Democracy at Arms

Mackubin T. Owens

October 1, 2007

While the average political scientist is lucky to make a name for himself in one area of the field, Samuel Huntington has made major contributions to three: civil-military relations, democratic theory, and international relations. And while most people think of The Clash of Civilizations when they hear his name today, his most influential book—for better or worse—remains one that he wrote exactly a half-century ago: The Soldier and the State. Here, Huntington advances an institutional theory of civil-military relations, one that “focuses on the interaction of political actors played out in the specific institutional setting of government.”

A good theory possesses three elements: a descriptive or empirical element that accounts for and explains relevant phenomena; a predictive element that enables its adherents successfully to argue that, under such-and-such conditions, a certain outcome can be expected to occur; and a prescriptive or normative element that provides a guide to policy based on the descriptive and predictive qualities of the theory.

Huntington’s main descriptive or empirical claim in The Soldier and the State was that American civil-military relations have been shaped by three variables: the external threat, which he called the functional imperative, and two components of what he called the societal imperative, “the social forces, ideologies and institutions dominant within the society.”

The first component of the social imperative is the constitutional structure of the United States, the legal-institutional framework that guides political affairs generally and civil-military affairs specifically. The second is ideology, the prevailing worldview of a state. Huntington identified four ideologies—conservative pro-military, fascist pro-military, Marxist antimilitary, and liberal antimilitary—and argued that the fourth was the dominant ideology of the United States.

Huntington also argued that both components of the social imperative—the constitutional structure and the American ideology of antimilitary liberalism—had remained constant throughout U.S. history. Accordingly, the entire burden of explaining any change in civilian control or level of military armament would have to rest with the functional imperative; that is, the external threat.

He further contended that liberalism was “the gravest domestic threat to American military security. The tension between the demands of military security and the values of American liberalism can, in the long run, be relieved only by the weakening of the security threat or the weakening of liberalism.” The requisite for military security is a shift in basic American values from liberalism to conservatism. Only an environment which is sympathetically conservative will permit American military leaders to combine the political power which society thrusts upon them with the military professionalism without which society cannot endure.

According to Huntington, America’s antimilitary liberal ideology produces “extirpation”—the virtual elimination of military forces—when the external threat is low and “transmutation,”—the refashioning of the military in accordance with liberalism, which leads to the loss of “peculiarly military characteristics”—when the external threat is high. The problem for the United States in a protracted contest such as the Cold War (or the war against radical Islam) is that, while transmutation may work for short periods of time during which concentrated military effort is required (a world war, for example), it will not assure adequate military capability over the long term.

In the context of the Cold War, Huntington argued that the ideological component of America’s societal imperative—liberal antimilitary ideology—would make it impossible to build the forces necessary to confront the functional imperative in the form of the Soviet threat to the United States and to permit military leaders to take the steps necessary to provide national security. The predictive element of Huntington’s theory held that, without a change in the societal imperative, the United States would never be able to build the necessary military forces necessary to confront the Soviet Union.

The prescriptive or normative element of Huntington’s theory was to suggest a way for the United States to deal with the dilemma raised by what Peter Feaver has called civil-military problématique: How to address the tension between the desire for civilian control and the need for military security, or how to minimize the power of the military and make civilian control more certain without sacrificing protection against external enemies.

In particular, Huntington argued that he was prescribing a means for enabling the liberal United States to effectively meet the Soviet threat without forfeiting civilian control. His prescription, which he called “objective civilian control,” has the virtue of simultaneously maximizing military subordination and military fighting power. Objective control guarantees the protection of civilian society from external enemies and from the military themselves.

In Huntington’s prescriptive or normative theory, the key to objective control is “the recognition of autonomous military professionalism,” respect for the independent military sphere of action. Interference or meddling in military affairs undermines military professionalism and so undermines objective control.

This constitutes a bargain between civilians and soldiers. On the one hand, civilian authorities grant a professional officer corps autonomy in the realm of military affairs. On the other, “a highly professional officer corps stands ready to carry out the wishes of any civilian group which secures legitimate authority within the state.”

In other words, if the military is granted autonomy in its sphere, the result is a professional military that is politically neutral and voluntarily subordinate to civilian control. Of course, autonomy is not absolute: Huntington argued that while the military has responsibility for operational and tactical decisions, civilians must decide matters of policy and grand strategy.

While objective control weakens the military politically, rendering it politically sterile or neutral, it actually strengthens the military’s ability to defend society. A professional military obeys civilian authority; a military that does not obey is not professional.

At the opposite pole from objective control lay Huntington’s worst case situation—”subjective control”—which constituted a systematic violation of the autonomy necessary for a professional military and produced transmutation. He argued that subjective control was detrimental to military effectiveness and would lead to failure on the battlefield by forcing the military to defer to civilians in the military realm.

The key to objective control of the military is professionalism. According to Huntington’s reading of American history, the origin of American military professionalism is to be found during the period following the Civil War. During this period, Huntington claimed, the military was isolated—not only physically, but also socially, politically, and intellectually—from the mainstream of American life.

Huntington writes that this period constituted the “dark ages” of the Army and the “period of stagnation” for the Navy. He quotes one officer to the effect that, in America, the United States Army had become “an alien army” existing in “practically complete separation from the lives of the people from which it [was] drawn.” Huntington contends that the physical isolation of the armed services during this period was mirrored by its intellectual isolation: “The military were also divorced from the prevailing tides of intellectual opinion. West Point, for example, gradually lost contact with the rest of American education to which it has made such significant contributions, and went on its own way.”

But although these years may have been the dark ages of the military, there was a positive outcome. The “isolation and rejection” of the military “made those years the most fertile, creative, and formative in the history of the American armed forces.” This is because “the withdrawal of the military from civilian society produced the high standards of professional excellence essential to national success in the struggles of the twentieth century.”

In other words, isolation acted as a crucible for the creation of a professional military.

As Peter Feaver has argued in his formidable challenge to Huntington, Armed Servants, Huntington’s theory has survived numerous challenges over the decades. His core claims—that there is a meaningful difference between civilian and military roles; that the key to civilian control is military professionalism; and that the key to military professionalism is military autonomy—have been contested on numerous occasions. But Huntington perseveres “while the challengers drift into obscurity.”

Why? To begin with, Huntington grounded his theory in a “deductive logic derived from democratic theory while his critics did not,” writes Feaver. And despite the claims of many of those who look at civil-military relations through the lens of sociology, analytically distinct military and civilian spheres do appear to exist. Moreover, Huntington’s theory is the source of what Eliot Cohen has called the “normal” theory of civil-military relations, which holds that, during wartime, civilians determine the goals of the war, then stand aside to let the military run the actual war.

The Soldier and the State has had a great and lasting effect within our uniformed military. Indeed, the military has come to endorse many of Huntington’s general conclusions and has made it central to its civil-military relations education. But there are a number of flaws in Huntington’s theory.

First, as Feaver points out, elegant as it may be, his theory doesn’t fit the evidence of the Cold War. For instance, one of Huntington’s testable hypotheses was that a liberal society (such as ours) would not produce sufficient military might to survive the Cold War. But the United States did prevail during the Cold War despite the fact that the country did not abandon liberalism. Indeed, “the evidence shows that American society as a whole almost certainly became even more individualistic and more anti-statist than when Huntington warned of the dangers of liberalism in 1957.”

The same problems affect Huntington’s prescriptive theory. During the Cold War, the military became more “civilianized,” the officer corps more politicized, and civilians habitually intruded into the military realm: “According to many of the indicators Huntington cited as critical,” writes Feaver, “civilians did not adopt the objective control mechanism he claimed was the crucial causal mechanism between the explanatory variable of ideology and the dependent variable of adequate national security.”

Huntington’s historical generalizations concerning the alleged isolation of the military during the late 19th century are also at odds with the evidence. For example, in a 1980 article for the journal of the Army War College, John Gates pointed out that Huntington had vastly overstated the physical isolation of the Army officer corps during the decades following the Civil War. Gates found that a significant number of officers served in or near large urban areas during this period and that there was much greater civil-military social intercourse than the conventional wisdom would suggest.

Using reports of the Army’s adjutant general during 1867-97, Gates discovered that anywhere from “17 to 44 percent of all officers present for duty in established army command… were serving in the Department of the East or its equivalent, living in the most settled region of the United States, often on the Atlantic seaboard.” Of those not serving in the East, a substantial proportion were serving in urban areas of significant size, including such cities as Chicago, Omaha, St. Paul, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, and San Francisco: “In a nation that numbered only 100 cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants in the 1880 census, many of the western cities in which officers found themselves were of significant size. One should not consider individuals posted to such locations isolated.”

Gates went on to note that there were also a large number of officers on detached duty, which often included assignments that brought them into close contact with civilians, and that there was a great deal of social contact between officers and civilians. This contact between officers and civilians, including powerful and prestigious individuals, was a part of military life in both urban and frontier assignments. This is not surprising, given the middle-class origins of the officer corps. Huntington claimed that, because they were middle-class, officers were affiliated with no social group. On the contrary, argues Gates: They “had more in common with the ruling elite than with any other societal group in the nation.”

Finally, the line of demarcation mandated by Huntington’s theory is not as clear as some would have it. As Eliot Cohen has shown in Supreme Command, democratic war leaders such as Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln impinged upon the military’s turf as a matter of course, influencing not only operations but also tactics. The reason that civilian leaders cannot leave the military to its own devices during war is that war is an iterative process involving the interplay of active wills. What appears to be the case at the outset of a war may change as the war continues, modifying the relationship between political goals and military means. Wars are not fought for their own purposes but to achieve policy goals set by the political leadership of the state.

There is also a practical problem arising from the military’s reading of Huntington’s theory. Contrary to the real conduct of war, officers often infer that military autonomy means they should be advocates of particular policies rather than simply serving in their traditional advisory role—indeed, that they have the right to insist that their advice be heeded by civilian authorities. Such an attitude among uniformed officers is hardly a recipe for healthy, balanced civil-military relations.

And yet, despite its flaws, The Soldier and the State continues to provide useful insights into the nature of civil-military relations, especially our own. Huntington’s theoretical framework consists of a few tightly reasoned, deductive propositions. It addresses the central problem of civil-military relations: the relation of the military as an institution to civilian society. And its best empirical insights—the civilian-military distinction, the idea of military subordination, essential to democratic theory, the importance of military professionalism—do not depend on the problematic parts of Huntington’s model.

Huntington was the first to attempt a systematic analysis of the civil-military problématique: the paradox arising from the fact that, out of fear of others, a society creates “an institution of violence” intended to protect it, but then fears that the institution will turn on society itself. That was very much on the minds of the Founding generation, which had to strike a balance between vigilance and responsibility. It is still on our minds.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College.