A viral video of Secretary of Defense James Mattis giving an impromptu speech to U.S. military personnel began making the rounds this weekend. In it, Mattis tells those present that the country has problems that the military does not. He implores them to “hold the line,” before articulating the “two powers” the United States has. The first is the “power of inspiration,” which he believes the country is lacking at the moment. The second is the “power of intimidation,” which is expressed through U.S. military power.
While it is understandable that some would take heart from the video and what they see as the steadiness of Mattis’ leadership, Mattis’ comments can also be interpreted as an example of an increasing gap between the military and the society it serves.
Fred Kaplan, a longtime commentator on national security affairs, had an interesting take on the video in his column for Slate. Kaplan saw in Mattis’ comments about the United States losing its power of inspiration a rebuke of the commander-in-chief. He worried that, while is better to have “adults” such as Mattis in positions of authority to contain Trump’s impulsiveness and incompetence, the speech by the secretary of defense could undermine civilian control of the military.
Toward the end of his piece Kaplan quotes Isaiah Wilson, a retired U.S. Army colonel now at the New America Foundation that focused on what Mattis’ comments said about the relationship between the military and American society. The passage is worth quoting in full:
However, Wilson is troubled by this particular passage in Mattis’ pep talk. The secretary of defense seemed to be telling his troops “that they are different and separate from—and morally better than—the nation itself,” Wilson told me on Monday. “This is a thin, dangerous line.” In the end, Wilson said, “this arrogant sense of professional self as ‘better than the public we serve’ will prove our undoing.” It could also erode “the vital and necessary trust that we now place—and must have—in our military. Once this kind of trust-bond is lost, it is hard, if not impossible, to recover. You can’t ‘surge’ trust.”
This is an important issue given the amount of trust the American people place in the U.S. military as an institution, as opposed to that which they place in elected civilians. It is important to avoid alarmism about a burgeoning crisis in civil-military relations. But coupled with other recent incidents, some of the sentiments expressed in Mattis’ comments suggest that relations between the U.S. military and American society are not in peak health at the moment.
While these issues predate the Trump administration, the forty-fifth president certainly seems likely to exacerbate them given his tendency to politicize the military. His recent speech on Afghanistan, for example, started off by referring to the members of the military as a “special class of heroes,” before suggesting the rest of society needs to emulate the unity—and, oddly, the loyalty—that military personnel display. But Trump’s predecessor expressed similar sentiments. In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama began by discussing the previous year’s mission to kill Osama bin Laden before pivoting to declare the U.S. military a model for how society should operate:
These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.
Obama concluded with a similar theme: civilian society should be unified and mission-focused like the U.S. military.
And pundits are not immune to it either. A year before Obama lauded the military as a model for civilian society, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times claimed that the U.S. military lives by “an astonishingly liberal ethos.” To back up this argument, Kristof cited the desegregation that occurred in the U.S. military prior to its occurrence in the American South, the smaller gap in pay that exists between general officers and enlisted than corporate executives and most companies’ janitorial staff, and the fact that the military’s health care system covers all those who serve.
While the U.S. military has sometimes been at the leading edge of issues related to equality and has provided opportunities for social mobility for some, military organizations are the opposite of “liberal.” For one, it was the civilian commander-in-chief, President Harry Truman, who ordered the military to desegregate. But more importantly, and by necessity, military organizations are hierarchical and authoritarian. They are so structured to ensure compliance and discipline in the execution of their organizational specialization. That specialization, as Samuel Huntington referred to it, is the management of violence.
To ask society to emulate the military is to ask it to no longer be liberal, free, or open. But encouraging a sense of moral superiority among the military is dangerous as well. Not only does it intensify the unquestioning reverence for the military among the public, it might also engender a sense of elitism among the military as an institution—where members might come to not only see themselves as a separate caste but one superior to the society they serve.
As discussed here previously, part of the problem lies in the lack of any tangible connection between American society and the military that serves it. The weak ties between society and the military have led to a situation where the former reveres the latter but has little knowledge of it. Mattis’ comments, while well intentioned, might have the same effect from the opposite direction if they encourage military personnel to see themselves as separate from and superior to the society they serve.
Matthew Fay is the Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the Niskanen Center