Image credit: Isopix/Rex/Shutterstock

February 22, 2019

Post-CHAOS Homework on Civil-Military Relations

By Loren DeJonge Schulman

From the moment his nomination was hinted, Secretary of Defense James Mattis presented a rich canvas for the civil-military relations wonks and amateurs to ply their trade. There are no comparable moments in recent history where the role of the military — or, more specifically, former general officers — in U.S. politics, policy, and society was so widely and arduously debated. In his career, Mattis gave his mind and body and offered his life for his country; in the last two years, he involuntarily offered his name as an object lesson for those taking to the op-ed pages seeking more complexity — more, perhaps, than a “Mattisism” — on matters of peace and war, civilian and military, veteran and uniformed.

And then Mattis departed. Many scholars of civil-military relations continue and will continue to study his tenure and whether the exceptional Mattis was worth the exception to the law established in the foundations of the Department of Defense barring recent general officers from such roles. Jim Golby does a most admirable job dissecting these two years and how they shaped civil-military relations, for better and worse. But while there is merit in history and beauty in eulogy, the civil-military field would do well to assess the aftermath of “CHAOS” and consider where it goes next: Where has the balance of civil-military relations been reset? What precedents did Mattis, in his effort to preserve stability at all costs, establish? Where did the role of the secretary become that of the marine? As President Donald Trump’s trusted generals have all departed, do the authorities they were delegated remain in the hands of their less experienced successors?

And it’s not only the civil-military wonks who have homework. For two years, Mattis led the most trusted institution in America as the most trusted cabinet member. He was also held in high regard inside the Department of Defense as compared to his predecessors, particularly by uniformed personnel. As in all bureaucracies, his most thoughtless habits became bureaucratic law, as did his personal prejudices, his ideals, his discretion, the tasks he left in the inbox, and his unspoken hierarchy of advisors. And both in and out of government, it became common to assume that a general was all that would — or could — save us. Given the near-cult of personality Mattis represented, a smart successor and a wise Congress should closely examine the civil-military grooves Mattis left behind.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.

  • Commentary
    • February 8, 2023
    Sharper: Critical Technology

    Critical technologies promise to upend traditional understandings of national security, economic prosperity, and everyday life. Artificial intelligence, semiconductors, quantu...

    By Anna Pederson & Sam Howell

  • Commentary
    • Breaking Defense
    • January 20, 2023
    The Siren Song: Technology, JADC2, and the Future of War

    Winning future wars will not be about maintaining information advantage but rather prevailing when neither side has the advantage. And that is not a war that can be won by new...

    By Andrew Metrick

  • Commentary
    • January 11, 2023
    Sharper: Integrated Deterrence

    The belated 2022 National Defense Strategy—released in October of last year—identified integrated deterrence as the cornerstone of the strategy. Integrated deterrence calls fo...

    By Anna Pederson & Michael Akopian

  • Video
    • January 3, 2023
    What Is the Purpose of the American “Brigade 101” Conducting Military Exercises in Romania?

    Michael Akopian, Research Assistant at the Center for a New American Security joined Now Asharq to discuss the purpose of U.S. Military exercises in Romania. Listen to the f...

    By Michael Akopian

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia