February 24, 2024
Former Pentagon leaders warned in an open letter published Tuesday that civilian-military operations are facing "an exceptionally challenging" environment.

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Eight former United States Secretaries of Defense and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are warning that civilian-military relations are at a low, pointing to recent events at home and abroad that have shaken the military’s foundations.

“We are in an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment,” the former officials said in an open letter published by the War on the Rocks blog. “Many of the factors that shape civil-military relations have undergone extreme strain in recent years.”

For starters, they pointed to the “winding down” of American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, noting that the military has to “come to terms with” war efforts that were not entirely successful “while preparing for more daunting competition with near-peer rivals.” Domestically, they claimed that military officials “confront an extremely adverse environment” marked by political polarization “that culminated in the first election in over a century when the peaceful transfer of political power was disrupted and in doubt.”

They also described how the COVID-19 pandemic and economic problems in the U.S. “have disrupted societal patterns and put enormous strain on individuals and families.”

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In light of all this, their outlook is less than optimistic, stating that “[l]ooking ahead, all of these factors could well get worse before they get better.”

The letter went on to explain the “core principles” of civilian and military cooperation. First and foremost on this list was that “[c]ivilian control of the military is part of the bedrock foundation of American democracy.” 

The former officials explained that civilian control of the military is shared by all three branches of the federal government. The Executive Branch, of course, controls it through the president, who serves as commander-in-chief, with the chain of command next going to the civilian secretary of defense and then military commanders. The Legislative Branch controls it through its “extensive” constitutional power, such as the power to declare war, raise armies, and provide a navy. Additionally, the Senate has approval power for the secretary and other high-ranking appointees. The judiciary, in turn, controls the military through its exercise of judicial review of policies, orders, and actions.

FILE PHOTO: The Pentagon building is seen in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. October 9, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: The Pentagon building is seen in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. October 9, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo (REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo)

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Without citing specific events, the letter noted that elected and appointed officials “have the right to be wrong,” in that they can insist on policies that later turn out to be mistaken, even if military advisers warned them in advance that it would be a mistake.

President Biden has been accused of moving forward with the withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan – widely considered a debacle – over the advice of military advisers, although the president has denied this.

With midterm elections nearing, the letter noted that there are “significant limits on the public role of military personnel in partisan politics,” and that “leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity.” 

This was days after Biden was criticized by veterans groups for having U.S. Marines standing in the background while he delivered a speech in Philadelphia in which he attacked supporters of former President Donald Trump, calling them “a threat to this country.”

Regarding presidential elections, the letter noted the complexity of the military having to “assist the current commander-in-chief in the exercise of his or her constitutional duty” while preparing for the possibility of a new one.

A key factor in maintaining civilian-military cooperation they said, is trust.

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“Mutual trust — trust upward that civilian leaders will rigorously explore alternatives that are best for the country regardless of the implications for partisan politics and trust downward that the military will faithfully implement directives that run counter to their professional military preference — helps overcome the friction built into this process,” they said. “Civil-military teams build up that reservoir of trust in their day-to-day interactions and draw upon it during times of crisis.”

The letter was signed by former Defense Secretaries Ash Carter, William Cohen, Mark Esper, Robert Gates, Chuck Hagel, James Mattis, Leon Panetta and William Perry. It was also signed by five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, namely retired Gens. Martin Dempsey, Joseph Dunford Jr., Richard Myers, and Peter Pace as well as retired Adm. Michael Mullen.