A recent study by Jim Golby, Kyle Dropp and Peter Feaver published by the Center for New American Security examines the effects that public statements by senior military officers have on public opinion about the use of force. The study is based on survey research in which respondents were presented with real and hypothetical questions about whether the United States should apply military force to certain situations overseas. Some respondents were told that U.S. military leaders favored the contemplated action, others were told that the same military leaders opposed the action, and still others were given no cues about what the military thinks. The main finding of the research is that publicly expressed military views do make a difference on public opinion, especially when such views oppose a military action. Military opposition reduced public support for the use of military force abroad by an average of seven percentage points, while military support increased public support by three percentage points. The surveyed sample was large enough that these were significant differences.
The authors discuss some concerns suggested by these findings, especially the hazard of what they call “a problematic politicization of the military.” Their concerns are legitimate, but the study fails to make an important distinction between the sort of military opinions that ought to worry us (worry us, that is, because they are being expressed publicly) and the sort that ought not.
The public (and policymakers in the executive branch and Congress) ought to pay careful attention to what senior military officers say on questions that are contained within the military's area of expertise. That is where military officers can offer opinions that are more firmly grounded than what anyone else can offer. Such questions would include the costs and time required to accomplish a military mission, risks incurred in accomplishing it such as collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of being able to accomplish it at all.
A military officer's opinion ought not to be considered worth more than anyone else's when it goes beyond the area of specifically military expertise. Outside that area would be questions such as political and diplomatic costs of an action, national priorities in the allocation of limited resources, and how important attainment of the military objective would be to the national interest. Because these sorts of questions are just as important in any decision to apply armed force overseas as are the ones on which military officers are specially qualified to speak, an overall judgment on whether any given application of force ought to be undertaken also goes beyond the area of military expertise. Thoughtful and intelligent military officers are going to have opinions about these things and are entitled to have them, but that is not the same as having a special claim on the public's attention.
If there is a norm to be cultivated here, it is that active-duty military officers ought to insist on being heard on military questions (which is not the same as the question of whether a particular military action ought to be undertaken), while being mindful of the politicization hazard that Golby, Dropp and Feaver mention and thereby not taking advantage of their prestige, their uniform and their credibility to offer publicly their opinions on other things.
Unfortunately, too often military opinion gets handled in exactly the opposite way. On one hand, armchair generals sometimes do not defer to the military on military questions. A well known and egregious example is the public disparagement by civilian Pentagon leaders of the army chief of staff's judgment about the U.S. troop presence that would be required in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, military officers' opinions on questions that go beyond strictly military judgments sometimes are given excessive prominence, usually because politicians either want to shirk the responsibility for making a decision by pretending that a military opinion can be treated as a surrogate for a policy judgment, or want to use military officers as supporting props for promoting their own point of view.