Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates new book, Duty, Memoirs of a Secretary at War, which describes the tensions and lack of trust between the White House and senior military leaders, is merely the latest of a very old story of the often contentious relationship between the military and civilian leaders.  Of course, Presidents have long had conflicts with their senior military commanders.

But the problem of civilian-military relationships gets far less attention outside the rarified atmosphere of the Oval Office despite the fact that clashes between political appointees and senior military leaders are all too common.  While there is an inherent and healthy tension between military and civilian leadership, this tension becomes counterproductive thanks to some avoidable mistakes on both sides.

First, in Democratic and Republican Administrations alike,  new political appointees are too quick to assert “civilian control of the military” in response to any dispute with their military counterparts.  While the primacy of the President, Defense Secretary, and Service Secretary is clear, matters can be a bit murky at the Assistant Secretary or National Security Staff  level.  Assertions of “civilian control” at this level all too often leads to a food fight over turf that accomplishes nothing. For example, there have been some very nasty, and ultimately debilitating debates between service General Counsels and their military lawyer counterparts about whether civilian control of the military had any relevance to the relationship.  And there have been similar turf battles throughout the Pentagon whenever civilians and military staffs share a portfolio.  These debates were ugly and result in an unproductive lack of cooperation..

The fact of the matter is that it is the top leadership in the Department of Defense and in each service who decide who to listen to on particular matters, and assertions of power are empty and counterproductive.  When I became General Counsel of the Army, a veteran DoD official counseled me that in the Pentagon the best relationships were ones in which the civilians never mention the fact of civilian primacy, and military members never forget it.

Second, political appointees often  make decisions based on a misunderstanding of the military.  For example, some Bush Administration officials were shocked when military officers assigned to defend members of al Qaeda in military commission proceedings took their duty of zealous defense very seriously.  Rather than cooperate with the negotiation of guilty pleas, military lawyers challenged the constitutionality of the military commission system itself.

Anyone with any significant understanding of the character and ethos of modern military lawyers should have not been surprised.  From a very early stage in their career, young JAG officers defend defendants in courts martial and they are rated highly for vigorous defense.

Yet, it is also a mistake for senior military officials to expect unquestioning acquiescence to their assertions of military judgment.  When a General with decades of training and experience asserts his or her military judgment on a matter, it can be jarring to confront a different view, particularly when the political appointee did not serve in the military.  Yet, a military judgment is ultimately just that–a judgment–and wise policy is well served by a robust discussion of the basis of that judgment: What assumptions were made?  What factors were considered?  What alternatives were analyzed?

The discussion needs to be respectful, but political appointees are failing their job if they don’t engage, and senior military officials fail when they refuse to engage in a dialogue.  Perhaps the best example of the value of this discussion comes from the tenure of Secretary Gates.  At the time he launched the Comprehensive Review Group to evaluate the continued need for the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the large majority of senior military leaders shared the judgment that open service by gay and lesbian service members was inconsistent with good order and discipline.  Yet this judgment was merely the starting point of discussions, and the real value of the work of the Comprehensive Review group is that it tested the assumptions that lay behind this judgment–and found them wanting.

Political appointees and military leaders come from remarkably different backgrounds  and perspectives, and some tension is inherent in the relationship.  Heavy-handed assertions of civilian control or unquestioning acquiescence to assertions of military judgment are both mistaken responses to this tension. Political appointees do best when they work hard to understand the military, and take seriously their role to ensure that military judgments are based on sound reasoning, and that the full range of options are considered.