Liberals and traditional conservatives alike have placed their hopes in an unlikely voice of reason during the Trump administration: the military. The logic goes that the military as an institution will hedge against Trump’s unpredictable policies regarding powder keg issues like Iran, Syria, ISIS, North Korea and the South China Sea. The bi-partisan support that General Mattis received during his confirmation hearings for the position of Secretary of Defense, traditionally a civilian position, is evidence of these aspirations. However, can the military be relied upon as a voice of restraint in the projection of U.S. power abroad? Probably not, due both to the culture of the military itself and the inextricable link between funding and wartime operations.
The military is an institution and like any institution its first instinct is to survive and grow. There is an unrelenting pressure to deploy and be utilized. I felt it myself even as a junior enlisted Marine outside of the officer corps. Generals and sergeant majors are not made in the drab brick buildings of Camp Lejeune but rather in the perpetual battlefields of the Middle East.
Last month’s deployment of Marines outside Raqqa combined with the barrage of tomahawk missiles on a Syrian base is a significant departure from Trump’s campaign promise of non-intervention abroad. Even if the Trump administration has no intention of full-scale entry into the Syrian conflict, these actions will at a minimum set a precedent for future strikes against Assad and may even reawaken calls from Gulf allies for U.S.-led regime change. If Trump’s generals had any intention of restraining him they have failed. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer argues that the generals have rather intentionally done just the opposite. Why wouldn’t they?
The military is first and foremost a fighting institution that adheres to the Latin proverb “if you want peace, prepare for war.” But how do you convince an Army Ranger to remain enthusiastic and reenlist if all he does is train for a battle that never comes? It may seem counterintuitive to many civilians but the military hopes—even prays—for war. When it is not forward deployed, it swells into an irrelevant behemoth of an organization. And with irrelevancy come cuts.
America’s soldiers share the same anxiety of being laid-off as their corporate counterparts. In the post-surge military many good Marines, soldiers, airmen, and sailors are denied promotion, forced out over time, or even offered incentives to leave. The loss of hazardous duty pay from deployments is a major financial hit across all ranks. Fear of returning to a “peacetime military” defined by boredom looms heavy over the heads of senior officers and junior enlisted alike. In one strip of the Terminal Lance comic, popular among the enlisted military, a Marine sporting a fur coat and medieval sword looks out in trepidation over the barracks and warns his peers to brace themselves because “a darkness is brewing…the peacetime Marine Corps is coming.” Below the cartoon the author explains “it seems counterintuitive to think that we want to be at war, but as a Marine, that’s really all you’re here for.”
The military’s propensity towards beating the war drum is not only motivated by bigger paychecks. As a Marine, I do not remember a single individual, regardless of rank or age, who publicly wished for peace. This doesn’t mean that our fighting men and women fetishize war or ignore the human misery it brings. Instead, the military teaches us that war is a constant, it’s out there somewhere in the world, and our job is to go find it. But we do not want just any war, we want a righteous war. In a 2016 report that advocated against downsizing the military, Mackenzie Eaglin of the American Enterprise Institute wrote “since the end of World War II, the United States has been the underwriter of the liberal rules-based international order.” The primary goal of the U.S. military is no longer exclusively defensive but also follows a doctrine of intervention justified by a presumed moral superiority that is a quagmire of double-standards.
Why do rational actors assume that intervention will work despite its many recent failures? They do so for the same reason that people feel safer driving their own car than flying on a commercial airliner despite statistics to the contrary. This human tendency is compounded by a phenomenon in the military that I call the “after-action culture.” The military conducts after-action analysis for everything they do, ranging from the most mundane training convoy to major offensive operations. Every detail of every event is scrutinized, discussed, and revised. This produces a culture of accountability and constant improvement among lower ranks. However, it also lends itself to the belief that with discipline, even the uncontrollable can be controlled, and this is combined with a “never retreat” attitude across all ranks.
Challenging the pro-intervention and invincible culture of the military is a risk that many officers may not want to take. After all, does any manager want to hear their subordinate say “I don’t think we should take that job sir”? Tim Kane wrote in the Atlantic that one of the reasons the military is losing its best officers is because “performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command.” Kane found that 93% of officers he interviewed believed that at least half of the best officers leave before retirement. He also cites an essay by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling that argues “it is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.”
By the time many senior officers enter an administration, become a defense commentator for Fox News, or serve as a senior fellow in a think tank, their loyalty to the institution of the military supersedes their objectivity. Beltway think tanks have grown exponentially in number, size, and influence since the beginning of the “War on Terror” and their budgets reach into the hundreds of millions. In 2016, the New York Times published a report entitled “How Think Tanks Amplify Corporate America’s Influence.” The report details the way in which think tanks allow donors to preview “objective” reports and influence the final draft, and are occasionally “blurring the line between researchers and lobbyists.” The Department of Defense and individual branches of the military also donate to think tanks and retired senior officers increasingly serve as senior fellows which may well produce similar consequences.
Senior military officers have an important role to play in government, academia, think tanks, and the military itself. But we must abandon the notion that the military, or those deeply entrenched in its culture, are the ones best suited to advocate against its use. If anything, they will advocate for military adventurism and be overly optimistic about its results. It is necessary to have expertise with deep ties to the military and strategic experience that extends beyond game theory. However, it is naïve to assume that the advice being offered by senior military officers turned expert is truly objective, nor that it should be. It makes sense for the military to advocate for itself and offer solutions to the most pressing problems of our time, but it is unfair for us to simultaneously ask its representatives to play devil’s advocate against themselves.