American Civil-Military Relations

Why does the world’s strongest military willingly take orders from unarmed politicians who are unschooled in the logic of professional violence? In a world where “might makes right,” why doesn’t the American military insist on getting its own way in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill? Americans have become so comfortable with our exceptional norm that we fail to appreciate—or even recognize—the political puzzle we inhabit.

As Plato considered the design of a political community, he wrestled with the paradox of guarding the guardians. How can a community keep its protective force disciplined for the common good—“fierce to its enemies, but gentle to its friends?” In the United States, the guardians tend to guard themselves pretty well. Americans enjoy the luxury of a powerful and effective military that has no desire to involve itself in political rule. A strong sense of non-partisan subordination underwrites American military culture; it’s a point of pride among military members to serve whomever the people elect.

A noble professionalism therefore keeps the US military out of politics, but the practical expression of this professionalism takes varied forms in the daily grind of civil-military interaction. These varying expressions of professionalism are rooted in a technicality: no one actually joins an organization called the US military. Young Americans enter one of the four services. They enter the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps, inheriting a new wardrobe, language, peer group, profession, and worldview as they do. The four guardian services are the titans who shape how the American military recruits, trains, equips, and fights. To understand the American military and its role in global security, one must know the four guardian services—not what they do, but who they are.

This premise sits at the heart of my new book Four Guardians, which explores the different worldviews among the four services—and how those differing beliefs affect the nation and its security. Just as people are molded by nature and nurture, so too the four services each have a well-developed character shaped by their operational environment and unique organizational history. These cultures condition distinctive patterns of thought—four sets of social code, run by four separate operating systems. The four guardians share a common aim of defending the Constitution, but look, sound, and think differently as they do.

I wrote this book in part because my own life story has known the steady mentorship of the four guardians. I grew up in an Army family at West Point and later joined the Air Force, in which I’ve served the past 21 years. But I spent my first two years on active duty in flight training at a Navy base with Navy and Marine Corps commanders. My early immersions bred an anthropological curiosity. I bore witness to patterns of belief that were deeper than the familiar caricatures of the services. For example, my seminal flying experiences with the Navy were steeped in the culture of carrier aviation. I found that even in shore-based flying, the terminology and tactics were all predicated on being at sea. When I transitioned to flying Air Force jets, the terminology and tactics changed dramatically. Airmen used an entirely foreign language, flew different landing patterns at different altitudes, and even approached geometry differently. When using an airborne radar to intercept another aircraft, for example, the Navy taught me to orient the intercept geometry around an angle called “target aspect.” The Air Force, however, focused on a reciprocal measurement called “aspect angle.” In certain cases, aspect angle and target aspect are literally 180 degrees out from one another! These small details can cascade into big challenges, when talking past each other can lead to flying past each other as well.

The two services even wrote different rules of the game. Generally speaking, Navy flying regulations stipulated the few things we couldn’t do and everything else was assumed to be fair game: go for it, unless otherwise directed (UNODIR). Air Force flying regulations, I soon discovered, tended to script the things we could or had to do—everything else was assumed to be off-limits. One approach regulated conduct by selective negation, the other by prescriptive composition. And both services had perfectly defensible reasons for their philosophy. Flight operations from an aircraft carrier, used primarily for the defense of the fleet in the open ocean, permit a different ethic than launching nuclear-armed bombers from the continental US on global missions. By experiencing these cultures first-hand, I came to appreciate the logical roots of their varying worldviews.

In Four Guardians, I try to give readers a deeper sense of what these differences are and how they came to be. As a fan of Carl Builder’s classic book The Masks of War, I try to go both broader and deeper than Builder by outlining the historical and operational roots of service beliefs. I then situate the cultural analyses in the context of civil-military policy-making, giving practical examples of the ways in which different cultural beliefs inspire different patterns of cooperation or conflict with civilian superiors. In other words, I show how American military professionalism expresses itself in four predictably different ways—a pattern of civil-military interaction I call “principled agency.”

I hope the book offers civilian leaders, military members, and interested citizens a deeper understanding of the cultural beliefs and political incentives in the American civil-military system. The vitality of our Constitutional experiment, to include the robust norm of civilian control of the military, demands thoughtful engagement from each of us—from those who make policy, those who enact it, and from those whose security depends on it. Perhaps readers will find that Four Guardians makes a modest but meaningful contribution toward that end.

Jeff Donnithorne is a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, currently serving on the faculty at Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He received his Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and recently published his first book with the Johns Hopkins University Press, entitled Four Guardians: A Principled Agent View of American Civil-Military Relations. Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.

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