What Exactly Does Civilian Control Over The Military Mean In A Demotic Age?

Movement intolerance for any individual or institution that breaks their role as obedient prop can be famously vindictive. Even a prop as sanctified and invested with hollow tropes as the U.S. military.

Witness Paul Ryan’s recent outburst against the services. Ryan bemoans that the military isn’t revolting against budget rollbacks from current record levels. Ryan denounces Pentagon budget proposals, saying:

“We don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice,” Ryan said during a forum on the budget sponsored by the National Journal. “We don’t think the generals believe their budget is really the right budget.” [...] He went on to say that while there were certainly inefficiencies that could be reduced in the Pentagon’s budget, fighting wars in the Middle East and a “dangerous world” necessitated keeping defense spending level.

Ryan added that “What I believe is this budget does hollow out defense. I believe this budget goes beyond where we should go to keep people safe.”

In the inside baseball world of D.C. power, it’s easy to dismiss Ryan’s judgment. He doesn’t sit on a defense authorization/appropriations committee and has almost no granular expertise on defense postures, industrial base or commitments. But as Chairman of the Budget Committee, Ryan lurks at the aorta of Movement radicalism in the House and nationally. This distinguishes him from say, John Kasich, who tilted at windmills called the B-2 back in the day. Ryan’s stoking of Rightist rage against the domestic social contract while adding yet still more to the defense budget moves the political needle and thereby redefines the middle for the Goldilocks mindset. In the long run, control of political narrative wins, trumping objectively factual expertise almost every time. That’s the New Normal.

U.S. Military, Budget Crisis, Paul Ryan

Ryan’s political frustration is palpable: after a decade of trebled budgets, car window dohickeys and treacly Super Bowl rituals, the military now is going rogue? Ignoring the script of Obama’s menace to national security?

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dempsey doesn’t like being called a liar. And in a Twitterverse of 140 characters it would end here. Personality clash, with initial smack talk all shut down by Dempsey’s atomic knee drop. Booyah.

Except larger questions about civil-military relations remain. We speak not of Ryan’s clumsy attempt to suborn military insurrection. The U.S. military over the centuries has seen and rejected that gambit before.

Similarly, the military’s institutional memory remembers draw downs in the past – whether post 1945 (WWII), post 1953 (Korea), post 1975 (Nam) or post 1991 (Sovs). This is not their first rodeo. Bartering political trade offs and stunt posturing they leave to Leon Panetta, who is laboring mightily to earn his seat in the Building. The services know that across history, adopting a long term view in the face of budget rollbacks allowed them to emerge ultimately more capable later. It’s one reason the military internally is more realistic about the dangers of American fiscal (and social) implosion than professional politicians. Still, they’ll game the system in the here and now, too. They’re not idiots.

What makes 2012 qualitatively different is the pervasive abstraction of demotic America and her government. Never before has a military of this scale and capacity been subordinate to such an impulsive, consequence-free, meme-drenched polity. After all, ‘serious’ people actively pursued two new wars (Syria and Iran) and came damn close to getting at least one. Obama, just a year ago, unilaterally waged war against Libya on his own initiative, against military advice and without congressional penalty. That’s a precedent with unknown consequence.

Certainly earlier eras endured bitter partisan ideological differences, especially after 1975. Political institutions, however, retained their identity, sense of (constitutional) purpose and political coherence. Whether one agreed with Barry Goldwater on Taiwan or the Boland Amendment, separation of powers and checks and balances meant something. Today? Not so much.

People accept today that political institutions are almost notional and pro forma – mere backdrops for the ever malleable political narrative of The Moment. The U.S. military so far remains apart from the general meme-soaked dissolution. That’s not to say Tweets and burps aren’t present. But as the Marines demonstrated recently, discipline extends to Facebook, too. We think it a good decision. The services’ internal culture and discipline still makes them the most successful enrolling institutions beside the Catholic Church. They’re not immune to fads and internal meme stupors, of course – witness Colorado Springs, RDO, EBO, Warden, NetCentric Warfare, Wehrmacht-esque infatuation with operational success, etc. COIN, anyone?

It’s always a mistake to project linear change into the future. Still, one can’t help but dread the day civilian control over the military simply means ‘Likes’.