Danger Ahead: Problems in US Civil-Military Relations

December 17, 2021 Updated: December 17, 2021


U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has expressed concern over the loss of trust and confidence of the American people in the military. While the causes are multiple, a major one is the ideological upheaval between the ideologies of liberalism and progressivism.

A major consequence of this is the departure of many officers from service who are caught in the middle of the upheaval. This is likely to become worse, particularly if there is a sustained struggle between the ideologies of liberalism—the traditional ideology of America with a belief in the centrality of liberty, individual freedom, and rights to prohibit governmental power—and a radical alternative, progressivism.

The heart of progressivism is the rejection of liberalism. Progressivism submits that one’s identity is collective—for example, a person’s race should determine his or her politics. From now on, progressives believe that the government should advance collective identity over individual rights to address historical injustices, and work to restructure American political principles and beliefs from liberal to progressive ones.

As these ideologies have competing understandings and vision for the United States, officers reasonably will be reluctant to serve a Department of Defense (DoD) governed by alternating and divergent ideologies, with considerable ambiguity about which it will ultimately obtain.

Of course, Americans choose to serve as officers for many reasons. Military service will continue to offer the opportunity and the appeal of developing skills and training for civilian employment, or for a leadership position in the civilian sector or government. Innumerable individuals will seek advantages as they climb, as Benjamin Disraeli said, “to the top of the greasy pole” of politics and of professional careers. As they have in the past, Americans will continue to realize that the military will serve as an important credential for personal advancement in civilian careers, including politics, and will remain a mechanism for the development of skills leadership abilities in uniquely challenging circumstances. These motivations remain and so will serve as a source of officer recruitment, irrespective of ideological upheaval.

The implication of these other motivations for military service is that the military will not incur the departure on the scale of the French Army in the wake of the French Revolution or as the U.S. Army experienced in 1861. However, that is cold comfort. Lesser numbers—even single digit percentages—would still be deleterious for the military effectiveness of the force and, thus, the ability of the United States to sustain and defend its interests.

Epoch Times Photo
U.S. and Australian special operations forces (SOF) conduct a high-altitude low-opening (HALO) parachute jump from a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-27J Spartan of the 35 Squadron during Talisman Sabre in Queensland, Australia, on July 17, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps photos by Lance Cpl. Nicole Rogge)

The ideological upheaval will place ever greater pressure on officers to either accept this change or resign their commissions. In sum, the pressure generated by an ideological shift will cause numbers to fall and for an unknown number to choose not to serve. These will be officers who are committed to the Old Regime, those who are serving out of patriotism and an association of the United States with its traditional culture and history.

At present, the military is in a window of vulnerability period where liberal officers will leave military service, without sufficient numbers of Americans accepting a commission or choosing to remain. Three points are salient. First, that some minority of officers might leave the service as they cannot, in good conscience, follow orders from a progressive civilian and military leadership. Second, some serving officers will passively detach from service. They will remain as officers but simply seek to pass time before retirement, recalling the 1970s and the behavior of many officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in the Army’s “Hollow Force.” Third, some Americans who might have become officers will not choose to enter service for ideological reasons.

There are four implications of this attrition.

First, and transparently, the U.S. military will lose individuals—both officers and enlisted—who should join but never do, or who should remain in service but leave. With their departure will go their leadership ability, experience, cultural knowledge of the service, and acumen. This will have a negative effect on military effectiveness, which cannot be quantified or measured precisely. But there is certainty that, as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army General Harold Johnson warned Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1965, escalation of the Vietnam War without mobilizing reserves would erode the quality of the Army—and those consequences would remain for many years. The quality of the Army and the other services will erode, even if the full parameters of the decline are not yet discernable. Indeed, the destruction of the Bonhomme Richard to a disgruntled sailor’s arson, and ship collisions by the FitzgeraldLake Champlain, and McCain are broad signs that the Navy’s professionalism is suffering.

Second, U.S. weakness emboldens China. The loss of military effectiveness weakens the U.S. conventional and strategic deterrent in absolute and relative terms. It provides the Chinese regime with an incentive to aggress against U.S. interests.

Third, U.S. allies will be aware of the change in the quality and performance of the U.S. officer corps. They will doubt the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence commitments and, thus, will prepare to defend their interests against China by other means. Under these circumstances, the incentive to proliferate will be considerable for Australia and Japan, as well as for them to align together in the absence of U.S. leadership.

Fourth, clear targets of Beijing’s aggression—such as India, Japan, and Taiwan—will face greater risk of a Chinese invasion as U.S. weakness will embolden aggression against it.

The United States is in the middle of a crisis in civil-military relations, even if too few are cognizant of it. It is likely to get worse as its fundamental cause, ideological upheaval, is the greatest domestic challenge to American society, politics, and culture in the 21st century.

The crisis needs to be addressed now by the Biden administration, Congress, DoD civilian leadership, and the Services. Otto von Bismarck once said that God looks out for drunks, little children, and the United States of America. It looks like the United States is testing His forbearance.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Bradley A. Thayer is a founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger: China and is the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”