Finding the Right U.S. Defense Leaders

Dr. Alice Friend’s superb post (“A Military Litmus Test? Evaluating the Argument that Civilian Defense Leaders Need Military Experience”) is a thoughtful, measured analysis of a vitally important question: what should America require for senior leadership of its defense establishment? Friend correctly notes that “a growing segment of military communities and the American public” seem to think that military service is a requirement for top jobs in the Department of Defense.

I completely agree with her that a lack of military experience should not be a bar to senior positions, and especially that of secretary of defense. That said, there are some important nuances as to the value of military experience, especially with respect to senior Pentagon posts beyond the secretary’s.

Friend is right to say that military experience will not necessarily line up “with a specific civilian job function” in the Pentagon. But that’s also likely to be true for most candidates coming from the civilian world to the rather unique behemoth that is America’s defense establishment. Besides the practical advantages (security clearance, familiarity with defense processes, etc.), the military veteran typically has the advantage of understanding the vagaries of military culture—the idiosyncrasies and customs that would take a long time for a civilian who has never served to truly appreciate, if they ever could.

I also agree with Friend’s point that “the more senior a civilian role, the wider the purview…”  I’m less supportive of what she adds after that: “…and the less applicable a military career spent on a single narrow expertise.”

Sure, that could be true for certain people, but not the bulk of senior military officers. Their experience and expertise are rarely as narrow as she suggests. Most, for example, have a great deal of international experience, often living for years overseas in the course of their career. This first-hand experience in foreign cultures is—or should be—invaluable for American defense leaders in the 21st century.

Furthermore, virtually every senior military leader deals with not only the exigencies of combat, but also a daunting mélange of other challenging responsibilities. These include managing multibillion-dollar budgets, addressing convoluted personnel and criminal law matters that inevitably arise among the thousands for whom they are responsible, integrating highly complex technologies, and dealing with foreign officials, Congress, the public, and the press.

Diversity and Depth of Experience

Very few coming from civilian life have as much diversity or depth of experience. Some might have deep experience in one or two of these areas, but rarely the range that many military leaders have. More than a few (albeit certainly not all) civilians have spent the bulk of their life in academia or think tanks, frequently inside the Beltway. Though often dismissed, an understanding of the ‘Washington’ perspective actually is valuable, but it also can breed a kind provincialism that too frequently and unhelpfully blinkers perspectives.

Friend expresses concern that, in the case of the secretary of defense, the ascendance of a former military officer to that position creates an issue because a “retired military 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 couple of observations here. In terms of civilian control of the military, the Founders were focused on the physical threat that a standing military force could present to civilian government. Today, however, “civil-military relations” often morphs into a debate about whether or not the views of active and retired officers ought to be muzzled.

Regardless, if the attitude of a secretary of defense nominee is suspect, it can be checked by the Constitution’s provisions for oversight by the two civilian branches of government: the executive nominates, and the legislative branch gives “advice” and, if satisfied with the individual, “consent.”

I really don’t believe, as some seem to think, that retired officers serving in civilian positions upsets civil-military relations or puts the republic in jeopardy. To the contrary, I think any democracy ought to be wary about questioning the loyalty and integrity of a person simply and solely because he or she served the country in uniform.

Favors and Promises?

I agree with Friend that we should not “create a pipeline from military officership” into “senior civilian political appointments.” However, in explaining her rationale, she writes, “[s]enior officers would begin to plan for their transition to political life prior to retirement, doing all the things political aspirants do: currying favor and making promises.”

There may be some who do that, but if we look for examples among the many retired officers who have obtained political appointments in the last few decades, I think the number who have engaged in such behavior to obtain the posts is not many. With respect to the secretary of defense position, the number is zero. In my experience, if there is any sort of “pipeline” for retired senior officers, it is not into political-appointee positions, but rather into far more financially lucrative jobs in private industry.

That said, I am concerned about the idea that political aspirants “curry favor and make promises” to get their jobs. In a way, that confirms the fears that those in the military have about how the process for civilian political appointees works. It suggests that merit alone or even political affiliation is insufficient; rather, they must pass a political litmus test through “currying favor and making promises,” all based on their party’s ideology.  I’ve sat on promotion boards and people don’t and, really, can’t typically get promoted in the military that way.

I don’t deny that happens in the case of some civilian appointees, but in my experience, there are fewer people like that than some might assume. Plenty of civilians want to serve their country for all the right reasons. Political ideology? Sure, but for most of my career I found that the party in power was much less important than the personalities and expertise of the particular political appointees selected. Both parties produced terrific leaders; both have had their share of duds. In truth, in the defense arena, my experience was that partisan political ideology is much less salient to job success than it is perhaps in other areas of government.

For many years both in and out of uniform, I insisted that civilians without military service could serve extremely successfully in senior defense community positions. I still believe that—Friend herself is an example. But I have qualified my views a bit as I’ve seen many people discourse about things military without really understanding the subject. To be clear, I believe someone can educate him or herself into the necessary expertise, but it takes a lot of hard work and study. The pool of those willing to make that kind of intellectual investment is extant, just smaller than I thought (and hoped).

I would also recommend that any civilian aspiring to a high position in the defense establishment develop a keen understanding of what he or she does not know. It is a mistake, for example, to assume that a few VIP trips to the field can make anyone an expert. As someone who has been on both ends of such trips, I can say that they really do have some value for both the visitor and visited, but they are snapshots at best, and do not, and could not, provide the insights that some seem to think they do.

Civilians new to defense shouldn’t hesitate to admit that they find it difficult to follow a conversation steeped in military jargon, acronyms, and technical information. Trying to ‘fake it until you make it ‘is not admired in the armed forces, as real lives can be at stake. It is perfectly ok—–and, frankly, respected—–to say, “I don’t understand that; explain it to me.”

‘Separate from Civilian Society’

Further, the civilian needs to respect that the military is, indeed, as the Supreme Court put it, “a specialized society separate from civilian society.” There are things about it and its mores that civilians who have not served might never understand. The eminent military historian John Keegan says his “life cast among warriors” taught him:

[T]o view with extreme suspicion all theories and representations of war that equate it with any other activity in human affairs…Connection does not amount to identity or even to similarity …. War…must be fought by men whose values and skills [differ]….They are those of a world apart, a very ancient world, which exists in parallel with the everyday world but does not belong to it.

President Barack Obama also seems to have recognized that those in the military are different from those who have not served when, in 2009, he asked, somewhat bemused:

Why, in an age when so many have acted only in pursuit of the narrowest self-interest, have the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others? Why have they been willing to bear the heaviest burden?

Whatever it is, they felt some tug; they answered a call; they said “I’ll go.”  That is why they are the best of America, and that is what separates them from those of us who have not served in uniform — their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met? (Emphasis added.)

Along this line, civilians would be wise to internalize that no matter what achievements their prior experience included, the armed forces is an institution that has a mission fundamentally unlike that of any other in our society. The Supreme Court explains it in a straightforward manner: the “differences between the military and civilian communities result from the fact that ‘it is the primary business of armies and navies to fight or be ready to fight wars should the occasion arise.’”

The Special Bond

Accordingly, those who have actually lived in the military community and have executed the “primary business” of that community are naturally going to be respected and honored within it in a way that is very difficult for any civilian to achieve. Retired Marine General Jim Mattis is an example of someone whose charisma was forged by his legendary combat leadership and who consequently, as secretary of defense, enjoyed enormous popularity among the troops.

In an essay entitled “Why We Serve,” retired Army General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell explained that Americans join the military for many reasons, from the profound (to “save humanity” during wartime) to the practical (earn money for college). But once they have “joined up,” he says, they give “all for our country.” He adds this insight:

GIs are driven by another allegiance that is just as fierce: to their buddies. During training, they learn to rely on each other for food, for security, for support. They know that they will live, and possibly die, together as a squad of five or nine. It’s a form of bonding you can’t find anywhere else. (Emphasis added.)

Civilians should avoid trying to compete on that level. I’ve seen some who badly want to be considered actually part of the military, and it isn’t pretty. Our democracy needs them as civilian leaders, not wannabee soldiers.

I’ll be the first to say civilian public service, especially at the senior level in the defense arena, ought to be vastly more appreciated than it is. The sacrifice they–and their families–make is enormous, and the pressure under which they work can be staggering. They typically endure critiques by the media, Congress, and, yes, sometimes even by the military, that can be heartless and uninformed. Yet most bear it with an inspiring sense of duty.

Let me end with making something crystal clear: as the Supreme Court observed in Haig v. Agee, “no governmental interest is more compelling than the security of the Nation.” Accordingly, we need the best and brightest to lead our national defense. Military experience may be helpful, but as Friend explains, it should not be a litmus test for a senior position; at the same time, military service ought not be a disqualifier.

IMAGE: Win McNamee/Getty 

 

About the Author(s)

Charles J. Dunlap, Jr.

Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security and Professor of the Practice of Law at Duke Law School. He retired from the Air Force in 2010 as a Major General.