White House chief of staff, and retired U.S. Marine Corps general, John Kelly’s comments last week during a press briefing have generated a number of interesting pieces by observers of American civil-military relations. In defending the way his boss, President Donald Trump, handled a condolence call to the wife of an American service member killed in Niger, Kelly related his own experience both as a former general and the father of a service member who was killed in action. However, during his remarks, Kelly also made comments about the media and American society that highlight the gap between the U.S. military and American society:
We don’t look down upon those of you who haven’t served. In fact, in a way, we’re a little bit sorry because you’ll never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kind of things our servicemen and women do. Not for any other reason than they love this country. So just think of that. And I do appreciate your time.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later chastised members of the press when questioned about Kelly’s comments: “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that’s highly inappropriate.”
I’ve been writing a fair amount about civil-military relations recently, both in terms of President Trump’s tendency to politicize the military and the implications of a growing civil-military divide for a free society. I plan to have more to say about Kelly’s comments next week (though if you want a sneak preview, my latest appearance on the Secure Line podcast features a lengthy discussion). Needless to say though, given the amount of trust the American people place in the military as an institution, I think the fact that administration is trying to insulate itself from criticism by presenting the president’s chief of staff as beyond question is a major problem.
My chief concern has been the political implications of an overabundance of faith in the military in general, as well as the way this administration in particular has politicized it. However, this issue is multifaceted, and political scientist Daniel Drezner raised some interesting questions at his Washington Post blog in the aftermath of Kelly’s comments. Namely, what happens if trust in the military decreases significantly? And what happens if trust in the military becomes a partisan matter?
There is such a thing as trusting institutions too much. Some skepticism of the military may well be warranted. Furthermore, it is unhealthy for Americans to trust the military and only the military among the country’s national institutions. At the same time, an America with low trust in all institutions is far from healthy as well. I would prefer seeing more robust levels of confidence in all civil society and governing organizations — provided those institutions earn that trust.
Maybe each of these issues will blow over. Maybe Mattis, Kelly and McMaster will do their jobs and restrain Trump, maintaining the military’s reputation among civilians. Maybe the problems polarizing the country will not affect the U.S. military.
Or maybe the military will become viewed by Americans through partisan filters.
The entire thing is worth reading here.