Military Control of the Civilian: It’s Opposite Day in America

General Mattis: Celebrated as a moderating influence on Trump

W.J. Astore

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to recall that civilian leaders are supposed to command and control the military, not vice-versa.  Consider an article posted yesterday at Newsweek with the title, TRUMP’S GENERALS CAN SAVE THE WORLD FROM WAR—AND STOP THE CRAZY.  The article extols the virtues of “Trump’s generals”: James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff, and H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser.  The article presents them as the adults in the room, the voices of calm and reason, a moderating force on a bombastic and bellicose president.

I’ve written about Trump’s generals already at and elsewhere.  The latest gushing tribute to America’s generals at Newsweek illustrates a couple of points that bear repeating.  First, you don’t hire generals to rein in a civilian leader, or at least you shouldn’t if you care to keep a semblance of democracy in America.  Second, lifelong military officers favor military solutions to problems.  That’s precisely why you want civilians to control them, and to counterbalance their military advice.  Only in a democracy that is already crippled by creeping militarism can the rise of generals to positions of power be celebrated as a positive force for good.

Speaking of creeping militarism in the USA, I caught another headline the other day that referenced General Kelly’s appointment as Chief of Staff.  This headline came from the “liberal” New York Times:

John Kelly Quickly Moves to Impose Military Discipline on White House


Note that headline.  Not that Kelly was to impose discipline, but rather military discipline. What, exactly, is military discipline?  Well, having made my first career in the military, I can describe its features. Obedience.  Deference to authority.  Respect for the chain of command.  A climate that sometimes degenerates to “a put up and shut up” mentality. Such a climate may be needed in certain military settings, but do we want it to rule the White House?

Here is what I wrote back in December about Trump and “his” generals:

In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process.  His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism. At the same time, the future of U.S. foreign policy seems increasingly clear: more violent interventionism against what these men see as the existential threat of radical Islam. 

Of course, now the threat of nuclear war looms with North Korea.  For a moderating influence, America places its faith in military generals controlling the civilian commander-in-chief, and that’s something to draw comfort from, at least according to Newsweek.

When military control of the civilian is celebrated, you know it’s truly opposite day in America.

5 thoughts on “Military Control of the Civilian: It’s Opposite Day in America

  1. Military Discipline, I wonder if the White House will have to start the day off with a brisk run, marching in cadence and drop and give me 20 (push-ups) for those that fail to respond positively to General Kelly’s orders.

    Scary article: A plan to Privatize the Afghan War.

    I suspect from what I have read there was and is a great deal of privatization in our wars already.

    There is a potential conflict between the Trumpet and his Generals looming. Trump has the personality that will not accept his own failures. He must blame others and humiliate them to deflect criticism away from him. The Trumpet has no check valve on his emotional tweets and statements. My own speculation is if the Trumpet tries to blame the Generals and Military for lack of a success in Afghanistan his shelf life will expire. I could visualize a Nixonian end to his Presidency, including a pardon by Pence.


    1. ML: You’re right about privatizaton. A senior NCO in the Army told me he was required to attend hiring fairs by companies like Blackwater, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy before he separated from the military. This was in Iraq, roughly 2007-08 I think.

      Many troops leave the military to pursue the greener pastures of mercenary work, doubling or tripling their pay. Can’t say that I blame them.


  2. I remember when I separated way back when in 77, and thinking now that I’m going back to being as a Civilian from a Buck Sergeant in the Air Force- I’m going to outrank these Generals. Well here we are now in 2017 that myth has been disspelled. “And, I was getting Short as Pvt. Hudson”so eloquently put it in “Aliens” “Now I’m on a bottomless Rock” Maybe “Bed Drills” will be next!! :/ :o)


    1. Bed drills in the White House would be interesting. Is that what they mean by “military discipline”? Some Marine drill instructors would liven up the place.


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