Blurred Lines: The Elision of Military and Civilian Roles

Author: Thomas Whang, 2018.


“In her highly absorbing political treatise-cum-memoir, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Rosa Brooks describes the ways civilian control of the military has perhaps eroded to a precarious degree as the demarcations separating the military and civilian spheres become increasingly indistinct…”

Cover page of Rosa Brooks’ How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything from Simon & Schuster.


In her highly absorbing political treatise-cum-memoir, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Rosa Brooks describes the ways civilian control of the military has perhaps eroded to a precarious degree as the demarcations separating the military and civilian spheres become increasingly indistinct. Brooks makes an impassioned and thought-provoking argument that military overreach and the ill-defined spectrum spanning war and peace, where it is hard to say where one “phase” begins and the other ends, have had a negative impact on military effectiveness and respect for the rule of law and fundamental American values. To wit, Brooks argues that the role of the military and its core mission have grown in unwieldy and expansive ways in recent decades, particularly in the post-9/11 era when the United States military engaged in costly and largely fruitless or inauspicious “nation-building” efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan over the course of two successive administrations. As Brooks asserts persuasively, today “threats don’t come neatly packaged as ‘civilian’ versus ‘military’ threats—and to operate effectively in the space between, we’ll need to knock down the walls we’ve created between our civilian agencies and the military” (Brooks 359).

In order to accomplish this, Brooks proposes creating a “revamped public sector premised on the idea of universal service,” although it is only an inchoate idea as presented in the book (Brooks 360). Nonetheless, it is apparent that the outsized role of the military (with its activities funded by a staggering half-trillion-dollar defense budget) and the nature of modern security challenges call for an extensive re-evaluation of civil-military relations. If the armed forces are expected to broaden their horizons, as it were, in the interest of not only reacting to conflict, but preventing conflict, then clarity of mission and purpose is needed to improve military effectiveness. The military must be allowed to occupy, without any ambiguity or ambivalence, a well-defined space that encompasses more than its traditional area of expertise, and it must be supported by the political establishment accordingly. It must have the same level of flexibility as civilian agencies to recruit, train, and staff against an increasing number of functions (such as strategic communications) that in years past did not fall under the purview of the military, but are increasingly becoming commonplace.

Of course, at first glance, the current problem of an overextended military, when considered through the prism of Samuel Huntington’s theory of civil-military relations, would seem to warrant a clearer separation of civilian and military roles, not a further conflation of the two. Indeed, Huntington would prescribe a very different remedy than Brooks, as he posited that the key to ensuring civilian control of the military was to allow the military to function independently and direct its focus to excelling as a fighting force, which in turn would maximize military effectiveness (Huntington 83-85). To Huntington, the “primary function” of the military (specifically, military officers) is the “management” or “application” of violence, and developing and focusing on that expertise underpins the professionalization of the military (Huntington 11). Moreover, the narrow focus of the military as a profession largely eschewing political maneuvering is designed to make the military “politically sterile and neutral,” thereby increasing what Huntington termed “objective civilian control” (Huntington 83-84).

As Huntington would have predicted, one consequence of the expanding role of the military is the more pronounced politicization of military strategy. Brooks illustrates this clearly by citing the example of the disagreement in 2009 between the White House and General Stanley McChrystal over the troop levels required to carry out the president’s stated objective of helping the Afghans establish a stable government and viable military (Brooks 312). In other words, the military was expected, once again, to engage in more nation-building. The controversy erupted when the general gave an estimate that the White House deemed to be “inflated” and politically motivated, especially since someone at the Pentagon had leaked the troop level number (what Peter Feaver would certainly describe as a form of “shirking,” insofar as the military’s actions may have been intended to shape policy), while the military thought the White House was being either “naive or hypocritical” (Feaver 68; Brooks 313). They eventually met in the middle and settled on “thirty thousand more troops,” which is absurd, as one would hope any discussion over troop levels would be based on pragmatism, not politics (Brooks 313).

This type of “political bargaining” is precisely what Huntington would view as a threat to civilian control and to military effectiveness (Brooks 313, 315). If the military cannot exercise autonomy and provide its best judgement in its area of expertise, while its “scope of authority” extends increasingly far beyond “military matters,” then it will inevitably become mired in political gamesmanship by creating, for example, “perverse incentives for military planners” to start overestimating troop levels as a negotiating tactic (Huntington 87-88; Brooks 315). It stands to reason, then, that over time the military will be less competent as its focus widens and it seeks political power in order to fulfill its ever-growing mission, which from a Huntingtonian point of view could ultimately jeopardize civilian control (Huntington 87-88).

However, in a world where threats to national security are so varied, including major concerns like global climate change, and are not as clear-cut as rogue nation-states like North Korea, the bifurcation of civil-military relations along strict institutional lines, as understood by Huntington, may be an antiquated paradigm. Instead of demanding that the military “stay in its lane” (or return to its lane, as the case may be), one should consider that maintaining separate civilian and military spheres in the face of a very different reality is unsustainable. This state of denial, as Brooks states, “presents the greatest threat to the core values that underlie the notion of civilian control” (Brooks 362). If civil-military relations is seen instead as a “shared responsibility,” as put forth by theorists like Douglas Bland, then the expansion of the military’s role can be managed effectively without hewing to Huntington’s institutional model (Bland 9). Whether or not the professional domain of the military is defined in strict Huntingtonian terms is irrelevant if the civil-military relationship that exists encompasses the right configuration of “rules” and organizational behaviors that maximize both civilian control and military effectiveness, regardless of how multi-faceted the role of the military is or becomes (Bland 14-15).

As Brooks trenchantly observes, the “military has a mixed track record when it comes to performing such traditionally civilian functions as providing humanitarian assistance, governance support, and development aid,” which can be attributed to a combination of “military ineptitude” and civilian fecklessness (Brooks 96-97). It is also unlikely that the United States will ever bring the civilian agencies (like the State Department or USAID) to parity with the Defense Department or make them more robust in any meaningful way (i.e., their budgets will be relatively Lilliputian for the foreseeable future). In practical terms, the civilian authorities cannot expect the military to simultaneously provide humanitarian aid, nurture good governance in depressed regions around the world, and defend the nation against known and unknown future threats, when the military has neither the requisite talent and experience nor the requisite organizational structure needed to take on tasks historically handled by civilian agencies. It may be time, then, to reshape the civilian and military spheres by definitively assigning narrower missions to civilian agencies and giving the military a clearer purpose and the resources needed to fulfill its role as the “Super Walmart” of the United States national security apparatus.



Works Cited

Bland, Douglas L.  “A Unified Theory of Civil-Military Relations,” Armed Forces and Society.  26.1 (1999): 7-26.

Brooks, Rosa.  How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.

Feaver, Peter. Armed Servants. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Huntington, Samuel P. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985.

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