How Civilian Control of the Military Has Become a Fantasy

Important piece.

The essence of the situation begins, but doesn’t end, with civilian control of the military, where direction, oversight, and final decision-making authority reside with duly elected and appointed civil officials. That’s a minimalist precondition for democracy. A more ideal version of the relationship would be civilian supremacy, where there is civically engaged public oversight of strategically competent legislative oversight of strategically competent executive oversight of a willingly accountable, self-policing military.

What we have today, instead, is the polar opposite: not civilian supremacy over, nor even civilian control of the military, but what could be characterized as civilian subjugation to the military, where civilian officials are largely militarily illiterate, more militaristic than the military itself, advocates for — rather than overseers of — the institution, and running scared politically (lest they be labeled weak on defense and security).

No, the military doesn’t prevent wars. At any given time over the past quarter century, on average roughly 40 violent conflicts a year have been underway around the world. The U.S. military has had virtually no discernible influence on lessening the outbreak of such conflicts. It isn’t even clear that its size, configuration, and positioning, no less the staggering sums invested in it, have had any appreciable deterrent effect on the warring propensities of our so-called peer competitors (Russia and China). That they have not sought war with us is due far less to simplistic Washington assumptions about deterrence than to factors we don’t even grasp. …

Instead of a strategically effective military, what we have is quite the opposite: heavy, disproportionately destructive, indiscriminately lethal, single-mindedly combat-oriented, technology-dominant, exorbitantly expensive, unsustainably consumptive, and increasingly alienated from the rest of society. Just as important, wherever it goes, it provokes and antagonizes where it should reassure and thereby invariably fathers the mirror image of itself in others.

Not surprisingly, the military today doesn’t secure and preserve peace, a concept no longer evident in Washington’s store of know-how. Those in uniform and in positions of civilian authority who employ the military subscribe almost universally and uncritically to the inherently illogical maxim that if you want peace, you had best prepare for war. The result is that the force being prepared (even engorged) feeds and nurtures pervasive militarism — the primacy of, preference for, and deference to military solutions in the conduct of statecraft. Where it should provide security, it instead produces only self-defeating insecurity. …

Rapacious defense spending: The U.S. military budget exceeds that of thenext 10 countries combined, as well as of the gross domestic products of all but 20 countries. At 54% of federal discretionary spending, it surpasses all other discretionary accounts combined, including government, education, Medicare, veterans’ benefits, housing, international affairs, energy and the environment, transportation, and agriculture. Thanks to the calculations of theNational Priorities Project, we know that the total cost of American war since 2001 — $1.6 trillion — would have gotten us 19.5 million Head Start slots for 10 years or paid for 2.2 million elementary school teachers for a decade. A mere 1% of the defense budget for one year — just over $5 billion — would pay for 152,000 four-year university scholarships or 6,342 police officers for 10 years. What we spend on nuclear weapons alone each year — $19.3 billion — would cover a decade of low-income healthcare for 825,000 children or 549,000 adults.

Promiscuous arms sales: The United States remains by far the world’s leading proliferator of conventional arms, accounting for some 50% of all global sales and 48% of all sales to the developing world. During the 2011-2014 period alone, U.S. weapons deliveries included a wide array of advanced weapons technologies: 104 tanks and self-propelled guns, 230 artillery pieces, 419 armored personnel vehicles, 48 supersonic aircraft and 58 other aircraft, 835 surface-to-air missiles, and 144 anti-ship missiles, much of that to the volatile Middle East. Skeptics would say that such transactions are motivated less by an urge to enable recipient countries to defend themselves than by the desire to buy influence abroad while aiding and abetting arms manufacturers at home. The result of such massive sales is, of course, the creation of yet more instability where stability should be.

Garrisoning the planet: The military maintains up to 800 bases in more than 70 countries and stations more than 200,000 active-duty personnel in some 150 countries. This global presence represents the geostrategic equivalent of Parkinson’s law: operational and social entanglements expanding exponentially to fill the space created by these far-flung outposts.

The nuclear black hole: The military remains the permanent keeper and executor of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal: an estimated 4,700 nuclear warheads on some 800 delivery systems, as well as another 2,340 “retired” but still intact and presumably usable warheads. A three-decade, trillion-dollar upgrade of this already monstrous arsenal is now underway. TheEconomist has called this Washington’s “unkicked addiction.” It should be clear, but apparently isn’t, that these are weapons of disuse. Other than for destroying the planet if used, their only value is as a measure of muscularity against mirror-image peers. They deter nothing at other levels of muscle-flexing but do feed an insatiable thirst for emulation among jealous non-possessors of such weaponry. …

Special attention also must be given to the massive expansion of U.S. Special Operations Command, once a modest cohort of elite specialists, into a force now larger than the militaries of many countries. Its ostensible raison d’être is waging permanent “war” against terrorism. The growing presence of and preference for using special operations forces globally ought to command the attention of anyone concerned with civil-military relations. Each armed service has a special operations command, as does each combatant command, including Northern Command. Estimates are that special operations personnelalready number or are expected to number around 70,000 (roughly the equivalent of four and a half Army divisions). This provides an almost infinite amount of potential space for meddling and “mission creep” abroad and at home due, in part, to the increasingly blurred lines between military, intelligence, police, and internal security functions.

Of the various ways the military could be configured — for warfighting; peacekeeping, nation-building, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response; or covert special operations — the last poses by far the greatest threat to effective civilian control of the military. An increasing reliance on and reverence for Special Operations forces (SOFs) only exacerbates already existing civilian deference to military preferences, practices, and mindsets.

Pentagon Excess Has Fueled a Civil-Military Crisis