Security Studies Program Seminar

Civil-Military Relations in the United States Today

Richard Kohn

October 12, 2005


One the oldest fears in civil military relations is militarism, the displacement of civilian government by the military and the imposition of military values, perspectives and ideals on the rest of society. This fear is rooted in the fear of standing armies and embedded in the US Constitution. The word militarism was invented by European leftist opponents of their government in the eighteen sixties. Militarism came to be seen in the United States as a threat to freedom and democracy.

The fear of militarism was articulated in academia and Congress in the nineteen thirties. In the United States, this fear was expressed primarily toward internal problems, but after World War I, it was also seen as having caused German aggression and thus as a force that created foreign threats.

In 1941, Harold Laswell wrote on the garrison state. Charles Beard, the historian, expressed similar fears about the dangers of centralized power in a Republic and its threat to civil liberties. These fears did not materialize however. American victory in World War II and the Cold War were achieved with heavy military spending but not a total capitulation to military values. After the Cold War, around the world, democracy not only survived but expanded, along with individual liberty and human rights, and military budgets declined. Military regimes declined in number. War became more an internal than international problem.

Yet the global war on terror brings back the problem of militarization and the threat of militarism. Most people accept that this war is indefinite. It is a war against an ill-defined enemy, without a way to measure success or victory. It has already produced domestic stresses common to other American wars. Moreover, because of the internal nature of the terrorist threat, the impact of the war on American society could well exceed those of previous conflicts.

The danger today is not militarization. The United States has already experienced a high degree of militarization. The danger is that further militarization will lead to militarism. The question is to what extent American values and institutions will become militaristic and change the character of the country into one our founders would abhor.

What is the difference between militarization and militarism? Militarization comes from the organization of the state for war. It is the degree to which societal institutions, values, and thoughts are shaped by war. Militarism is the reification of military power as an end in itself.

Militarization emerged in Europe in the sixteenth century when monarchs organized their subjects for war. But it was only in late nineteenth century when armies professionalized, governments began to devote more wealth to arms, and militaries sought and gained more autonomy that militarization took off.

In the United States, because of the perception of success, by the nineties, the military had gained unprecedented influence. The military has had less influence since 2001, but that has been a choice by military leadership.

Until the twentieth century, the United States lagged behind Europe in militarization. War and peace were very separate until the Cold War. Our country has a long history of periods of militarization for war-making and bluster and jingoism in war. But prior to World War II, the country built up a large arsenal and military only during war.

It was the World War I partnership between government and business to produce military power that changed things. The force dismantled after the war, but the idea remained. This was an irreversible step toward the creation of the national security state.

In the interwar period, the American armed forces began systematically to make war plans. The services reached out to business to plan for mobilization. With the Great Depression, the tools used to organize the war spilled over to other parts of the government. War metaphors were invoked to fight poverty. War became the central paradigm used to shape the organizations that fought the depression. The New Deal organizations were led largely by men who had run World War I organizations.

With World War II came full militarization. Industry converted to war ends, wage and price controls were instituted, and foreign and domestic policy were subordinated to the war effort. Universities, professional organizations, and even Hollywood contributed as they could.

During the Cold War, militarization became less pervasive but more permanent. Internal security became a consuming concern. American foreign policy became a handmaiden of containment. For the first time, the United States constructed nearly permanent alliances. The strategic objectives of the Cold War displaced other economic and political aims to determine foreign relations. Military leadership became more influential in interagency politics. The services gained independence and power. Veterans groups emerged to promote preparedness and other ends. Conventional forces were expanded, their readiness upgraded. The forces built bases abroad and send military advisors to dozens of countries. A huge intelligence apparatus grew, not only to ascertain enemy intentions but to combat them around the world. America overturned foreign governments and made covert war.

The needs of the military establishment pervaded the economy more deeply than ever before, outside shooting wars. A large portion of a growing economy fed national security, though only twelve percent at most. Eisenhower popularized the term "military-industrial complex" but it was implied in C. Wright Mills' investigation of "the power elite." Large percentages of men served in military, and most Americans participated in civil defense programs and air raid drills.

Popular culture reinforced war thinking. Comic books and television depicted danger and military reassurance. Movies showed combat as a way to prove manhood and the military as all-conquering and always right. The martial John Wayne became the mythically ideal American man.

War language came to pervade daily life. America declared war on drugs and poverty. Military planning spread to business. Football, with its similarity to combat, displaced baseball as the national sport.

Despite all this, a lot of factors prevent the formation of command economy and a garrison state, as Aaron Friedberg argues. But even without a full garrison state, the vast expansion of the military and its penetration into society militarized many aspects of American life. Various industries became dependent on military spending for their existence.

Some thought the end of the Cold War would change all this. But the reduction in militarization was brief and weak. As Andrew Bacevich argues, Americans become enthralled with military power after Vietnam. America fell prey to the variant of militarism that measures societal well-being in military preparedness. Almost without discussion, the United States decided to keep a large military establishment, take a dominant role in world and spend heavily on defense. Regional commanders gained great power over foreign policy in their area. Military force sizing aimed not only to overpower any other state but any conceivable combination of states. There was no demobilization.

At home, the cultural manifestations of militarization continued. The war paradigm was used ubiquitously. Movies like Rambo became regular hits. Style got more boldly masculine. Criminal justice organizations adopted military ideas like boot camps and swat teams.

The military became seen as an institution with models and tools to solve all problems. American trust in the federal government declined dramatically in the last thirty five years, but the military has risen to iconic status. Americans have trusted the military more than any other institution in government by a wide margin for twenty years.

So what?

The global war on terror may last for a generation and it promises to continue or intensify militarization. It poses the risk of the domination of war values in American society to the point of dysfunction. It threatens Americans institutions and the coherence of American foreign policy.

Since September 11, military campaigns have dominated foreign policy. The President gave responsibility for the war on terror to the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The core of the new national security strategy links bellicosity and liberalism. It says the United States has the right to overturn countries that cooperate with terrorists and make WMD. Bush Administration officials have talked of preemptively attacking up to six nations.

Other nations see a militaristic nation, blinded by fear and power. Around the world, there has been a decline in respect for the United States as a result of the use of military force outside accepted norms.

Calling the effort against terrorism a war tends to give power to the President at the expense of the other branches. It gives increased weight to the military in policy making, and requires a larger intelligence establishment. National security is now paramount in domestic politics. There are calls for the military to be used internally for disaster relief or to quarantine avian flu victims.

As Andrew Bacevich points out, there is no real anti military left anymore. The response to increased militarization has been weak.

So far, however, militarism has been rather limited. Like President Johnson in Vietnam, President Bush has not called for much sacrifice. And though the most threatening developments are in internal security, the PATRIOT Act was relatively modest, and a stronger request — PATRIOT Act II, was beaten back by a strong bipartisan coalition in Congress.

One of the most worrying developments has been the executive branch's aggressive use of secrecy. Secrecy has been used to block information as to how many immigrants have been collected, to place restrictions on Freedom of Information Act, and to justify the holding of Americans as enemy combatants. Then there was the Tips program and John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness program.

True, Congress blocked a lot of these developments. But Congress has done little else to check militarization. It issued a blank check for the war. And the courts have basically deferred to the President and the military, while establishing some limits on executive power in the Padilla and Hamdi cases.

If things remain as they are, America only has to worry about militarization, but when the next large attack occurs, restraint may vanish and militarism may take hold. We are still vulnerable, the borders still porous. The administration has done little to control the spread of nuclear technology. Iran and North Korea are proceeding quickly toward becoming nuclear powers.

Nearly every war in US history has involved infringement of civil liberties and freedoms. The PATRIOT Act, though modest, shows a public willingness to support and even call for suspensions of freedoms when security seems precarious. War generates a powerful mass psychology and the United States public often lets fear and fury to get ahead of it. A large WMD attack may lead to a request for a radical tilting of freedom and security.

But even without that calamity, defining the struggle against terrorism as war could lead to a slow creep away from freedom, and there is no evidence that Congress or the judiciary will push back. The courts reflexively defer to the military, and deal with the largest questions in the narrowest ways. The most worrying thing about the recent Supreme Court nominees, John Roberts and Harriet Miers is that they both believe in broad deference to executive power.

Recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers calls terrorism today the greatest threat to the United States since the civil war. That's ridiculous. We can absorb even a grievous blow. The worst danger is overreacting to this threat by weakening or mutilating liberties and freedoms that define us. We can only defeat ourselves.


Richard H. Kohn is Professor of History and Chair, Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He has been the Air Force Historian and is author or editor of several books including, Eagle and the Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

Rapporteur: Benjamin Friedman

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2005