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Why Isn’t There More Public Scrutiny of the U.S. Military?

February 11, 2016

This is a guest post by Risa Brooks, Associate Professor at Marquette University

Americans’ relationship with the military exhibits an odd paradox: the country’s citizens profess to hold deep regard for the military, while in fact knowing little about it and paying minimal attention to its activities at home or abroad. Analysts of U.S. civil-military relations remain seriously concerned about this peculiar mix of societal reverence and indifference toward the military.

Less clear is why Americans remain so disengaged from an institution that has such a profound role in the country’s political and economic life. The greater than $500 billion defense budget consumes more than half of the federal government’s discretionary spending. Although the Obama administration has officially declared an end to combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, sizable forces remain deployed in both countries and more may soon be sent. If ever there was an institution that would seem a natural magnet for public attention, it is the United States military.

This neglect might not be a problem if the military did not in fact need the public’s attention to ensure its health at home and effectiveness in war. To be sure, the United States military remains unmatched in its capabilities across the globe. There are many talented and committed individuals and excellent leaders within the institution.
Still, the U.S. has not exactly won its last two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans rightly criticize civilian leaders for their missteps in the conflicts. More puzzling is that military leaders’ wartime decisions and their potential impact on the country’s politico-military failures have gone largely undebated. Most Americans would be hard pressed to recount even the most basic facts about the military’s deployments and operations in the two wars.

Indeed, Americans remain disengaged even when there is clear evidence of leadership failure. In the 2003 Iraq war, for example, the head of Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks, adopted a war plan that neglected the war’s vital post-combat stabilization phase, thereby fueling a nascent Sunni-led rebellion. Most Americans know little about how the flawed war plan contributed to that devastating insurgency.

Americans remain similarly ignorant of how the military is faring at home, despite evidence of problems within the bureaucracy and the officer corps. These include reports of pervasive “careerism,” in which officers prioritize their own personnel advancement over the well-being of the organization. Fueling this behavior is an outdated personnel system that privileges meeting requirements and following procedure over creativity and intellectual merit.

These problems in the officer corps are a principal cause cited by junior officers for leaving the military. A 2011 survey by Harvard’s Kennedy School reported that a primary reason why officers left was the military’s “organizational inflexibility” and a “lack of commitment to innovation.” Similarly, surveys of officers by former Air Force intelligence officer Tim Kane found that a whopping 93 percent believed that at least half of the military’s best officers left early without serving a full career because of serious defects in the personnel system.

Even more concerning is evidence of what two Army War college professors, Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras, refer to as “ethical fading” within the officer corps. In extensive interviews of Army officers, Wong and Gerras found a pervasive practice of evasion and deception in response to heavy reporting requirements. These infractions include improperly reporting concussions incurred in combat, falsifying maintenance and training records, and junior officers’ failing to report enemy contact in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to avoid laborious paperwork requirements.

The senior officer corps has also seen a surge of ethical breeches related to personal misconduct in recent years. A January 2014 investigation by the Washington Post of documents obtained through FOIA requests found over two dozen serious ethical infractions during the previous 15 months. An investigation by the Associated Press in February 2014 found that the annual number of Army officers forced out of the military for misconduct tripled from 2007 to 2013.

These issues demand public attention. Without it, the political challenge of undertaking appropriate reform may prove insurmountable. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, for example, assumed office with ambitions for dramatic change in the military’s personnel system. In turn, just this November he announced a series of reforms as part of his “Force of the Future” initiative. Yet, while advancing some innovations, Carter declined to push forward potentially transformational reforms in the system for military promotions. As military analysts Bensahel and Barno observe, any future reform will entail countering vested interests in the Pentagon opposed to the changes.

Why, then, has there been so little public scrutiny of the U.S. military? Why has this pressure for change rarely been forthcoming?

First, Americans have little intellectual appreciation for what the military does. Americans can think tactically: they understand bravery and close combat (at least the glamorous parts conveyed in films). They may be familiar with the experiences of a relative or friend who has served. Yet, they know little in reality about the military organization and the nature of military activity. Most lack even basic literacy—knowing what is the job of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the fact that command in war is the preserve of regional combatant commanders and not the Chairman. Given this, how can they begin to frame questions about strategy or operations, let alone assign blame appropriately when the U.S. military fails to achieve its goals?

A second problem results from the end of conscription and initiation of the all-volunteer force in 1973. Today, less than one-percent of the population is responsible for fighting the nation’s wars. Americans consequently have little “skin in the game” and therefore incentives to invest in analyzing military activity. This is a perverse consequence of the human costs of war falling narrowly on the small percentage who serve.

The third problem relates to the remarkable social esteem the U.S. military enjoys. When Americans are asked in polls by the Gallup organization in which American institutions they have confidence, the U.S. military regularly trumps ALL other institutions, including churches and courts. In a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center that asked which groups contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being, Americans ranked the military at the top. The U.S. military even beat out teachers.

The military’s social esteem has a pathological aspect: it insulates the military from a forthright assessment of its strengths and weaknesses and promotes a lack of constructive engagement by its citizens. Americans are wont to “support the troops” but are unwilling to engage in the critical analysis essential to ensuring the health of the organization in which they serve. Indeed, some military personnel express discomfort, if not outrage, at the glamorization of their service by a citizenry that otherwise is oblivious to the military.

So what is to be done? One step is to do a better job of educating Americans about the U.S. military’s basic workings and its wartime activities. A second step is supporting Congress’ efforts to play its constitutionally mandated oversight role of the armed forces and persist in pressing for needed reforms. Third, those influential in defense matters should encourage Americans to see that a balanced assessment of the military is eminently patriotic. After all, such an honest appraisal is the best way to ensure the health of the institution and to honor the republic that it serves.


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Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.