The Magazine

Soldier and Citizen

Thomas Rick's novel of civil-military relations

Jul 23, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 42 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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AMERICANS TAKE GOOD CIVIL-MILITARY relations for granted. The Constitution, military officers’ strongly ingrained acceptance of the principle of civilian control, and the fact that the services get their personnel from a broad range of the population have combined to give the United States a military stability most other countries can only envy.

But over the last few years, a number of commentators have suggested that relations between American society and the military are in serious disarray. Thomas Ricks, now the Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, contributed to that debate in his excellent 1997 book, Making the Corps, which argued that there was a growing gap between the military and the society it is sworn to protect.

Now, in A Soldier’s Duty, Ricks makes much the same point in a first-rate novel about the contemporary American military and its response to social, political, and technological change. Set in the year 2004, it tells the story of two young Army majors, Buddy Lewis and Cindy Sherman. Sherman works for the Army chief of staff, General John Shillingsworth, an old-school officer whose sense of duty was formed in the changes after Vietnam. Lewis serves as aide de camp to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General B.Z. Ames, who comes from the Army’s special forces and has an understanding of duty that differs considerably from Shillingsworth’s.

The officer corps holds the president of the United States in contempt. Despite being a Republican, he has committed two Clinton-like betrayals in the eyes of the officer corps: He has issued an executive order that permits anyone, including homosexuals and the disabled, to serve in the military; and he has stretched military commitments to the breaking point. Shortly after the two majors are posted to the Pentagon, the president commits the military to yet another peacekeeping operation, this time in Afghanistan. Critics in all ranks see this as a quagmire, and some engage in anonymous protest. At the beginning, the dissent is limited to anonymous e-mails sent to officers and civilians from a group calling itself the "Sons of Liberty." But as casualties mount among the ill-trained troops, the protest escalates, first as organized acts of disrespect against the president and senior officers, and finally as actual sabotage of military operations.

As the military confronts the threat within, Lewis and Sherman must answer the central question of military service: What is a soldier’s duty? Or, to put it a different way, to what does a soldier owe primary allegiance—to the Constitution, the military as an institution, one’s superiors, or one’s subordinates? And what happens if these loyalties come into conflict?

Lewis and Sherman belong to the post-Clinton military. During the years of the Clinton administration, many in uniform saw the military as an institution under siege by those who neither understood nor respected it. So widespread was their contempt for President Clinton that officers who once would have kept their negative opinion of the commander-in-chief to themselves now felt free to denounce him in front of their peers and often their subordinates as well.

But the reaction to Clinton was unorganized. The response of the military to President Jim Shick and his policies in A Soldier’s Duty is orchestrated—and made more dangerous by the Internet, a technology that already has begun to undermine the hierarchical structure of the military.

The novel A Soldier’s Duty is reminiscent of Seven Days in May, Fletcher Kneble’s 1962 tale of a military conspiracy to seize the government. In Seven Days in May, a cabal of high-ranking officers, led by Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, is enraged by a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union and plots a coup. They are stopped when a Marine colonel named Jiggs Casey stumbles onto some clues that alarm him enough to contact a friend who works for the president. Despite the fact that he, too, dislikes the treaty, Casey is firmly committed to civilian control of the military. Addressing the president, Casey says the treaty is "your business, yours and the Senate’s. You did it, and they agreed, so I don’t see how we in the military can question it. I mean we can question it, but we can’t fight it. Well, we shouldn’t anyway."

Seven Days in May was a product of the Cold War and raised the question of whether a liberal democracy can survive in the nuclear age. A Soldier’s Duty is more a product of our own time: It doesn’t claim we are close to a coup, but it does suggest that a restless military is close to repudiating civilian control because those in uniform think the policies of the civilian leaders are destroying the military as an institution.

In Seven Days in May, both President Jordan and his closest friend are veterans of ground combat. In A Soldier’s Duty, President Shick doesn’t "know much more about the military than Clinton did." The civil-military problem Ricks observes in A Soldier’s Duty is what might be called the "participation gap"—the fact that the civilian elite has largely forsaken military service.

This participation gap is dangerous. Policymakers, ignorant of the requirements of military culture, may subordinate the military’s functional imperative—fighting and winning America’s wars—to such social imperatives as equal opportunity for homosexuals and "gender equity." At the same time, policymakers without military experience may be overawed by generals and admirals.

At first glance, the stakes seem to have diminished. In Seven Days in May, Scott wants to replace Jordan because he believes the president’s policies are threatening the security of the nation. In A Soldier’s Duty, the senior officer who poses the threat to civil-military relations wants merely to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As a number of critics noted at the time, however, the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act—which established the power of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—created the most influential military officer in the history of the Republic.

That is fine as long as the officer who holds the position is above reproach. But the character in A Soldier’s Duty isn’t, and an unscrupulous chairman, exercising undue influence over a militarily inexperienced president, constitutes a serious threat. And this danger is exacerbated by the emergence of a politicized military. As a number of commentators have observed, military officers, traditionally professional and apolitical, increasingly identify themselves as politically active Republicans and conservatives. Some have asked what would happen if a conservative officer corps were to discover that Republican politicians were not necessarily pro-military or had other priorities. The current anger on the part of the uniformed military at the perceived failure of the Bush administration to keep its campaign promises is one answer. The scenario Thomas Ricks outlines in ASoldier’s Duty is another.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.