The post-9/11 period in American civil-military relations has proven to be unlike any of its predecessors. In each of the post-war periods of the 20th century, there was public debate as to the future role of the military, necessary strategic reforms within the military, and the proper balance between civilian control and military advice. This debate has been largely absent this time around.
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States was faced with a serious external threat to its security for the first time since the War of 1812. The birth of the Cold War ushered in a new era of civil-military relations. Alongside this was a reform movement within the armed forces. This not only entailed top down direction, but bottom up refinement.
After the catastrophic failure to accomplish any of the overarching political or strategic military goals in Vietnam, an activist component within the professional officer corps emerged, pushing for reform and questioning the competence of the previous generation. Such debate can be messy, but it sheds light on organizational problems and opens to floor to those who would bring about necessary change. This activism was fueled by a society that cared deeply, and was affected deeply, by the Vietnam conflict.
In the wars of the post-9/11 era we have seen none of the activism from within, nor the interest from without. The professional officer corps has been strangely silent, though we are concluding the longest war in our history and have suffered immense strategic and political failure. The money (albeit a slightly smaller amount), keeps flowing, and military leaders are riding the wave of popularity while avoiding any real scrutiny. Reforms have focused on social issues and budget cutting, but not on strategic accountability and functional discourse. The military isn’t learning from its failures, because nobody will acknowledge them.
A healthy civil-military relationship is one that fosters debate between the two communities in order to maintain accountability within the strategic leadership, identify reforms when necessary, and breed innovation. Within a democracy, this cannot and will not happen absent a clear understanding of the military by the general populace. Such a relationship comes from connectedness. The growing chasm between the people and the military has effectively allowed it to run on autopilot, which has, in turn, killed discourse both within and about the armed forces.
While there may not be a crisis of American civil-military relations, the current situation we find ourselves in is one in which the conversations are decidedly one-sided. Military leadership has no real need to advocate as strongly on its own behalf, because it is almost always ensured a large degree of support from law makers. Though the relationship is functional, it is no longer fruitful. A healthy perception of the military, one in which there is admiration, but acknowledgment of its faults, helps to keep civilian policy makers skeptical. This, in turn, forces the organizations to police themselves.