Since General John Kelly’s appointment as White House Chief of Staff last week there has been renewed comment on the number of military figures in leadership roles in the Trump Administration and the implications for democracy in the United States. Although, as Generals seem to be amongst the few people who can garner the President’s respect they may also be able to give him more robust advice than less esteemed members of the government. Yet, there have still been concerns that the presence of so many military figures in some way undermines American democracy, or risks doing so. This is in part linked to the President’s somewhat more robust stance on military interventions in comparison to his predecessor – for instance unlike President Obama who drew a red line and then failed to enforce it, President Trump did carry out targeted military strikes in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
I would argue that whilst caution is sensible, and it is important to regularly remind military leadership about the chain of command publically and privately, people with military experience are far more of an asset than a hindrance to civilian government.
Central to the argument against military involvement in civilian government is the thesis that this leads to a more aggressive and militaristic foreign policy. Evidence for that is scant when looked at in the broader picture. Indeed, there is a strong counter-case that former military veterans, knowing the horrors of war, are amongst the strongest advocates of peace and deterrence in most civilian governments.
It was a five star general who made the strongest public warning against military influence on American policy any President has ever made when Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation warned citizens against the ‘military-industrial complex’:
“…we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Eisenhower was talking in the context of the Cold War and the recent 1960 election campaign where John F. Kennedy had run on the alleged missile gap with the Soviet Union promising to build up US arms. His warning proved prescient as the young President embarked on a series of military misadventures and began US involvement in Vietnam which eventually ended so disastrously two Presidencies later. Yet, that was a failure of inexperienced civilian leadership, not an error his more militarily experienced predecessor would have made.
Historically, the Trump Administration is not an outlier, when conscription existed and the political elite were smaller many previous Washington administrations contained more military experience. In British politics we have seen a significant decline in military experience amongst our politicians as the war generations have died out, in the 2017 parliament only one current serving Labour MP has a military background. For much of the post-war period British Cabinets contained a number of ministers who had served in the military, by the turn of the 21st century this was no longer the case. As military experience in the Cabinet declined the number of interventions the British government became involved in grew in inverse proportion: Operation Desert Fox, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the war against ISIL. As the dead of those wars, particularly Afghanistan were rightly venerated we have seen an increase in the profile of military charities and the armed forces more generally in popular culture. To some this is a worrying sign of pervasive militarisation of society, yet the equally potent argument is that the focus on loss and respectful remembrance, far from encouraging greater military aggression, deters it. Generations who grew up not really comprehending the human tragedy of war at home have come to at least a minor understanding of the blood cost of intervention. As the golden generations who served in the two world wars pass into the annals of history this continuation of remembrance is vital.
In fact, failures of military decision-making by political leaders are far easier to pinpoint than a military influence on civilian government. The Chilcot Inquiry found that the civilian political apparatchiks around Tony Blair failed to keep both the Cabinet and the military leadership informed about decision-making in the run up to the Iraq invasion. It is reasonable to ask what a more militarily experience political leadership might have done differently at that time, particularly in planning for the power vacuum that would have inevitably emerged after the fall of Saddam.
Military symbolism and might have been the tools of dictators and demagogues throughout the world, but they should not be allowed exclusive ownership. Wise military counsel is an important part of democratic and civilian government, safeguarding freedoms that so many died to ensure, but in an open society it is equally essential that we continually question the role of the military. A broad spectrum of experience in power piercingly examined by the fourth, and now the fifth, estates leads to better government.