In a landscape where the potential return of Donald Trump as President and commander-in-chief looms, it becomes imperative to reevaluate the foundational aspects of civil-military relations in the United States. This is not merely a call to arms but a plea for preemptive contemplation by the military on matters of significant domestic and international consequence, both strategically and ethically.
Civil-military relations are a tacit yet binding social contract involving mutual rights, obligations, and expectations among three primary groups: the military, its civilian overseers in Congress and the executive branch, and the general public.
Ideally, this triad functions harmoniously, with each party fulfilling its institutional roles for the collective benefit. However, when these roles are not adequately met, the very fabric of democracy risks unraveling. Reflecting on Trump's previous interactions with the military reveals a worrying picture.
His disregard for certain generals, an affinity for military personnel accused of misconduct, the appointment of unqualified loyalists in key defense positions, and a fixation on personal loyalty at the cost of democratic values threaten traditional civil-military norms.
These concerns are exacerbated by Trump's aspirations for autocratic rule and his intent to undermine democratic institutions.
Reevaluating Civil-Military Dynamics
As a seasoned observer and scholar of civil-military relations, I question long-held beliefs in this domain.
While civilian military control is a cornerstone of democracy, the extent of this control depends mainly on the military's adherence to higher-order principles and institutions. The prospect of Trump's return raises the critical question: will democracy be strengthened or weakened if the military resists unconstitutional commands? Revisiting historical precedents, such as President Truman's dismissal of General MacArthur during the Korean War, highlights the delicate balance between military obedience and constitutional fidelity.
Truman asserted the importance of civilian control over the military, emphasizing that generals or admirals should not dictate military decisions. Conversely, MacArthur warned against a military that pledges sole allegiance to the executive branch, thereby jeopardizing its constitutional role.
The potential of a Trump presidency necessitates a reexamination of these dynamics. The military's allegiance must first and foremost be to the Constitution, not to any individual. This includes upholding principles like the rule of law, popular sovereignty, and checks and balances.
While granting a degree of discretion, the President's oath must not override these constitutional safeguards.
Challenging Military Compliance
In the face of Trump's possible return, there is an urgent need to reconsider the military's traditionally apolitical and obedient stance.
When civilian leadership demonstrates vision, integrity, and competence, it earns the military's deference. However, if civilian leaders exhibit incompetence, hypocrisy, or intolerance, the military may be justified in questioning or resisting their directives.
This discussion, while controversial, is vital in a time where adherence to the Uniform Code of Military Justice can conflict with the broader responsibilities to democracy. The military, as a hierarchical institution within a democracy, must navigate the complexities of obedience, dissent, and the ethics of public service.
Echoing the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, America's heritage of dissent and rebellion must also encompass those in uniform, particularly in challenging times. As we approach a potential turning point in American history, the military's role as a guardian of democratic values and the Constitution becomes more crucial than ever.
In the face of uncertainty, the military must prepare to uphold its oaths, ensuring that orders are lawful, transparent, and in line with democratic principles.