Soldier’s Voice: Wartime Policymaking

Mackubin T. Owens

September 1, 2002

Newspaper reports indicate that some senior officers, both active and retired, are lukewarm about the apparent commitment of the Bush administration to affecting a regime change in Iraq by force. Many are reluctant to launch a war against Iraq, preferring a continuation of the current policy of containment.

The division between the uniformed military and civilians in the administration has grown downright nasty in some instances. The derisive term “chicken hawk,” used to describe a civilian who avoided military service but who is eager to use force against Iraq, has been resurrected. Thus Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who argues for a wait-and-see approach to Iraq, is quoted as saying “Maybe [Richard] Perle [a vocal advocate of force against Saddam Hussein] would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad.” And retired Marine general and former commander of U.S. Central Command, Tony Zinni, criticized those “who have never fired a shot [but] are hot to go to war.”

Some of the commentary about the reluctance of the military to employ force against Saddam is downright silly. For example, the New York Times’s tart-tongued Maureen Dowd, accused the Bush administration of a “civilian coup” against the military during the Crawford meeting in August. One can only be astounded at the liberals’ newfound fondness for the military. Of course, perhaps she really does understand the Constitution differently than the rest of us.

But serious people are making the case that the military perspective needs to be taken seriously before launching a war against Iraq. An example is my good friend Jim Webb, a true hero of the Vietnam War (and advocate for those of the Vietnam War age group who served their country during the Vietnam War), author of several best-selling novels, including Fields of Fire, still the finest novel yet written about Vietnam, and secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. There is no more thoughtful and sober commentator writing on national-security affairs today. So when he writes a cautionary op-ed about war with Iraq, as he did for the September 4 issue of the Washington Post, everyone should pay attention.

Webb makes a strong case for going slow when it comes to war with Iraq. His main substantive point is the important one that a war with Iraq and the “imperial regency” that will necessarily follow would stretch the resources of the U.S. military to the breaking point, making it easier for other possible adversaries, e.g. China, to gain at the expense of the United States. “Nations such as China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall,” he writes. “Indeed, if one gives the Chinese credit for having a long term strategy—and those who love to quote Sun Tzu might consider his nationality—it lends credence to their insistent cultivation of the Muslim world.”

Webb is right to remind us of such risks. It goes without saying that in deliberating about a war with Iraq, the president and his advisers must assess and compare all the risks associated with various courses of action. The risks that Webb lays out are real enough, but they must be measured against the very significant risks associated with maintaining the status quo.

But Webb also makes a more problematic claim. He contends that when it comes to Iraq, we should give particular credence to the views of military officers, both active and retired, because those who have military experience possess a unique understanding of the realities of war.

There are two problems with this argument. The first is that the judgments of soldiers about a given war or course of action have not proved to be uniformly superior to the judgments of civilians. The second is that the U.S. system of constitutional government vests the decision to use force in the hands of elected civil authorities, not soldiers, no matter how experienced in war the latter may be.

If the military experience of a leader is a prerequisite for success during time of war, then Jefferson Davis should have been a better war leader than Abraham Lincoln. Franklin Roosevelt should have been an abject failure as the American leader during World War II. A military background is no guarantee of strategic wisdom.

The historical record illustrates that the judgment of soldiers is not always on the money. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1990, Colin Powell preferred sanctions against Iraq to the use of force. Eliot Cohen, author of Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime, pointed out in the Post the day after Webb’s article appeared that George Marshall, the greatest soldier-statesman since Washington, opposed arms shipments to Great Britain in 1940. Most of the policymakers who involved the United States in Vietnam were veterans of World War II.

Then there is the problem of civil-military relations. I must confess to a change of heart on this issue over the last year or two. For a very long time, I took issue with those such as Richard Kohn who argued in 1994 that the U.S. military was “out of control.” According to Kohn and other scholars, American civil-military relations had been thrown out of equilibrium in the post-Cold War era by the growth of the military beyond its constitutional and statutory limits.

I contended that the problem that Kohn and others laid out was overstated. I argued that as long as the military was executing the policy ordained by the civilian authorities, there was no danger to the civil-military balance. But I now believe I was wrong. The undeniable fact is that many officers today think they have a right that goes well beyond the soldier’s clear duty to present his views frankly and truthfully when asked to do so by his civilian superiors in the executive branch and Congress. Instead, many believe they are entitled publicly to advocate or question foreign policy decisions.

But as Kohn asks in an essay in the most recent issue of The Naval War College Review, should the Army and Navy in 1941 publicly have debated Lend-Lease, convoy escort, the occupation of Iceland, or the Europe-first strategy? Should generals in 1861 have discussed in public their opinions of the plan to reinforce Fort Sumter, or aired their views regarding the right of the South to secede from the Union, or argued the pros and cons of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation? If the answer is no in both cases—and I believe it is—how can today’s officers justify their attempts to influence the debate over whether or not to go to war with Iraq?

Webb has argued that military leaders should participate in national-security debates, not merely as providers of military advice, but as public advocates on behalf of particular policies. “Military subservience to political control applies to existing policy, not to policy debates.” While I believe there is validity to Webb’s argument when it comes to debates affecting the military as an institution, e.g. women in combat or open homosexuals in the service, it should not apply to questions of war and peace. Foreign policy is the purview of civil authorities, not the military.

For one thing, the view of the soldier, no matter how experienced in military affairs he may be, is still restricted to the conduct of operations and military strategy. It is the role of the statesman to take the broader view, deciding when political considerations take precedence over even the most pressing military matters. The soldier is an adviser, not a policymaker.

There is, as well, a practical political problem resulting from public advocacy of policy on the part of soldiers: a loss of confidence and trust in the military institution as the military presses its claims outside of normal channels. Although Americans hold today’s military in high regard, this will change if they come to view the military as just another special-interest group vying for more resources as it seeks to restrict how the civilian authorities use it. During the Clinton years, there was great resistance on the part of officers to the use of the military for “operations other than war.” They argued that employing the military for such purposes overstretched U.S. forces and reduced the capability to “fight the nation’s wars.”

According to some observers, the military translated this distaste for constabulary operations into actual resistance by dragging its feet when it came to executing the policy. Gen. Wesley Clark, the U.S. Supreme Commander in Europe during the NATO action in Kosovo, claims that during his own service, the U.S. Army used this tactic when it came to deploying forces to the Balkans. Many Americans agreed that President Clinton often used the military in instances that had little to do with U.S. interests. But how will the American people interpret the military’s questioning of a policy that the president argues is necessary to protect vital interests, while still demanding approximately $400 billion annually?

As I argued in “With Eyes Wide Open,” the reluctance of the military to rush headlong into war reflects the soldier’s propensity to hedge against uncertainty and the likelihood that things won’t go as planned. Of course, it is the soldier’s duty to convey his concerns to civilian policy makers forcefully and truthfully. But the American system of civil-military relations requires that he not engage in public debate over matters of foreign policy, including the decision to go to war. And once a policy decision is made, the soldier is obligated to carry it out to the best of his ability, whether his advice is heeded or not.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.