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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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.