Much Ado about Civilian Control of the Military

I would like to retire the phrase “civilian control of the military.” It’s become a scare phrase without real meaning. Of course there’s civilian control of the military; it’s built into the Constitution and tradition. All it means is that the armed forces are subordinate to the president, who is the commander-in-chief. And, by tradition, the president is a civilian. But there’s nothing in the Constitution that prevents a an active-duty military person from acceding to the presidency. And the presidency has been held by several retired generals, some of them not many years out of uniform (e.g., Washington, Grant, Eisenhower).

The real point of civilian control is the preservation of the constitutional pecking order: the president is in charge of the military, not the other way around. But presidents have varied greatly in their military experience and rank, in their trust (or lack thereof) of military leaders, in their effectiveness at maintaining appropriate military strength, and — most of all — in their effectiveness at using the military. “Civilian control” doesn’t even being to capture those essential aspects of the relationship between the presidency and the military.

The presence of retired military persons (i.e., civilians with military backgrounds) in high positions may be a bad idea (or a good one), depending on the qualifications of the retired military persons, but it is irrelevant to the question of civilian control. A weak president may rely too much on generals (retired or active), but he may just as easily rely too much on lawyers, media consultants, or experts in international affairs (of which there are approximately zero).

Civilian control of the military is a phony issue. The real issue is the character of the president, and especially his willingness to stand up for Americans and their legitimate overseas interests. It would be refreshing, after eight years of Obama, to have such a president. Donald Trump’s appointments of retired generals suggest that he may just be such a president.