Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Legitimacy of an Authoritarian Military in a Libertarian Democracy

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The mission of the military is to “support and defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  That mission requires an authoritarian military regime within a libertarian democracy.  It’s a paradox that can create divisive civil-military issues of legitimacy that are different from those faced by the U.S. military overseas (see last week’s commentary).  

There has always been tension between military and civilian values.  Without a popular war to ease that tension, civilian support for the military wanes.  And it works both ways. Phil Klay recalls military personnel demeaning civilians, saying “While we’re at war, they’re at the mall.”  That reflects a sense of isolation among the one percent of Americans who serve in the military; many perceive an indifference of the other ninety-nine percent to their mission.   

America is polarized by a two-party duopoly that has evolved into divisive radical-right versus radical-left identity politics.  A rift in civil-military relations along party lines could endanger the fabric of American democracy, and that is a real danger with a narcissistic, belligerent, impulsive and unpopular president and commander-in-chief who sees a war as a way to bolster his popularity and that of his political party.  

The U.S. military is essential to protect national security interests and doesn’t need a war to justify its existence; but it does need to be integrated in the society it protects.  The military wields awesome lethal force and will always be a small percentage of the civilian population. But while it is the last bastion of defense for America’s freedom and democracy, it can also be a danger to democracy if it becomes isolated from the civilians it is duty bound to protect.

In 1957 Samuel P. Huntington wrote The Soldier and the State, a treatise on civil-military relations that argued that the military should be isolated from politics.  In 1993 Huntington wrote “The Clash of Civilizations” in which he saw the world at war over traditional religious and cultural differences interwoven in politics.  In today’s world of clashing cultures, military leaders must be knowledgeable of the strategic political issues that create armed conflict.

Carl von Clausewitz was a 19th century Prussian general who once famously said, war is an extension of politics by other means.  Military operations are a lethal extension of a nation’s foreign policy, and since the American Revolution, the citizen-soldiers of the National Guard and Reserve components have been the glue that has held U.S. civil-military relations together.  The military establishment in America has never been isolated from the civilian society it serves.

But that could be changing.  Phil Klay has raised issues related to the recent ambush and killing of Special Forces (SF) soldiers in Niger that should concern all Americans: Why were they in combat?  What was their mission, and when are SF advisory missions used as a cover for combat missions? Such issues of military policy should not be considered partisan issues, but most often they are, and that exacerbates partisan polarization.

Klay noted that after a public outcry over the incident in Niger “a former SF member” posted a vitriolic message on social media saying “We did what we did so that you can be free to naively judge us, complain about the manner in which we kept you safe “ and “just all around live your worthless sponge lives.”  Klay characterized those negative comments as “just a more embittered form of sentiment that he indulged in as a young lieutenant in Iraq.”

Klay also cited John Kelly, a retired Marine general who is now Trump’s chief of staff, who “...complained that nothing seemed to be sacred in America anymore, not women, not religion, not even the ‘dignity of life,’” and that “there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required.”  

There’s truth in Kelly’s assertion that civilian values are now at odds with traditional values.  The Army values of loyalty and duty to the Constitution, respect for others, honor, integrity and personal courage in the face of moral and physical threats are traditional values ignored by most civilians.  While the military is only one percent of America’s population, its mission is to protect all Americans, so that civil-military relations is a vital concern for all of us.


On the paradox of an authoritarian military in a libertarian democracy, the conflict between military and civilian values, the Soldier and the State, and conflicting views on military and civilian leadership, see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium (Frank Cass, 1996), chapter 5, posted in Resources at

Related commentary:

(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy
(11/15/15): American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?
(8/27/16): A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy
(9/3/16): The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace
(5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion
(8/26/17): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Politics and War
(9/2/17): The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies
(4/14/18): Musings of a Maverick on Military Legitimacy

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