Words of wisdom on civil-military relations: LTG Barno on MG Scales’s “corrosive” views

Three cheers for LTG David Barno(ret), who in yesterday’sWashington Post took a clear and principled stand against the inappropriate political involvement of the military in foreign policy debates.

General Barno was reacting to a piece published in the middle of last week’s Syria debate (and which I referenced in my previous post about Syria) by retired Major General Robert Scales.

Scales is a distinguished Army commander whose last post was as the head of the U.S. Army War College. He’s a tough, brilliant guy — he has a PhD in history from Duke to prove it — which is why his cheap shots in the Washington Post last week were such a stunning violation of America’s civil-military traditions.

Scales, in effect, said that the senior military commanders he knew — and he implied that he was speaking on behalf of practically the entire U.S. high command — had lost confidence in the Commander in Chief and his team of hippie nitwits.

Here are some of the more glittering moments:

After personal exchanges with dozens of active and retired soldiers in recent days, I feel confident that what follows represents the overwhelming opinion of serving professionals who have been intimate witnesses to the unfolding events that will lead the United States into its next war.

They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration’s attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it….

It gets better (or, actually, worse). Our senior officers, according to Scales, are “repelled by the hypocrisy of a media blitz”

that warns against the return of Hitlerism but privately acknowledges that the motive for risking American lives is our “responsibility to protect” the world’s innocents….The U.S. military’s civilian masters privately are proud that they are motivated by guilt over slaughters in Rwanda, Sudan and Kosovo and not by any systemic threat to our country.

Repelled! And they’re “outraged,” too, by

the fact that what may happen is an act of war and a willingness to risk American lives to make up for a slip of the tongue about “red lines.” These acts would be for retribution and to restore the reputation of a president.

And in case you were too dense to get the general’s point until now:

They are tired of wannabe soldiers who remain enamored of the lure of bloodless machine warfare.

This is so appalling on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. For one thing, it seems to imply that unless our civilian leaders are a bunch of battle-hardened GI Joes, they’d better not even think of making any policies that might contradict the innate strategic brilliance of the men and women who’ve been out there in the deserts and the jungles. (You know, like Tommy Franks, or maybe William Westmoreland.)

It also makes clear that senior commanders should feel free to gripe anonymously to retired general officers who will aggregate their views, speak for them all, and then proceed to blister the pages of the Washington Post with their complaints.

Look, I have many disagreements with official policy and I’m not shy about them. I take my job as an academic seriously enough that I think it’s actually it’s my duty as a citizen and scholar to be an active and independent participant in debates about national security.

What Scales did was different, however. He was claiming to speak for the senior uniformed military — something I and my colleagues would never claim to do. (Just a reminder for the millionth time: I have a constant disclaimer at the bottom of every page that makes clear I speak on behalf of nobody but myself.)

Moreover, Scales let his hyperbole get away from him. As I pointed out in my last post, I have no idea what he could mean when he says that “the United States is the only liberal democracy that has never been ruled by its military.” That’s just flatly wrong, and if I were a Canadian, an Australian, or a citizen of any of number of countries with a healthy history of civil-military affairs, I’d be offended and puzzled that a U.S. general with a PhD in history has no idea what he’s talking about.

Finally, Scales wrote: “Civilian control of the armed services doesn’t mean that civilians shouldn’t listen to those who have seen war.”

True. But that does not therefore mean anyone with combat experience gets a de facto vetoon policy, either, which is what Scales seemed to be arguing. (As an aside, I think this is part of an overall disdain MG Scales has for civilians, and you can read about the disagreement I had with him last spring about his views on military education here.)

Anyway, enter Lt. General Barno, previously commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, and now at the Center for a New American Security.

Here’s Barno’s reaction. He said that Scales’s article

marks a dangerous breach of the fundamental civilian-military relationship in the United States. Its corrosive premise — that our civilian leadership is not up to the task of deciding the nation’s course in war — must be addressed before our military begins to believe that it should have the biggest say in decisions to go to war.

Scales…is a powerful voice among the Army’s retired generals. His words are all the more dangerous because they carry such weight.

Scales purported to speak for a uniformed military leadership that he asserts is at odds with the White House over military action in Syria. Never mind that this decision rests fully with our nation’s elected leaders — Congress and the president — exactly as the Constitution prescribes. Nor that the president’s decision to consult Congress is intended, properly, to directly engage the American people in this debate through their elected representatives.

Scales’s argument implies that, in an era in which the nation’s civilian leadership has less and less military experience, only the military has the expertise appropriate to judge the risks and rewards associated with going to war. But under the Constitution, it matters not one whit whether our civilian leadership has experienced war; Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were neophytes in warfare, and both were superb wartime leaders.

Amen. Again, Scales is an historian and should know better. And then Barno got right to the essential point:

Arguments such as Scales’s imply that the military has a voice, and vote, of its own — and suggest that channels outside the chain of command are fair game to publicly express dissenting views.

This breach of the proper civilian-military relationship is disruptive and potentially corrosive to our constitutional division of powers. It must be publicly rejected by our uniformed military leadership, who must reassert throughout the ranks the proper role of the military as faithful servants of the nation in the profession of arms.

I just can’t improve on that. So instead, I’ll just say: thank you, General Barno.

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