Defense leadership, military service, and litmus tests: what is the right formula?

Does America want its defense establishment led by those who have never served in the military?  Does the principle of civilian control of the military mandate that result?  Can’t those who haven’t served still succeed in high Pentagon posts?  Should military service or, for that matter, the absence of it, be a “litmus test” for Pentagon senior leadership?  In a new essay, “Finding the right U.S. defense leaders” I wrestle with those issues.

That essay, published on Just Security, responds to Dr. Alice Hunt Friend’s excellent post (“A Military Litmus Test? Evaluating the Argument that Civilian Defense Leaders Need Military Experience”). Dr. Friend and I go way back to our Pentagon days during the Obama administration, and I have a lot of respect for her.

While I generally agree there should not be a military service “litmus” test for a senior civilian position in the Department of Defense (DoD), I also think it is wrong to bar suitable candidates simply because they did serve their country in uniform.  Civilian control of the military does not mandate keeping former or retired military members out of DoD at any level.  Remember, twenty-six of our Commanders-in-Chief have had military service including Presidents Eisenhower and Washington.

The concept of civilian control of the military has morphed in recent years away from the Founders concept of ensuring that a “standing army” doesn’t present a physical risk to our democracy.  Today, it is much about whether or not veterans can or should serve in DoD in a civilian capacity (see e.g., here), and wrangling over the degree that current and former members of the armed forces ought to participate (or not) in public policy debates.

In agreeing with Dr. Friend that military service ought not be a “litmus test” for service as a DoD civilian, especially at the senior level that political appointees operate, I nevertheless offer some cautions to those who haven’t served who might seek such positions.

Among other things, I suggest certain aspects of the military are almost impossible for someone who has never served to appreciate fully.  (You may want to take look at this earlier post “Salute all who benefit the public, but recognize the uniqueness of military service.”)

Put in another way, someone who has never tried a case may, through hard work and study, become extraordinarily knowledgeable of trial practice (and even teach it more than competently).  Such a person would still have gaps that a lawyer who has experienced the crucible of the courtroom would not.  Much the same might be said about a coach of a sport he or she never played.  Yes, it may be possible, but it isn’t easy, and it requires a strong willingness to listen and learn from those “in the arena” so to speak.

In the defense context, I make this (somewhat melancholy) observation:

“For many years both in and out of uniform, I insisted that civilians without military service could serve extremely successfully in senior defense community positions.  I still believe that – Friend herself is an example.  But I have qualified my views a bit as I’ve seen many people discourse about things military without really understanding the subject.  To be clear, I believe someone can educate him or herself into the necessary expertise, but it takes a lot of hard work and study. The pool of those willing to make that kind of intellectual investment is extant, just smaller than I thought (and hoped).”

You’ll find more in the essay, so I hope you take a look at “Finding the Right U.S. Defense Leaders” found here.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

You may also like...