Citizen Mattis: The Importance of Civilian Control of the Military

 

One of the most difficult problems of any society is to establish a proper relationship between civilian authority and military power. Even before the Constitutional Convention, Americans were familiar with the problems of armies, and many delegates were fearful that a standing army would be a vehicle for despotism. Many of their concerns were highlighted in The Declaration of Independence as they noted several grievances of the violation of their liberties directly attributed to a standing army (Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures, the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power, quartering large bodies of armed troops, protecting [the British military] by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.)

The Constitution in 1787 made of point of having a check on the military’s power by civilian authorities. Congress was given the sole power to declare war, to lay and collect taxes for the common defense, and they were responsible for raising and supporting armies. The President was made Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, and of the militia. This arrangement strengthened the civilian control of the military, and provided protection from having the sword and purse in a single hand. Jim Mattis’s nomination as the incoming Secretary of Defense doesn’t violate any constitutional principles, but does raise come concerns over the relationship between civilian leaders and their military counterparts.

When the Department of Defense was created in 1947, there was a specific provision that called for the Secretary of Defense to “be appointed from civilian life by the President…That a person who has within ten years been on active duty as a commissioned officer in a Regular component of the armed services shall not be eligible for appointment as Secretary of Defense.”  The concern of the 80th Congress was similar to that of the Founders: a career military professional who controls the military can be a danger to the liberty of citizens. Mattis retired from active duty only three years ago, and therefore he will need Congress to grant him waiver if he is to serve as the new Secretary of Defense.

A special waiver is not unprecedented, and Congress granted one to George C. Marshall in 1950 so he could become the third Secretary of Defense and aide in the management of failing combat operations in Korea. Marshall, who was the Army Chief of Staff five years prior before his appointment as Secretary of Defense, was a very different case than that of Mattis. For starters, although Marshall spent most of his life in the military, he had significant experience in politics as the 50th Secretary of State (where he helped create the Marshall Plan) and experience in the civilian world as President of the American Red Cross. Mattis, by contrast, has no real experience in the political or civilian world, and all he has known is military life. Even Dwight Eisenhower warned, “lifelong professional soldiers, in the absence of some obvious and overriding reasons, [should] abstain from seeking high political office.” Eisenhower’s warning was not to criticize the military, but only to warn that career military service doesn’t qualify individuals for political office.

Jim Mattis has had an illustrious career as a military officer, and he is an exceptionally talented man, but he needs to show that he can shed his military persona and act only as a civilian leader. This will mean constant confrontations with current generals and military officers, and letting them know they are subordinate to civilian control. One of the most significant, but often overlooked, actions by a recent Secretary of Defense to establish civilian control over the military was that of former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Sec. Rumsfeld  put out a memo on October 24, 2002 chastising those who referred to generals as Commander-in-Chief. In the memo Rumsfeld said, “the title “Commander in Chief” shall only be used to connote or indicate the President of the United States of America.”[1] This assertion of civilian dominance over the military is exactly how Mattis needs to act in order to legitimize his role as Secretary of Defense.

One final recommendation to the incoming Secretary of Defense is to censure anyone that refers to him as “General” or even “Mad Dog”. He needs to emphasize he a now a civilian, and not a military officer. The only proper way to address him is either Mr. Secretary, or Jim, to his superiors. He should leave any other nicknames and titles to our enemies.


[1] At the time, Commander-in-Chief was also applied to U.S. military commanders of the U.S. unified combatant commands. Their titles became, for instance, “Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command” 

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  1. kgrant67 Inactive
    kgrant67
    @kgrant67

    I wasn’t too concerned about maddog as secdef but upon reading this post I am more so. Less because I think he will pose a threat himself but because I can’t shake this feeling that we are inching toward a totalitarian state. First with the expansion of the executive branch’s power and now possibly with an erosion of civilian control of the military

    • #1
  2. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    John Yoo: The President was made Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, and of the militia. This arrangement strengthened the civilian control of the military, and provided protection from having the sword and purse in a single hand

    And the first thing they did was install a general as the executive. As for Eisenhower, he was retired only 5 years before entering the White House. Funny that lawyers and politicians get hung up on this arbitrary period after retirement. They would deny a military man the #2 job in the command structure but make no mention of the lack of Constitutional objection to him taking the top job in the Oval Office.

    To place the 80th Congress on the same level as the Founding Fathers is ridiculous. The Defense Act of 1947 was created in the aftermath of the militaristic dictatorships that flourished among our Axis adversaries in WWII. It’s actually a slap in the face to the men and women who have worn our country’s uniform in the last 70 years, as if they needed an extra special check on them lest they feel compelled to overthrow the US Government in favor of a 20th Century fascist dictatorship. After watching the last two Democratic Presidents I would contend that James Mattis and his comrades take their oath to the Constitution a lot more seriously than their elected civilian overlords higher up the chain of command.

    America actually has a long history of putting generals in high political office. We’ve had 12 different men who have had at least one star on their shoulders at one time or the other. And the results are not any better or worse than political professionals.

     

    • #2
  3. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    I don’t have a problem with General Mattis, but I do agree that civilian control of the military is important. Enough that I think that requiring the House to weigh in on General Mattis (or any other officer that would be looking to hold the post in the future) is perfectly reasonable. The Senate is not as accountable to the citizenry as the House is.

    @ejhill,

    The difference between electing generals president and appointing generals secretary of defense is that the president is elected. With an election there is democratic approval of the man for president. We all have great respect for our military, and one of the reasons that we do, is that within the US military itself it is drummed into them that they serve and are loyal to the Constitution and the citizens of the US first. This is not true for all military organizations in the world or throughout time. There are many cases throughout history and in countries today (Myanmar) where military organizations were loyal to the organization first and not the nation or citizens that they serve.

    • #3
  4. Locke On Inactive
    Locke On
    @LockeOn

    I’d have a lot more worry about John Yoo’s own authoritarian streak that I will about Jim Mattis, whose respect for civilian authority and our constitutional republic rings true.  Lord knows he’s suffered enough from the civilian control through the years, but not one word of changing it.

    • #4
  5. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    I am not particularly concerned.  Mattis seems to be a very serious-minded man and very concerned for the welfare of servicemen.  We need a Secretary of Defense who knows the services well and who has the standing to root out the rot that has been elevated to senior ranks by Team Obama, who have been very concerned with social engineering in the ranks and with reducing American military strength and not much concerned with protecting American interests.

    • #5
  6. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Locke On: I’d have a lot more worry about John Yoo’s own authoritarian streak

    I worry about that streak too … worry that John’s is losing it entirely!  The secret sauce is a very small percentage of the Big Mac, but still vital.

    Last two paragraphs read like a pulled punch.

    • #6
  7. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    I think Hillary should be SOD, she is much meaner than Mad Dog.

    • #7
  8. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Note:

    There are more constructive ways of making this argument.

    Torture advocate complains of man that plans to win the war (finally) without using torture.

    • #8
  9. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    How important is the role now compared to its original purpose?

    Is this glorified bureaucrat now more influential than Congress, which has largely ceded the authority to declare war and is loathe to refuse funding to soldiers already engaged in battle? Or is he just a cog in a wheel?

    • #9
  10. Brad2971 Member
    Brad2971
    @

    EJHill:

     

    And the first thing they did was install a general as the executive. As for Eisenhower, he was retired only 5 years before entering the White House. Funny that lawyers and politicians get hung up on this arbitrary period after retirement. They would deny a military man the #2 job in the command structure but make no mention of the lack of Constitutional objection to him taking the top job in the Oval Office.

    To place the 80th Congress on the same level as the Founding Fathers is ridiculous. The Defense Act of 1947 was created in the aftermath of the militaristic dictatorships that flourished among our Axis adversaries in WWII. It’s actually a slap in the face to the men and women who have worn our country’s uniform in the last 70 years, as if they needed an extra special check on them lest they feel compelled to overthrow the US Government in favor of a 20th Century fascist dictatorship. After watching the last two Democratic Presidents I would contend that James Mattis and his comrades take their oath to the Constitution a lot more seriously than their elected civilian overlords higher up the chain of command.

    This whole issue makes one want to look up the entire legislative debate on this provision in the Defense Act of 1947. I’m curious as to whether or not it was meant with one person in mind: Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

    • #10
  11. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Skyler:

    We have hundreds of words here.  So expand the argument by replacing “torture” with “Man who justified pouring Dixie cups of water in the mouths of terrorists who murdered thousands of his countrymen” and we can begin a fair discussion.

    • #11
  12. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    John Yoo: When the Department of Defense was created in 1947, there was a specific provision that called for the Secretary of Defense to “be appointed from civilian life by the President…That a person who has within ten years been on active duty as a commissioned officer in a Regular component of the armed services shall not be eligible for appointment as Secretary of Defense.”

    ‘In the United States, “advice and consent” is a power of the United States Senate to be consulted on and approve treaties signed and appointments made by the President of the United States to public positions, including Cabinet secretaries, federal judges, United States Attorneys, and ambassadors.’

    JohnYoo: Please explain how the 80th Congress can reduce a Constitutional power of the President.

    • #12
  13. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    EJHill: And the first thing they did was install a general as the executive.

    And then they appointed General Henry Knox the first Secretary of War who would be followed by Quartermaster General Thomas Pickering.

    General Alexander Hamilton expressed no disapproval on record.

    • #13
  14. Viator Inactive
    Viator
    @Viator
    • #14
  15. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    The law is clearly unconstitutional. The House has no say in appointments. Therefore, the law is not a valid one.

    • #15
  16. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville
    @KCMulville

    This leads me to be even more curious about who becomes Secretary of State. State and Defense have to work together if they’re going to be effective. If you have any worries about a general upsetting the civilian control of the military, then by appointing a general you would most likely have to counter-balance that by appointing an uber-civilian as Secretary of State.

    Of course, I wonder if we have reached the point with the State Department where we should be wary of having a diplomat in charge of our foreign relations. Half of them went to Georgetown for the School of Foreign Service, and you know how those Jesuits are.

    • #16
  17. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    A few years back we had a former Army MG hired as a VP in one of the business lines of my company.  People referred to him all the time as “General Lastname”.  I didn’t like it at the time and I agree with the reasoning you’ve laid out here.

    • #17
  18. Skarv Inactive
    Skarv
    @Skarv

    Listening to Peter’s interview with Jim Mattis makes me very comfortable with him as Secretary of Defense. He clearly understands who is subordinate to whom. Very good interview and a great choice for the role.

    • #18
  19. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    KC Mulville:This leads me to be even more curious about who becomes Secretary of State. State and Defense have to work together if they’re going to be effective. If you have any worries about a general upsetting the civilian control of the military, then by appointing a general you would most likely have to counter-balance that by appointing an uber-civilian as Secretary of State.

    Of course, I wonder if we have reached the point with the State Department where we should be wary of having a diplomat in charge of our foreign relations. Half of them went to Georgetown for the School of Foreign Service, and you know how those Jesuits are.

    Draining the swamp has to include Foggy Bottom.

    • #19
  20. The Cloaked Gaijin Member
    The Cloaked Gaijin
    @TheCloakedGaijin

    There have been more former military men as civilian leaders when there have been recent wars just as more presidents following the Civil War and World War II were former veterans.

    Former United States Secretaries of War:

    Major General Benjamin Lincoln (Congress of the Confederation)

    Major General Henry Knox

    Colonel Timothy Pickering

    Major General Henry Dearborn

    Brigadier General John Armstrong, Jr.

    Colonel James Monroe

    Colonel Jefferson Davis

    Brigadier General Lewis Cass

    Major General Peter Buell Porter

    Brevet Major General John Schofield

    Brevet Major General John Aaron Rawlins

    Brevet Major General William W. Belknap

    Colonel Redfield Proctor

    • #20
  21. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    I’m not getting from the OP the feeling that Mattis should be disqualified, just that civilian control of the military is important and one facet to consider.  That said, I’m all for Mattis as SECDEF.  I’m much more comfortable with his qualifications than I am with the First Tweeter as POTUS.  :)

    • #21
  22. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Concretevol:I’m not getting from the OP the feeling that Mattis should be disqualified, just that civilian control of the military is important and one facet to consider.

    That was my take too. There’s a mile of difference between “don’t do x” and “be careful about x and here are some specific recommendations as you do x.”

     

    • #22
  23. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    I would be remiss if I didn’t object to the use of Rumsfeld as an example of a proper secretary of defense. Rumsfeld had down right stupid ideas about war fighting, that wars could be fought with special forces almost exclusively. He also, like toturer Yoo, believed that torturing prisoners was tactically sound. He cancelled the A-12, leaving our carriers without their most important offensive power, a vestige of that power is all that remains.

    Rumsfeld is a good man, I like a lot about him, but his recommendations for waging war were terrible and he and Cheney, another good man who was spectacularly wrong, gave very bad advice to Bush.

    • #23
  24. erazoner Coolidge
    erazoner
    @erazoner

    The issue seems to revolve around whether a former military leader’s “military persona” is a threat to the civilian control doctrine. Yet as has been demonstrated, countless veterans, retired senior officers, and even currently-serving reservists have filled leadership positions with the DoD (some with distinction, some not so much, c.f. SECNAV Ray Mabus). Yet the only remedy to the potential conflict that lawmakers could come up with is a totally arbitrary time interval. Placing arbitrary constraints on unique circumstances is obsessive and relieves decision-makers of their responsibility.

    • #24
  25. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    I totally understand the importance of civilian control of the military, but as a military retiree (reserves), I have also experienced firsthand the problem of the military being led, against its own advice, by civilians, with no real education in warfare.  We of the military, past and present, witness the effects of this ignorance every day, even among conversations with our friends.  You don’t have to look at the top to see its effects.

    In my experience, those in military leadership understand thoroughly the structure and importance of the proper relationship between civilian government and the military.  Heck, it’s a matter of serious study to us.  Not so much for civilians, eh?  Have you read Sun Tsu? He talks about this.  The idea that a retired general would somehow not understand the different roles, or somehow suddenly ignore them, seems odd.  Some arbitrary number of years, wherein somebody is supposed to have been reeducated back into the civilian mindset, is a curious, and not unsettling, concept.

    We are now in a unique time, wherein a thorough, firsthand knowledge and understanding of the military, and warfare, are deadly important.  Our services have been horribly mismanaged, with momentary pauses, since Korea.  The Clinton and Obama administrations have been the worst of all.  Never mind arbitrary laws, even that arise from legitimate concerns, there can’t be a better time for somebody like Gen. Mattis to be SECDEF.

    • #25
  26. Chris Campion Coolidge
    Chris Campion
    @ChrisCampion

    One final recommendation to the incoming Secretary of Defense is to censure anyone that refers to him as “General” or even “Mad Dog”. He needs to emphasize he a now a civilian, and not a military officer. The only proper way to address him is either Mr. Secretary, or Jim, to his superiors. He should leave any other nicknames and titles to our enemies.

    From Peter’s 2015 interview, he already does just that.  Absent a lot of advice from John Yoo.

    The position requires somebody able and willing to prosecute a war, at the direction of Congress and the President.  Mattis’ experience speaks to just that requirement.  I’m actually a bit uncomfortable with the presumption that a retired general is unaware of the civilian chain of command to such a degree that he would exceed his authority – when you have zero evidence of such a thing happening in his past.

    It would be like hiring me for a job, and then asking me in the interview if I’d ever consider committing a felony, because I never have in the past.

    • #26
  27. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    @peterrobinson likes him.

    Good enough for me.

     

    • #27
  28. HalapenyoHarry Inactive
    HalapenyoHarry
    @HalapenyoHarry

    After some reading and watching the interview with General Mattis and Peter Robinson, I find no basis at all for John Woo’s concern of a loss of civilian authority over the military with his nomination.

    • #28
  29. goldwaterwoman Thatcher
    goldwaterwoman
    @goldwaterwoman

    John Yoo: The President was made Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, and of the militia. This arrangement strengthened the civilian control of the military, and provided protection from having the sword and purse in a single hand

    It might be worth remembering that our very first president was General George Washington, only recently retired. Anyone who makes it to general has practiced a lot of politics in his career and knows when “to kick and when to pat.”

    • #29
  30. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    John,

    I really don’t think this is a problem. We have two recent cases of civilian ambition and overreach in the office of Secretary of Defense. Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld both were brilliant super organized civilians. Unfortunately, they weren’t completely in touch with either the military or the political ramifications of their actions. War is not a corporate business organization and can not and should not be run as one.

    The President is Commander in Chief. That is the civilian control. I think that General Mattis will bring the hard-nosed point of view of real military into the White House where it belongs unless you believe we will never be required to use the military again. If any nomination would be troubling it would be Petraeus for Secretary of State and not because of his conviction. Petraeus is the author and executive of the surge in Iraq. He is a brilliant experienced battlefield commander and why anyone would imagine he would do well in the purely political role of Secretary of State is beyond me. I think John Bolton would be better. He and Boris Johnson might start providing some push back against the forces of evil that have been running loose in the world during the Obamite retreat. We can’t go on hiding in our safe space forever. It’s time to engage again.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #30

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