Civil-Military Relations– Why A Little Conflict is OK

25 June 2013, 1227 EDT

Robert’s review of The American Culture of War yesterday was both extremely funny and informative.  It also mentioned a problem I’ve seen in a lot of the civil-military relations literature:  too much over-identification with a political leaning or ideology.  This area of scholarship reminds me sometimes of Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” – if I’m walking around the annual conference of the Inter-University Seminar at Armed Forces and Society without a uniform on, I’m immediately put in a category by some scholars.  That’s unfortunate – understanding the determinants of civil-military relations and its influence on international relations is a really important area of research.  Thankfully, not all scholarship in this area is that way. In the interest of providing an example of research that could serve as a counterpoint to the work outlined in Robert’s review, let me highlight some additional scholarship that my former colleague/advisor/buddy, Dale Herspring[1] and I have done on the subject.[2]

In most of the classic civil-military literature (think: Janowitz, Huntington, Feaver), the focus of understanding civil-military relations is to ensure civilian control.  In other words, as Feaver points out, the question is really how to make sure you have a capable military that is still under civilian control.  Herspring’s new book, Civil-Military Relations and Shared Responsibility, starts with the idea that, at least in Russia, Germany, Canada, and the United States, civilian control is a given.  The real issue, according to Herspring, is whether you can still have a military that can voice its opinion and provide expertise when necessary.  Instead of focusing on civilian control, Herspring’s book contends that some baseline conflict is necessary for a functioning military.  He terms this back-and-forth process “shared responsibility” and then outlines the conditions that have led to variation in “shared responsibility” at specific time periods in each state.  It’s a great book.

The theoretical portion of Herspring’s book grows from a senior (tug pdf) -junior (tug pdf) exchange that he and I were part of in Public Administration Review in 2011. Some of it is very consistent with Huntington’s classic characterization of objective versus subjective civilian control.   As I worked on my response for Herspring’s contribution, I got to thinking not about the determinants of this “healthy” degree of civil-military conflict but about the influence such a relationship could have on international crisis success.  If Herspring is correct that a certain amount of conflict between civilians and military officials is necessary for the military to function correctly, then we should see militaries be more successful on the battlefield when there is a “healthy” degree of conflict.   This puzzled me so much that I had to turn to Stata – sure enough, as I show in my recently published (tug pdf) Armed Forces and Society article, there is a “Goldilocks” relationship between civil-military conflict and successful international crisis outcomes for the state: both too much and too little conflict is more likely to lead to military ineffectiveness.  Some civil-military conflict, however, does improve the likelihood of success in an international crisis.

Anyway, I’m always looking for more great work on the topic.  Please let me know if you are aware of any new civil-military articles worth mentioning.

[1] Thanks to Daniel McIntosh for mentioning Herspring’s book in his comments on Robert’s Duck post.  It got me thinking about these things again.

[2] Dale was one of my MA advisors; he’s partially responsible for convincing me that a young mother of 2 could still go on for a PhD and a career in academia.  And, he was a great colleague who handed out candy filled with liquor.