The Real Threat to Civilian Control of the Military

The Real Threat to Civilian Control of the Military

The Officer Corps Can No Longer Simply Ignore Politics

As soon as Joe Biden announced that he would nominate General Lloyd Austin to serve as his secretary of defense, critics began to question the choice. Austin retired from a long career in the U.S. Army just four years ago and, like General James Mattis before him, would thus require a congressional waiver of the rule requiring active-duty military personnel to wait seven years before becoming defense secretary. Under Mattis, the critics contend, civilian control of the military had already decayed considerably. Austin’s confirmation, in hearings that begin this week, would risk accelerating that decay by handing the job over to a recently retired general—one who may lack the political experience and comfort relying on a robust civilian staff—for the second time in four years.

But to focus entirely on the implications of Austin’s (or Mattis’s) nomination neglects a much deeper challenge to civilian control of the military—above all, in the culture of professionalism that dominates the U.S. military’s officer corps today. The problem is not, as many might suspect, that officers are too political; it is that they think they can ignore politics altogether. The dominant culture of professionalism in the military today maintains a strict separation between the military and civilian spheres and bars officers from thinking about politics.