On eve of new conflicts, time to reconsider role of military

Jeremi Suri

Our nation’s founding fathers disagreed about many issues: slavery, the presidency and foreign policy. They almost universally shared a belief about the military: It was a necessary part of the “common defense,” but it had to remain small and strictly under civilian control. The founders detested the British soldiers forcibly quartered in American homes before the revolution, and they believed that bloated militaries had undermined good governance in Britain and other societies. For the founders, a democratic military had to come from the people, it had to remain subservient to Congress and the president, and it had to disperse as soon as it defeated its foes.

Our current arrangements for the U.S. military would be unrecognizable to the founders. Instead of a small military mustered only in extreme moments, we now have one of the largest permanent military establishments in the world, and Americans spend far more on the armed forces than any other nation. Our soldiers are no longer part of society at large; they are a professional force trained and educated differently (and sometimes better) than the rest of the population. The U.S. military is organized in the Department of Defense (created in 1947), with a civilian cabinet secretary and a military chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Although they loyally follow the orders of the president, they are now one of the most powerful political and economic forces in our country, influencing everything from industry and education to basic research and popular culture. The U.S. military is, in fact, one of the few government institutions that is widely revered among citizens.

This shift from the tiny military of the 18th century to the huge behemoth of today was probably unavoidable. As the United States grew, it needed a larger military. As the United States confronted more diverse and technologically sophisticated foes, it needed a more advanced set of defenses — including a wide array of nuclear, intelligence and special operations agencies. We cannot turn back the clock and return to the somewhat simpler world of the founders. Nor would most of us wish to do that. We benefit enormously from the wealth that accompanies modern American power.

A historical perspective on the military is important because it reminds us of two important things. First, American institutions of national defense evolved in response to specific threats and pressures over time. These institutions have served our country well, but they will only continue to do that if they adjust to new threats and pressures. Cheering for the military and thanking our soldiers for their service is appropriate, but it is not nearly enough. In a world filled with multiplying small groups that have the capacity to harm American assets and large states that have more powerful weapons, we must ask if our current military is designed appropriately to protect our current interests. Why do we build so many large and expensive weapons systems that are outdated before they even hit the battlefield? Why do we continue to send massive amounts of military aid to regimes that support terrorist groups? Why do we continue to underemphasize the kinds of nation-building activities that our military has found itself doing time and again in Afghanistan, Iraq and other dangerous conflict zones? A historical perspective on the military reminds us that internal changes in institutions, training and expectations are necessary for success, even when you are the biggest and strongest on the planet. 

Second, and perhaps more important, the growth of the U.S. military has meant trade-offs for American democracy. Enhanced security is necessary for freedom, but it can also undermine freedom. This was a core insight from the founders that we are wise to remember. Those of us who believe in a strong but democratic military should be forthright in expressing our concerns about the excesses of surveillance, interrogation and even torture that the U.S. military has perpetrated in the last two decades. The continued existence of a military-run prison for alleged terrorists, denied due process, in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, contradicts America’s basic tenets of freedom. And it matters to all of us because the powers used in these ways are not easily controlled by the elected officials who are supposed to manage them. A military that overreaches, out of the best intentions, imperils democracy. 

We need to talk about these issues, especially at our universities. As we enter a new set of wars in Iraq and Syria, we owe ourselves a serious analysis of what kind of military we need and what kind we should have in a democracy. Young people should play a vital role in this public discussion. You are the ones who serve in the military, and you are the ones who will live with the consequences. The founders were correct: Military affairs require vigilant civilian attention.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History.