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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The Soldier and the State has had a great and lasting effect within our uniformed military. Indeed, the military has come to endorse many of Huntington's general conclusions and has made it central to its civil-military relations education. But there are a number of flaws in Huntington's theory.

First, as Feaver points out, elegant as it may be, his theory doesn't fit the evidence of the Cold War. For instance, one of Huntington's testable hypotheses was that a liberal society (such as ours) would not produce sufficient military might to survive the Cold War. But the United States did prevail during the Cold War despite the fact that the country did not abandon liberalism. Indeed, "the evidence shows that American society as a whole almost certainly became even more individualistic and more anti-statist than when Huntington warned of the dangers of liberalism in 1957."

The same problems affect Huntington's prescriptive theory. During the Cold War, the military became more "civilianized," the officer corps more politicized, and civilians habitually intruded into the military realm: "According to many of the indicators Huntington cited as critical," writes Feaver, "civilians did not adopt the objective control mechanism he claimed was the crucial causal mechanism between the explanatory variable of ideology and the dependent variable of adequate national security."

Huntington's historical generalizations concerning the alleged isolation of the military during the late 19th century are also at odds with the evidence. For example, in a 1980 article for the journal of the Army War College, John Gates pointed out that Huntington had vastly overstated the physical isolation of the Army officer corps during the decades following the Civil War. Gates found that a significant number of officers served in or near large urban areas during this period and that there was much greater civil-military social intercourse than the conventional wisdom would suggest.

Using reports of the Army's adjutant general during 1867-97, Gates discovered that anywhere from "17 to 44 percent of all officers present for duty in established army command .??.??. were serving in the Department of the East or its equivalent, living in the most settled region of the United States, often on the Atlantic seaboard." Of those not serving in the East, a substantial proportion were serving in urban areas of significant size, including such cities as Chicago, Omaha, St. Paul, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, and San Francisco: "In a nation that numbered only 100 cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants in the 1880 census, many of the western cities in which officers found themselves were of significant size. One should not consider individuals posted to such locations isolated."

Gates went on to note that there were also a large number of officers on detached duty, which often included assignments that brought them into close contact with civilians, and that there was a great deal of social contact between officers and civilians. This contact between officers and civilians, including powerful and prestigious individuals, was a part of military life in both urban and frontier assignments. This is not surprising, given the middle-class origins of the officer corps. Huntington claimed that, because they were middle-class, officers were affiliated with no social group. On the contrary, argues Gates: They "had more in common with the ruling elite than with any other societal group in the nation."

Finally, the line of demarcation mandated by Huntington's theory is not as clear as some would have it. As Eliot Cohen has shown in Supreme Command, democratic war leaders such as Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln impinged upon the military's turf as a matter of course, influencing not only operations but also tactics. The reason that civilian leaders cannot leave the military to its own devices during war is that war is an iterative process involving the interplay of active wills. What appears to be the case at the outset of a war may change as the war continues, modifying the relationship between political goals and military means. Wars are not fought for their own purposes but to achieve policy goals set by the political leadership of the state.

There is also a practical problem arising from the military's reading of Huntington's theory. Contrary to the real conduct of war, officers often infer that military autonomy means they should be advocates of particular policies rather than simply serving in their traditional advisory role--indeed, that they have the right to insist that their advice be heeded by civilian authorities. Such an attitude among uniformed officers is hardly a recipe for healthy, balanced civil-military relations.

And yet, despite its flaws, The Soldier and the State continues to provide useful insights into the nature of civil-military relations, especially our own. Huntington's theoretical framework consists of a few tightly reasoned, deductive propositions. It addresses the central problem of civil-military relations: the relation of the military as an institution to civilian society. And its best empirical insights--the civilian-military distinction, the idea of military subordination, essential to democratic theory, the importance of military professionalism--do not depend on the problematic parts of Huntington's model.

Huntington was the first to attempt a systematic analysis of the civil-military problématique: the paradox arising from the fact that, out of fear of others, a society creates "an institution of violence" intended to protect it, but then fears that the institution will turn on society itself. That was very much on the minds of the Founding generation, which had to strike a balance between vigilance and responsibility. It is still on our minds.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is associate dean of academics and professor of national security
affairs at the Naval War College.