Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Dereliction of Duty Redux?

Dereliction of Duty Redux?

It is clear by now that the protracted war in Iraq uncovered fissures and dysfunctional elements involved in American civil-military relations. Indeed, there has been a dangerous undertow in civil-military discourse for some time. Before the war, Dr. Richard Kohn of UNC Chapel Hill concluded that relations were “extraordinarily poor” and that a tear in the national fabric existed.[1] One could argue that the fabric is now completely rent, but we can hope it is not beyond repair. The war has exacerbated the situation appreciably, enough to suggest that a sequel to Colonel H.R. McMaster’s classic book Dereliction of Duty is in order.

The nation’s leadership, civilian and military, need to come to grips with the emerging “stab in the back” thesis in the armed services and better define the social compact and code of conduct that governs the overall relationship between the masters of policy and the dedicated servants we ask to carry it out. Our collective failure to address the torn fabric and weave a stronger and more enduring relationship will only allow a sore to fester and ultimately undermine the nation’s security.

“Civil-military relations” is exactly what the term suggests, a relationship between two institutions or parties. Civil-military relations are not a function of power or about control. Civilian control is not at issue, but civil-military relations, properly understood, are. Civilian control is constitutionally, structurally, and historically well grounded in America, but civil-military relations and effective strategic performance are not. History is replete with cases of strategic defeat attributable to dysfunctional relationships between statespersons and their generals. Iraq adds another case study to a long history.

Arriving at sound policy requires discipline, deliberate process, and interactive and continuous discourse. During recent conflicts, the climate or context for rigorous discourse was not established or maintained. Required and necessary inputs were ignored, muzzled, intimidated, or cut out of the debate. This has cost this country dearly in terms of lost standing among in the world, treasure wasted, and most importantly, by the ultimate sacrifice of many young Americans.

The growing narrative in the military pins the blame solely on poor, if not arrogant, civilian planning. Most of the blame in this tragedy is saved for former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He made it clear from his arrival in December 2000 that he wanted to be in control; in fact, he is extremely sensitive to challenges to civilian authority. He came to the Pentagon armed with an agenda to transform the U.S. military, which struck at specific institutional interests of the Services.

Secretary Rumsfeld challenged the status quo at every turn, insisting on applying his own theories to military operations. He challenged the Joint Staff’s planning efforts and its process for deploying military units during Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. This micromanagement frustrated military commanders in Washington and at U.S. Central Command in Tampa and resulted in low troop levels and all the related occupation problems in Iraq.

The flip side of the indictment involves the professional competence of senior military advisors, who failed to provide candid military counsel because they were intimidated “yes men,” or who failed to recognize the complexity of the war. General Tommy Franks, the commander of Central Command in 2003, is accused of having been too deferential to Secretary Rumsfeld. This deference allowed Rumsfeld’s perspectives on force levels to prevail, at odds with prevailing military doctrine of overwhelming force. The U.S. military is blamed for producing what Tom Ricks has described as “perhaps the worst war plan in American history.”[2] Senior generals are painted as pliable “yes-men,”[3] incapable of standing up to senior civilian masters, or incompetent officials who failed to plan past the initial battle and bring about the political end state sought by policymakers in the White House.

Because we lack objective historical evidence, it is difficult to judge the indictment and allocate blame for a war that has appreciably hurt U.S. security interests far beyond Iraq. But we need to examine the interaction of viewpoints involved in the strategy development process and resolve longstanding but now widening fissures in the ethical foundation of the military establishment.

The war has stimulated a needed debate on civil-military relations and the moral guidelines of our military. One scholar recently suggested that we return to the classical school of separate spheres. This compact, or division of labor, defined by Samuel Huntington in the seminal The Soldier and the State (1957), grants military professionals control over the operational and tactical sphere in return for their subordination and loyalty to policy and strategic decisions made by civilians. Michael Desch contends that separate spheres are “conducive to good civil-military relations as well as to sound policy decisions.”[4] Incessant and relentless questioning of “military policies” by civilians is seen as the problem, not the solution to effective strategic performance. He places the blame for the situation in Iraq today on the “willful disregard for military advice.” He also argues that the alternative approach, as advocated by Eliot Cohen in his Supreme Command (2002), is intrusive and bound to exacerbate friction.

The problem with this is that is presumes away several egregious examples of narrow military perspectives and bad advice about U.S. interventions ranging from Vietnam, Panama, and Somalia to the endgame for Desert Storm. The bargain Desch advocates is counterproductive, as it separates a holistic appreciation for the nature of war and offers a linear and mechanistic alternative that has little relationship to the constant and iterative interaction between policy and strategy that should characterize the conduct of war. Worse, it continues the mythology and extends the American military’s greatest professional blind spot: operating in what Prof. Hew Strachan has called “a politics free zone.”[5] Separating policy from strategy is simply an extremely poor alternative to the intense and admittedly uncomfortable interaction of policy desires and military realities that Cohen called “the uneasy dialogue.”[6]

The separate-spheres argument also distorts the provision of military advice during the invasion and rewrites the history of CENTCOM’s planning failures during 2002 and 2003, as well as the conduct of postconflict operations in 2003. Desch would have us believe that the Joint Chiefs, left entirely upon themselves, could have planned the drive to Baghdad, knocked off Hussein, and would have precluded the emergence of any insurgency. He rightfully believes that, left to their own, the Chiefs would have authorized more troops, but overemphasizes what those troops could have accomplished. He wrongly presumes that the Joint Chiefs would not have mishandled Phase IV postconflict planning by themselves. Additionally, he neatly overlooks how U.S. forces failed to combat disorder and looting in the aftermath of the conflict, and their utter lack of doctrine and preparation for any form of postconflict problems or the subsequent insurgency.

There is little history to support Desch’s argument from the past, and his reading of the current conflict also falls short. Junior officers see this “stab in the back” thesis for what it is: a limp attempt to deflect blame. They have openly criticized their military leaders for trying to pin all the responsibility on Pentagon civilians “while we in uniform are depicted as the luckless victims of poor policy.”[7]

We need to reject an outdated normal theory of civil-military relations to a more historically grounded model that accounts for the overlapping and reciprocal interrelationships of ends, ways and means that leads to strategic success. We need to establish new norms that set up expectations for a decision-making climate that encourages candid advice and the rigorous exchange of views and insights. It is the duty of civilian leaders, in all branches of government, to establish that climate, and it is the moral obligation of military professionals to honestly and clearly present their best advice. This “uneasy dialogue” needs to ensure a tight correlation between ends, ways, and means.

When civilian policy masters will not establish the necessary conditions for strategic success, military officers can retire, resign, or request reassignment. Those who fail to provide candid advice, who fail in their duty to their immediate superiors, and stay in their posts are guilty of dereliction of duty to the president, the Congress, and their subordinates.

We need to clarify these expectations for the future civilian leaders, the armed services, and their ultimate client, the American people, who sustain them and provide the resources.


Repairing the rent fabric of America’s relationship with its military servants will require a sustained and comprehensive effort. Some have offered structural solutions, recommending that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff be appointed as member of the National Security Council or placed directly in the chain of command. These structural proposals might prevent civilian policymakers from playing off the views of the Chiefs against the theater commanders, and it might buttress a Chairman who suffers from an overbearing Secretary of Defense, but we cannot legislate moral character or spine.

Part of any effort will have to address the professional education of the military, which does not adequately instruct in this area. The principal thrust of any solution set lies in codifying and enforcing the foundations of a professional military. The normative values and ethic embodied in any profession are supposed to define its role and frame its purpose and limits. The military defines itself as a profession, and meets all of the characteristics of a profession, with the exception of a code of ethics. The professional military ethic that used to be implicitly operative in the officer’s corps has faded from its collective memory. In particular, the guiding principles and obligations requiring selfless service and apolitical behavior have eroded. Re-codifying the professional military ethic and incorporating it in today’s Professional Military Education system is vital.

This new code should define the fundamentals of a professional Officer dedicated to this nation’s values and institutions. It should distinguish between the professional military and our citizen soldiers in the National Guard, and define the rights, privileges, and obligations of retired senior officers. It should also define the expectations for loyalty, obedience, and dissent in clear terms. This code should also clarify, for both branches of government, the necessity for the institutional integrity of the Armed Forces above reproach. The military should not be used as a passive or implied prop for political consumption. Once defined, we need to educate our military and citizenry on this ethic, our senior officers will need to model it, and the Congress and the profession writ large will need to enforce it.

Thus, a national commission or task force on the American military ethic is needed. This task force should be established by Congress, with bipartisan and joint representation. In addition to crafting a formal code, the commission should be charged to produce a set of detailed case histories on policy and strategy development to illustrate the desired “running conversation” between policymakers and military professionals. These cases would be offered to the country’s civilian and military institutions of higher learning. The new professional military ethic will help define society’s expectations for its uniformed military and the case histories will highlight the benefits of extensive and if necessary intense interaction. These lessons need to be incorporated into the educational programs that prepare both civilian and military leaders for future crises.


Despite the grave concerns noted by many scholars over the past decade, we have not paid enough attention to the topic of civil-military relations. Unless serious efforts are made to rectify the components that constitute the entire relationship between the nation and its uniformed servants, expectations for improved performance are low. More fundamentally, expectations for greater volatility between the institutions of our government will be high.

War is an audit of national will, institutions and leaders. It is difficult not to conclude that our leaders failed us in the planning and conduct of the current conflict. If we continue to ignore the difficulty inherent to the “unequal dialogue” that supports the ultimate decision regarding war, and fail to educate future leaders about duty and professional obligation, we will continue to pay a high price. That would constitute a true dereliction of duty—by all of us.


  1. Richard H. Kohn, “The Erosion of Civilian Control of the Military in the United States Today,” Naval War College Review, Summer 2002, pp. 9-59. [back]
  2. Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: America’s Military Adventure into Iraq, New York: Penguin Press2006, p. 89; “U.S. Military Operations in Iraq: Planning, Combat, and Occupation, SAIS-SSI, Nov. 2, 2005. [back]
  3. Mark Follman, “More Top Brass Blast Rumsfeld,” Apr. 25, 2006, at [back]
  4. M. Desch, “Bush and the Generals,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007. [back]
  5. Hew Strachan, “The Lost Meaning of Strategy,” Survival, vol. 47, no. 3, Autumn 2005, p. 47. [back]
  6. Eliot A. Cohen, Supreme Command Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime,, New York: Free Press, 2002, p. 209. [back]
  7. Daniel L. Davis, “To America’s Generals,” Washington Times, May 23, 2007. [back]

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