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The Political-Military Rivalry for Operational Control in U.S. Military Actions: A Soldier's Perspective

Authored by Colonel Lloyd J. Matthews USA Ret..

June 22, 1998

48 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author presents a soldier's perspective of the operational implications of instant access to the battlefield by civilian leaders in Washington. It also suggests steps that might be taken to assure constructive collaboration between military and civil authorities, leaving each group to make its own essential contribution to success in the nation's military undertakings around the world.


Discussion of the deep involvement of civilian leaders today in operational and even tactical matters formerly the exclusive preserve of the soldier is now the hackneyed staple of international security affairs textbooks. Facilitated by the revolution in communications technology that has made possible instant secure voice contact with forces scattered throughout the world, sobered by fears of sudden escalation from local dustup to wider confrontation having global reverberations, and driven by a need to contain adverse political fallout from overseas military ventures seen as both risky and controversial, civilians in positions of authority over the military have been increasingly disposed during delicate moments to seize the marshal's baton themselves and bark orders directly to servicemen on the scene. In doing so, they have given rise to a new addition to the soldier's compendium of command post humor: "If you want to direct troops in battle, don't be a general, be a politician."

But in truth, far from seeing these new developments as funny, professional soldiers view them with a mixture of profound alarm, resentment, frustration, and resignation-and legitimately so. On one hand, under Article II, Section 2, the President as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, acting directly or through his civilian seconds, has absolute constitutional authority to intervene in U.S. military operations at any level in any way he or she sees fit. This is the overriding reality and the bedrock axiom from which all discussion must begin.

On the other hand, warfighting is an extremely complex and dangerous activity, requiring for its successful execution a professional class of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who have made it their career's work to master the art and science of war. In this hostile world, where other nations have it within their capability to grievously injure if not destroy us as a nation and people, the simple imperative of survival demands that we entrust our fighting to those among us best qualified to do the job. We ignore this axiom at our peril.

What are we to do, then, when these two enshrined axioms of national defense come to a direct clash-when those with the constitutional authority propose to take over the fighting from those with the professional expertise? In the epigraph at the head of this paper, describing how Ambassador Sneider and General Stilwell literally arm-wrestled to determine who should grasp the instrument of command, we observe in brilliantly etched microcosm the larger struggle that will always beset soldier and civilian during military operations and crises of the information age. Must we continue to resort to arm-wrestling or other questionable expedients that will be noticed in this paper? Or are there not more acceptable approaches to resolving this bedeviling issue?

There are indeed some reasonable and potentially useful steps that can be taken to enhance the mechanisms whereby soldiers and political authorities divide the nation's warmaking responsibilities, leaving each group to perform its own essential function in an optimal manner. But before turning to these, let us examine, in varying degrees of detail, several representative instances of civilian involvement in tactical and operational matters during the post-Korean War period.

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