments such as Scales’s imply that the military has a voice, and vote, of its own — and suggest that channels outside the chain of command are fair game to publicly express dissenting views.

This breach of the proper civilian-military relationship is disruptive and potentially corrosive to our constitutional division of powers. It must be publicly rejected by our uniformed military leadership, who must reassert throughout the ranks the proper role of the military as faithful servants of the nation in the profession of arms. Military leaders must remind their troops that the chain of command represents their outlook to our civilian elected leadership. And despite the disquieting reports, I am confident that respect for these core values of civilian control of the military remains strong throughout our armed forces.

David W. Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general, is a senior adviser and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He commanded U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.


  • David W. Barno

  • USA (Ret.)