by Diane H. Mazur. New York: Oxford, 2010. 240pp. Hardback. $29.95/£18.99. ISBN: 9780195394481.

Reviewed by Paul Lermack, Department of Political Science, Bradley University. Email: pnl [at] bumail.bradley.edu.


Our tradition of a nonpoliticized military is said to be endangered. Generals and admirals contemptuously attack the president and flirt with endorsing his rivals; some take public stands on controversial policies like don’t-ask-don’t-tell. Meanwhile, civilian authorities disregard the advice of the military and assign it impossible missions for political reasons. Debate on any issue of military policy inevitably deteriorates into an exchange of simplistic slogans, and ultimately to a single question: do you support our men and women in uniform? Or do you hate America and the American values that the military exemplifies? A “military-civilian gap” has been noted by journalists, think tanks and the Pentagon itself. All have concluded that it endangers democratic policymaking.

Diane Mazur, a former Air Force officer who is now a law professor at the University of Florida, describes the gap, showing that it is often fueled by persistent incorrect factual assumptions which she calls myths, and documenting, through brief case studies, just how dangerous it is. “Sometimes,” she claims,

we fail to listen to the earned wisdom of people who have served in the military, and as a result we lose the benefit of their experience. . . . . [F]ar more frequently, we credit the opinions of veterans exclusively, without reservation or examination, and as a result we discourage those who have not served in the military from actively participating in our constitutional tradition of civilian control. (pp.30-31).

As a nation, we will soon have to decide what future military missions we need to prepare for, what kind of standing force we will need, and how much we can afford to spend on it. We cannot make wise choices if the military remains at odds with the larger society. But we cannot reduce the military-civilian gap until we understand what caused it and why (and if) it is worsening.

Unexpectedly, Mazur blames the increasing politicization of the military on the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist. In dicta in cases decided during the 1970s and 1980s, Rehnquist elaborated on obscure precedents to assert that military society is guided by unique values and concerns that the larger civilian society cannot understand. Because it adheres unflinchingly to these straightforward values, it is morally superior to civilian society. Consequently, the military must be accorded great latitude to manage its own affairs, even if cautionary civilian voices must be ignored. [*300]

The civil-military divide was, Mazur claims in a chapter heading, invented. She argues that Rehnquist’s glorification of “military exceptionalism” led service personnel to think of themselves as “the moral compass of the nation” and to expect civilians to defer to them. When that deference was not forthcoming, the military resented what they thought of as a slight.

The resentment was reinforced by certain memories of recent mistreatment that Mazur explodes as myths. Even though many believe it, we know that servicemen returning from the Vietnam War were not regularly spat upon by howling crowds of antiwar demonstrators as they disembarked from their planes, and ROTC operations were not expelled from college campuses by left-leaning faculties as that unpopular war ended. But these myths contribute to the resentment that now emerges whenever civilians presume to intervene in the making of decisions that service personnel think should be left to their absolute discretion. Inevitably, public debate over, say, whether gays should be allowed to serve openly, will be framed with a pro-military side and an anti-military side.

The notion that the military has distinct values of its own is not new. At least as early as the Civil War, returning soldiers learned that civilians could not understand what they had endured. Speeches that “waved the bloody shirt,” the patriotic orations of Oliver Wendell Holmes and novels like THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE are all suffused with the idea that combat changes and ennobles a veteran. To prepare for (and help veterans recover from) the ordeal of battle, the military creates a separate society based on unique military values, like duty, honor and country. Although the Department of Defense’s officers’ guide (1950) is careful to say that military values stem from that rugged individualism and sense of honor that mark the larger society (ch. 2), service personnel have always taken them uncompromisingly, as absolutes. They see themselves as uniquely faithful to these values, even when the larger society sets them aside. They cling to them when civilians are led astray by the pursuit of “globalism,” just as they did when the attractive lure was unilateral disarmament, or socialism, or filthy lucre. The military has always been at odds with civilian life.

Whenever civilians have questioned the need for this apartness, or the latitude in managing its own affairs that the military sees as a necessary consequence, military resentment has developed. Congress understands this, and has usually kept the military on a tight leash. Knowing that the founders did not think of the standing army as the moral compass of the nation, Congress kept it as small as possible. It kept troops out in the boondocks, where officers drank booze in the officers’ clubs and muttered darkly about their scanty pay.

But their resentment sometimes leaked out. In the 1955 movie, Strategic Air Command, a World War II pilot (played by James Stewart) is recalled to fly B-47s in the ‘fifties. He goes unwillingly. But once he is on active duty, he comes to appreciate the important role the strategic bombing force must play. He understands that the skilled workers, including airplane mechanics, could make more money in civilian life, could [*301] be home at nights with their families, and could be respected members of civilian communities. But they choose to stay in the Air Force out of a sense of duty. His wife (the whiny June Allyson) loyally sticks with him. But she never quite understands.

The Cold War produced many such movies. At the end of The Bridges At Toko-Ri (1954), the admiral in command (Frederic March) delivers a panegyric to those unappreciated pilots who leave their homes, perform dangerous missions, and sometimes give their lives out of a sense of duty. “Where do we get such men?” the admiral asks, thinking, apparently, that civilian society could not have produced them. Ronald Reagan believed that the speech had been given by a real admiral. Many would have endorsed it.
If military resentments are old, why isn’t the military’s political activity? But it is. The movies I have described were made with military cooperation. My students would call them examples of indirect lobbying, part of a public relations effort on which the Pentagon spent millions. Jack Webb, better known for Dragnet, narrated a series of documentaries about the need for preparedness that the military produced for civilian viewing. The military channeled its resentments into subtle but politically beneficial propaganda. Though pay remained low through the 1960s, Congress bought the military whatever weapons it wanted.

In fact, the military has always lobbied Congress and sought public support. The Pentagon made James Stewart a general in the Air Force Reserves, from which post he made speeches about preparedness, and it similarly exalted Senator Barry Goldwater and other “influentials.” The army earned favors from Andy Jackson by removing Indians from land desired by voters, broke up labor strikes and drove the Bonus Marchers from Anacostia. Disgruntled ex-generals ran for office, sometimes with military backing: Winfield Scott, George B. McClellan, even Douglas MacArthur, both before and after Truman fired him. High commanders sometimes take public positions on controversial issues, as Admiral Michael G. Mullen did when he called for the elimination of the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. Believing that civilians defer to military judgment, Eisenhower warned against the power of the military-industrial complex.

Mazur claims that the gap has recently worsened, and cites various incidents. But none are unprecedented. General Harold N. Campbell may have uttered contemptuous words about the president by calling Bill Clinton a skirt-chaser. But General Edwin Walker publicly called Eisenhower and Kennedy, “demons” because he judged their anti-communism insufficiently zealous. Both Bushes were photographed among crowds of supportive military officers. But Lincoln, who feared a military coup in 1863, took pains to be photographed in the field with his troops. On the other side of the gap, Democrats were accused of trying to disqualify absentee ballots sent by military personnel abroad during the disputed Florida election in 2000, assuming that most supported Republicans. But in 1944, assuming that servicemen were disproportionately Democrats, Republicans tried to make it difficult for them to cast ballots from their battlefields. Perhaps the [*302] nonpoliticized military is just another myth.

Mazur concedes precedents but claims that the battles have recently become much more bitter and oversimplified. She illustrates the bitterness by describing two recent battles over discriminatory military regulations: the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy (foisted on the military by political leaders) and the rule that women cannot serve in “combat” positions (foisted on the public by the military). Both were marked by myths (which she explodes) and ultimately came down to the two-dimensional choice between deferring to or hating the military.

As an example of oversimplification penetrating court proceedings, she uses RUMSFELD v FAIR, the challenge to the 1994 Solomon Amendment which deprived universities of federal funds if they (or any of their units) forbid military recruiters to operate on campus. The plaintiffs argued that the First Amendment was violated when law professors were effectively forbidden to ban recruiters as a protest against don’t-ask-don’t-tell. They cited precedents. But Justice Antonin Scalia all but states that the law professors are merely antipatriotic and deserve no sympathy from decent folks. Mazur is shocked to find that even Supreme Court opinions rely on myths and are designed solely to manipulate perceptions.

But Scalia’s opinion should not have surprised anyone. Indeed, it would be surprising if the general coarsening of politics in recent years did not affect the Court. Ever since it became clear that perceptions, rather than facts, drive our political dialogue, participants have increasingly replaced facts with truthy oversimplifications, half-truths and plain lies, all very loudly asserted. Fox News may have more to do with the military-civilian gap than William Rehnquist.

Mazur concludes that the gap “is tremendously corrosive to healthy civilian control of the military, to constitutional fidelity, and to military professionalism” (190). The title of her last chapter asserts what is needed in the form of a simplistic slogan of Mazur’s own: A military that is a part of America, not apart from America. In other words, we need to close the gap by closing the gap. Her first recommendation is for the Supreme Court to eliminate that deference that bred “military exceptionalism” and that made the military resent any civilian participation in military policy. “Before the Rehnquist transformation of civil-military relations following the Vietnam War, it was possible for courts to draw a straight line between constitutional values and military values and not have someone complain they were interfering with military effectiveness or disrespecting the troops” (p.180).

It’s not surprising that a law professor would emphasize the importance of courts. But lawsuits are poor vehicles for closing gaps. Litigation exacerbates the conflict between the parties. Furthermore, her examples don’t show courts resolving disputes. Though courts made a few rulings on don’t-ask-don’t-tell, the policy is now being eliminated by political, not legal, action. Somehow, this was accomplished in the face of military resistance. No courts tackled the ban on women in combat positions, and it, too, is being eliminated by political action. [*303]

Mazur thinks that broader-based recruiting will also help end the gap. Diversity combats narrowness of perspective; perhaps more women and openly gay recruits could supply it. But why won’t women and gay service personnel suffer through the same cycle of entitlement followed by resentment? Mazur skims over a more promising source of diversity: conscription. Though public opinion never liked it, military-civilian relations were best during periods when the draft was in force. Draftees become veterans, and thus bridge the military-civilian gap. Mazur discusses Representative Charles Rangel’s 2003 proposal for universal service, but mostly critiques the military’s opposition to it. We need to give it more consideration.

But the draft is impractical at present — not because the military opposes it but because it would harm preparedness. It is suited to warfare that requires large numbers of minimally-trained soldiers, like World War I. Draftees can contribute little to “fighting strength” when the military relies on pilots and other specialists who need six or more years of training to achieve competence. To draft only a few for such burdensome duty would lead to the invidious discrimination that caused so many problems in the 1960s, but to draft more than a few would waste whatever money it costs to train and house them. (It’s hard to imagine Americans accepting a military in which pilots are princes and draftees wash dishes and mop floors.) Mazur demonstrates that we can strengthen the military if we reject its positions on gays and women. But the military is correct to oppose the draft.

This illustrates the weakness in Mazur’s case-study approach: In her narratives, the military is almost always wrong. But in life it isn’t. The military-civilian gap may be produced most immediately by military resentment but the military has real grievances, not just mythical ones. Except for excoriating both civilians and service personnel for illegalities at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib—where civilians forced the military to violate international law by mistreating detainees—she under-emphasizes the part of the resentment that is caused by civilian political opportunism.

Therefore, she doesn’t see that her final recommendation, that we seek broader-based advice when we make military policy, is likely to be ineffectual. Mazur assumes that people will make wiser decisions if they can somehow get past the myths. But students of public opinion know that people, including politicians, may knowingly use myths to rationalize self-serving decisions even when correct information is available. Perhaps the gap isn’t fixable; perhaps Mazur has described a permanent weakness in our democratic policymaking, one not obvious to the founders, who kept only a small standing army, but a growing problem as we rely more and more on a professionalized military force.

Briskin, Samuel J. (Producer) and Mann, Anthony (Director). 1955. THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures

Department of Defense, THE ARMED FORCES OFFICER, Department of the Army Pamphlet No. 600-2, GPO, 1950. [*304]

Perlberg, William (Producer), and Robson, Mark (Director). 1954. STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures.

RUMSFELD v. FAIR, 547 U. S. 47 (2006).

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Paul Lermack.