A Military Litmus Test? Evaluating the Argument that Civilian Defense Leaders Need Military Experience

Does military experience confer unique qualifications for civilian leadership in national security? Should a lack of military experience disqualify someone from senior leadership roles at the Department of Defense? Should the secretary of defense be required to have served in the military?

“Yes” appears to be the answer to each of those questions from a growing segment of military communities and the American public. Twenty years ago, the Triangle Institute for Security Studies’ surveys found military officers felt they could insist civilian leaders follow their advice. Many surveys since have shown the American public shares this attitude that military judgment is not only special but superior and should, at least in wartime, be allowed to overtake civilian judgment. Simultaneously, politicians and senior officers alike have learned that the military’s enormous credibility with the American public has political power. The Trump administration has purposefully chosen men with military experience to take up civilian leadership positions at the Department of Defense.

Americans seem to agree that military expertise is critical to national security, but are unsure whether military experience should be a pre-requisite for senior civilian DoD jobs. Despite the prevalence of the latter as a sentiment, it has not yet developed into a detailed argument. This piece imagines what that argument might be, and then explores its validity and possible counterarguments.

The conclusion is that although military experience can certainly help an individual perform well in leadership positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, it does not guarantee it. In general, the qualifications often generated by military careers are not exclusive to military experience and can therefore be found among the non-veteran civilian population. Under scrutiny, there is not enough logic or evidence to support the notion that military experience is a useful litmus test for public office. More important, exploiting military veterans’ politically salient qualifications risks further politicizing the military.

Military Qualifications

There are four potential categories of benefits associated with military experience: leadership and administrative skills, combat experience, prestige, and desirable character traits. Each category represents a range of experiences and skill sets, some of which are general in nature and some of which have very specific military applications.

In 1960, the sociologist Morris Janowitz examined the “post-retirement employment” of senior military officers and found, “these officers are persons who have specialized knowledge of the processes of government.” In other words, military officers often have experience leading large government bureaucracies. The skills associated with running bureaucracies include budgetary and personnel management, time management, public and private communications, and negotiation—including with members of Congress and their staffs, and, if the officer was sufficiently senior, White House staffers. Time in senior military service can indeed give an individual “knowledge of the processes of government” that can translate quite directly into civilian leadership roles at DoD.

However, the argument about officership and administrative skills arises less today than assertions that experience in combat is what truly forges leadership qualities. For a nation still at war after two decades of continual military operations, this argument seems germane on its face and worth taking seriously. Veteran and author Malcolm Nance put it forcefully: “We need combat veterans & Warriors [sic] who have experience in the pain & suffering of military families & servicemen et [sic] hardship while deployed.” He suggests that emotional experience is the key element of combat, giving individuals an ability to empathize with deployed personnel and their families and, presumably, therefore make better defense policy.

Other abilities gained in combat may include: the ability to work under extreme stress, quick and instinctual evaluation of physical threats, the application of training to specific circumstances, decisiveness, and clear communication skills. In sum, combat experience might give an individual the knowledge that builds judgment in time and under pressure as well as the capacity for human connection with those touched by wartime foreign policies.

Scrutinizing the leadership benefits of combat experience reveals that the abilities garnered by a career in military service are not purely technical. Military training, education, and experience may also build key character traits for good leaders. American sociologists, political scientists, and even a few psychologists began to write about “the military mind” in the 20th century, asserting that certain values and qualities were bred by a career in military institutions, including honor, self-discipline, courage, and patriotism. According to one Army study, “tenacity,” “confidence,” and “judgment” were universally present in good combat leaders.

A final benefit of military service is that it may lend a degree of credibility that could be helpful in civilian positions of DoD leadership. The military’s public prestige, its reputation for moral courage, and its assumed political objectivity together give the military exceptional authority with the general public and elites alike. This makes those with military backgrounds more appealing as political appointees. Recall not only President Donald Trump’s appointment of Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly to high-level political posts, but also that Congress tapped Joe Dunford to head a commission overseeing coronavirus-related aid (Dunford eventually withdrew himself from consideration).

The argument that a military background should qualify someone—should perhaps even be a requirement—for senior civilian leadership positions at DoD, then, is based on the administrative expertise, the combat experience, the character traits, and the credibility associated with military careers. This expertise, experience, and character presumably lend themselves to civilian leadership roles at DoD. Do they?

Job Requirements

Given the emphasis placed on the military background of the two most recent secretaries of defense, focusing on the job requirements for the role will also focus the argument. According to the description of the role in Title 10 of the U.S. legal code, the secretary must be “appointed from civilian life” and is in the military chain of command just below the president. He or she has “authority, direction, and control” over all of DoD, an organization comprising more than a million active duty military personnel, three-quarters-of-a-million civilian employees, and a $718 billion budget. DoD is also “one of the nation’s largest healthcare providers,” “executes a multibillion-dollar global supply chain and manages a 5 million-item inventory,” and manages real estate “at nearly 4,800 sites worldwide, covering 27.2 million acres of property.”

Among other duties, Title 10 makes the secretary responsible for prioritizing strategic goals, military missions, and resources, generating force-planning scenarios and deciding force size, shape, and posture. The secretary must understand the effects of different kinds of organization and personnel policies. The secretary must have current knowledge of the diplomatic relationships the U.S. maintains around the world and the implications of those relationships for the Combatant Commanders. The secretary must know enough about technological innovations to guide the department’s development efforts and investments.

Of course, no single person could possibly have substantive expertise in every single DoD mission area or up-to-date knowledge on every budgetary program, or every region of the world, or the concerns of every member of both congressional armed services committees and every cabinet official in the National Security Council. For just this reason, a sprawling staff—the Office of the Secretary of Defense—supports him in these efforts. Yet that office is not specified in the Title 10 list of duties. What the law does stipulate is that the secretary will seek input from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is the legally provided mechanism for current military expertise to be supplied formally to the secretary.

And of course, he must do all of this with the political acumen required of a Cabinet-level official, a fact implied by the secretary’s job description but not explicitly stated. He must know organizational pathology or outright dishonesty when he sees it, be adept at assessing power and interests and making compromises. A good secretary draws on a lifetime of relationships across government, private industry, and the international community. A good secretary, in short, knows how to use all the human and material resources at his disposal in order to manage one of the world’s most sprawling professional portfolios.

Evaluating the Argument

A military background certainly may equip a candidate for leadership in DoD with the kinds of expertise and abilities that are well-matched to some civilian roles. Retired officers are likely to have experience leading bureaucracies and managing personnel, while some will also have the kinds of character traits associated with organizational success and performance in combat—like decisiveness and communication skills—that translate into one type of strong leadership. It is conceded, therefore, that military experience can provide an individual with capabilities and qualities that are helpful in government leadership roles.

Yet there are several reasons to reject blanket assertions that military service acts as a general qualifier for running or contributing to national security affairs in non-military capacities. Military service may certainly be helpful, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient for senior civilian leadership roles.

First, the diversity of people, branches, occupational specialties, and wartime experiences among men and women in uniform make it statistically improbable that one candidate’s military background will line up well with a specific civilian job function. Although a military career may certainly qualify someone for some civilian jobs, it does not qualify any single veteran for all civilian jobs. There is even a great deal of variation among officers’ experiences because of the size, sprawl, and diversity of the military itself. As the RAND Corporation recently found, the development of senior military officers is not uniform across the services.

Second, the more senior a civilian role, the wider its purview and the less applicable a military career spent on a single narrow expertise. This is especially true for the secretary of defense role, where any military branch, occupational specialty, or even combatant command is dwarfed by the vast span of control inherent to the job. In fact, the narrowness of a long military career could even be an impediment for a secretary, who will be better served by a diversity of experience needed to become a competent generalist and administrator. Even four-star admirals and generals, whose experience is the broadest in the military, are unlikely to have the breadth of experience needed to guide the Department of Defense in its external environment. A military background may be substantively helpful for a secretary but may also represent opportunity costs in terms of the diversity of experience that aids cabinet-level leadership. At the very least, it is just one field of knowledge among several, none of which alone are sufficient for success. Lacking experience in any one of these fields, to include military experience, should not therefore disqualify a potential secretary.

What about the argument that military experience confers unique qualifications for public office in the Defense Department? These rest on the assumption that military experience results in administrative skills, combat experience, prestige, and desirable character traits that are not only beneficial for civilian roles, but also cannot be produced by civilian experiences. Let’s examine these in turn.

The knowledge, skills, and abilities most widely available outside of military service are clearly in the area of administration. In Washington, bureaucrats are everywhere, and the kind of large enterprise leadership experience that is supposed to be so valuable among senior officers can be acquired by non-veterans in both the public and private sectors. Following the point about the diversity across military professional experiences, it also cannot be assumed that service at the senior officer level confers standard administrative qualifications.

Combat, in contrast, is the most uniquely military experience on its face. But the argument above—drawn from assertions made by others—is that combat builds empathy and character. It is hard to believe that those traits cannot be built in other ways, or that the human imagination is so limited that a non-veteran civilian could never conceive of the emotional toll war takes on combatants and their families. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote eloquently about the profound emotional impact on him—and on his leadership choices—of visiting wounded warriors. Although he had been a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and served as an intelligence officer at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, he did not serve in combat, yet that did not stop him from bearing witness to its costs. Moreover, there are some civilians who may not have fired weapons as combatants, but who have experienced the stress of living in a combat zone, been embedded with combat units, or in other ways come proximate enough to glean some, though certainly not all, the kinds of knowledge that combat experience conveys.

The contention that first-hand military experience is necessary also dismisses the Title 10 advisory role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. How does the expertise of a retired officer surpass that of the senior-most officer currently serving? And if it does, then what is the purpose of the chairman? Indeed, relying on the military expertise of a defense secretary due to her own military experience could undermine rather than enhance the important relationships among the secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the President.

Perhaps it is not expertise that matters so much as stature, a quality that translates into a certain amount of political capital. But what happens to that credibility once it is mixed into the political fray? Whether the prestige of military experience lasts once it has been leveraged for political power is unclear, but it seems likely that it is ephemeral indeed. This is in part a consequence of the polarization affecting all of American society—once a military officer or veteran becomes associated with one party, he loses credibility with members of the opposing party, destroying the benefits of his erstwhile objectivity.

Finally, consider the association between military service and the character traits valued in high public office. As any good statistician will tell you, a compelling correlation does not promise causation, much less suggest its direction. It may be that military experience builds desired characteristics. It may also be that the kinds of individuals who excel in the military had these characteristics prior to joining it. The Army study referenced above also noted that the characteristics of good combat leaders were not forged by combat itself, but were revealed by it: “Early in their lives, the traits that made them successful were discernible in some form and were enhanced, but could not be induced, through experience.” Other analysts have pointed out that lists of both the best and worst U.S. presidents include military veterans. In other words, it is the individual’s personality and actual record of performance and not his or her military resume per se that is the telling qualification for office.

Beyond Qualifications

One logical conclusion is that, if personality is what matters most in the end, professional background is at best a secondary consideration and should not overshadow the character of gifted—and politically enabled—individuals. This is an argument one often hears in response to assertions that military service should not be a compulsory qualification for the secretary of defense role: ‘But you should not exclude retired officers from being the secretary, either!’

This is a fair assertion, with one important caveat. While retired officers should certainly not be excluded from serving as secretary or in other senior civilian appointments, they should do so only rarely, and only after they have transformed themselves from pure officers to statesmen. Why is this the case? There are two reasons.

First, the secretary of defense, and the office that supports him, are civilians because they represent the first layer of civilian control of the military on behalf of the president, who himself exercises constitutional civilian control duties. ‘Civilian’ is a political and administrative identity central to the existence of democratic government. A retired officer does not transform his identity into a civilian’s overnight in the full sense intended by the constitutional requirement for civilian control of the military.

A former uniformed officer must develop new knowledge, skills, and abilities; new political networks; and most important, he must divest himself of the institutional loyalties, preferences, and biases built up over an entire career. The secretary must be able to balance the interests of his former service against the other services, and the interests of the department against the interests of the administration, the Congress, and the American people. He must be able to channel electoral mandates, not just the mandates of institutional rank and position. Some of these differences between officer and politician are subtle but nonetheless profound. It is for these reasons that, under law, if a candidate for secretary of defense served as an officer in the armed forces, he must be at least seven years into separation and retirement from his erstwhile service.

Second, to create a pipeline from military officership to senior political appointments will, over time, transform the military into a partisan entity. Senior officers would begin to plan for their transition to political life prior to retirement, doing the things that all political aspirants do: currying favors and making promises. The political parties, already prone to seek military voters and import military credibility for political gain, would begin to court politically promising officers—whether those officers invited such appeals or not. Partisan factions between and within the military services could develop, rotting the unity and cohesion of the armed forces. Personal ambition might supplant military expertise. The objectivity of military advice as well as the trust foundational to a healthy civil-military relationship would erode.

We should, therefore, consider not merely the qualifications military experience confers, but the potential negative implications of it for the future of both DoD and the military. Should a career as an officer, after enough time has passed, bar someone from becoming the secretary of defense? No. But should we make military experience a requirement for that office? The argument to do so is not persuasive.

IMAGE: (L-R) US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley hold a press conference in the briefing room at the Pentagon on March 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Alice Hunt Friend

Senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); previously principal director for African affairs in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Follow her on Twitter (@ahfdc ).