The Magazine

Democracy at Arms

"The Soldier and the State" is 50 years old, and still relevant.

Nov 5, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 08 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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In particular, Huntington argued that he was prescribing a means for enabling the liberal United States to effectively meet the Soviet threat without forfeiting civilian control. His prescription, which he called "objective civilian control," has the virtue of simultaneously maximizing military subordination and military fighting power. Objective control guarantees the protection of civilian society from external enemies and from the military themselves.

In Huntington's prescriptive or normative theory, the key to objective control is "the recognition of autonomous military professionalism," respect for the independent military sphere of action. Interference or meddling in military affairs undermines military professionalism and so undermines objective control.

This constitutes a bargain between civilians and soldiers. On the one hand, civilian authorities grant a professional officer corps autonomy in the realm of military affairs. On the other, "a highly professional officer corps stands ready to carry out the wishes of any civilian group which secures legitimate authority within the state."

In other words, if the military is granted autonomy in its sphere, the result is a professional military that is politically neutral and voluntarily subordinate to civilian control. Of course, autonomy is not absolute: Huntington argued that while the military has responsibility for operational and tactical decisions, civilians must decide matters of policy and grand strategy.

While objective control weakens the military politically, rendering it politically sterile or neutral, it actually strengthens the military's ability to defend society. A professional military obeys civilian authority; a military that does not obey is not professional.

At the opposite pole from objective control lay Huntington's worst case situation--"subjective control"--which constituted a systematic violation of the autonomy necessary for a professional military and produced transmutation. He argued that subjective control was detrimental to military effectiveness and would lead to failure on the battlefield by forcing the military to defer to civilians in the military realm.

The key to objective control of the military is professionalism. According to Huntington's reading of American history, the origin of American military professionalism is to be found during the period following the Civil War. During this period, Huntington claimed, the military was isolated--not only physically, but also socially, politically, and intellectually--from the mainstream of American life.

Huntington writes that this period constituted the "dark ages" of the Army and the "period of stagnation" for the Navy. He quotes one officer to the effect that, in America, the United States Army had become "an alien army" existing in "practically complete separation from the lives of the people from which it [was] drawn." Huntington contends that the physical isolation of the armed services during this period was mirrored by its intellectual isolation: "The military were also divorced from the prevailing tides of intellectual opinion. West Point, for example, gradually lost contact with the rest of American education to which it has made such significant contributions, and went on its own way."

But although these years may have been the dark ages of the military, there was a positive outcome. The "isolation and rejection" of the military "made those years the most fertile, creative, and formative in the history of the American armed forces." This is because "the withdrawal of the military from civilian society produced the high standards of professional excellence essential to national success in the struggles of the twentieth century."

In other words, isolation acted as a crucible for the creation of a professional military.

As Peter Feaver has argued in his formidable challenge to Huntington, Armed Servants, Huntington's theory has survived numerous challenges over the decades. His core claims--that there is a meaningful difference between civilian and military roles; that the key to civilian control is military professionalism; and that the key to military professionalism is military autonomy--have been contested on numerous occasions. But Huntington perseveres "while the challengers drift into obscurity."

Why? To begin with, Huntington grounded his theory in a "deductive logic derived from democratic theory while his critics did not," writes Feaver. And despite the claims of many of those who look at civil-military relations through the lens of sociology, analytically distinct military and civilian spheres do appear to exist. Moreover, Huntington's theory is the source of what Eliot Cohen has called the "normal" theory of civil-military relations, which holds that, during wartime, civilians determine the goals of the war, then stand aside to let the military run the actual war.