Back in 1964, at the height of the Cold War, Hollywood heartthrob Burt Lancaster starred as Gen. James Mattoon Scott in the movie “Seven Days in May.” The film was a fictional account of a Scott-led military plot to unseat a liberal president, played by Lyndon Johnson lookalike Fredric March. The plot was eventually revealed, the coup stymied, Scott was fired and one of our nation’s central democratic values redeemed — that civilians give the orders, and military officers follow them.
“Seven Days in May” was enormously popular, in part because it played to public fears that the military had gained “unwarranted influence” in what Dwight Eisenhower had (just four years before) dubbed the military-industrial complex. Poll numbers at the time, though obviously skewed by the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, reflected this wariness, with a little over 50 percent of the public saying they had great confidence in their men and women in uniform. Americans admired their military — but only to a point.
How times have changed. The U.S. military is now the most respected of our government’s institutions, with a recent poll showing that fully 73 percent of the American people have “great confidence” in its capabilities. The same poll shows that of the military’s separate branches, the U.S. Marines are the most prestigious, while the Army is viewed as the most important. That’s good news for Donald Trump, who has appointed two retired Marine officers (Gen. James Mattis and Gen. John Kelly) and an Army officer (Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn) to key positions in his administration — but is it good for the country?
Not everyone thinks so.
While Trump’s appointment of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to be his new administration’s secretary of defense was greeted with relief by critics who argued that the president-elect had a deficit in foreign policy experience, new questions have been raised by Trump’s announcement that Mattis would be joined by Kelly (nominated for secretary of Homeland Security) and Flynn (as national security adviser), and by reports that former Gen. David Petraeus might be joining the Trump team as secretary of state. The appointments would place the new administration’s most important foreign policy positions in the hands of former military officers, for the first time that has happened in American history.
“I think the appointments are very problematic,” says James Joyner, an Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm and an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps University, “though not because I’m worried about civilian control of the military. This isn’t about civilian control, it’s about military influence.”
Joyner, who recently wrote about his doubts in a New York Times op-ed, adds that Trump has not only appointed military officers to high positions, he’s selected officers who openly clashed with President Obama. Mattis was forcibly retired for openly disagreeing with the president on Iran, Kelly publicly criticized Obama’s immigration views as commander of the U.S. Southern Command, and Flynn was forced out of his job as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for being “disruptive.”
“The president-elect can choose whoever he wants as his top aides, so it’s natural that he would appoint people he trusts,” Joyner says. “But this looks like more than that. It’s almost as if Mr. Trump has decided that being anti-Obama is a requirement for getting a high-level position in the new administration. And that’s worrisome.” Joyner is quick to add that his reservations are not based on personal dislikes (“James Mattis is competent and careful,” he says), but based on his worries that, while Trump has assured himself he will get military advice, its imperative that he also receive a political perspective — that is, one that is not shared by the military.
Diane Mazur, author of the highly regarded “A More Perfect Military: How the Constitution Can Make Our Military Stronger” and an emeritus professor of law at the University of Florida, agrees. She argues that while “we could certainly do worse” than having Mattis as secretary of defense, Trump’s appointment of him is “careless and lazy” — a way for the new administration to inoculate itself from criticism. “When public adoration of the military is at its highest, real accountability for military judgment is necessarily at its lowest,” she points out. “This is exactly the wrong time to have a secretary of defense who can never be fully accountable because of our unwillingness to challenge what generals say.”
More simply, Mazur repeats Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning about “unwarranted influence.” But the problem now, she says, is “undue deference” — a public willingness to exempt military officers from criticism because they have put their lives on the line in defense of their country. Indeed, a spate of recent articles have cast critics of Trump’s Mattis appointment as showing “disrespect” for “the servicemen who lost their lives” in combat.
Critics of the Mattis appointment are not the only ones feeling the pressure. Mazur’s concern over “undue deference” has been heightened by the widespread assumption that Mattis will unquestionably win a Congressional waiver from a law that requires that no commissioned officer in the armed services can serve as secretary of defense without spending seven years out of uniform. The law has only been applied in one case: when the Senate was asked to confirm George C. Marshall as defense secretary back in 1950. One of the reasons Congress appears willing to grant the waiver is that the vote is increasingly being cast not as a question of politics, but one of patriotism, with a vote for the waiver as reflecting support for America’s men and women in uniform — while a vote against it would be unpatriotic.
Another of Mazur’s concerns is what she calls the “militarization of civilian control.” Or, as Mazur, a former Air Force officer, puts it, “We already have a full complement of generals and admirals on active duty. We don’t need another general to supervise all the other generals. Selecting a secretary of defense from the military bubble cuts out valuable perspectives on policy that are broader than the military’s own interests.”
Indeed, it’s an open question whether a lifelong Marine, like Mattis, has the political skills that come with the job of running the Pentagon. It’s not simply that, as defense secretary, he will be in the chain of command, with enormous influence over questions of war and peace, but that he will now be running the largest and most complex bureaucracy in the world: mediating inter-service disputes, wrestling with the Congress over the defense budget, canceling or promoting new weapons acquisitions, riding herd on often recalcitrant civilian policy makers, identifying and funding new technologies — or firing incompetent senior military officers.
“In many ways, the appointment of General Mattis as defense secretary provides us with an important opportunity,” Joyner says, “because it requires us to refocus on what we mean by civilian control of the military.” For Joyner, Mazur and others, it is not simply that one official is in uniform while another is not. Rather, the appointment of influential generals to the nation’s most important national security positions means that, in the new Trump administration, the military’s views will be reinforced instead of questioned.
Indeed, for public policy makers of Mr. Trump’s generation, the Mattis appointment turns the “Seven Days in May” scenario on its head. In an important moment in the movie, a U.S. senator questions whether Lancaster, in his role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is right to publicly disagree with the president. Lancaster, as General Scott, angrily responds: “We’re talking about the survival of the United States, is my uniform a disqualification in that area?” The answer is obvious: Policy makers are required to listen to those who serve — but, as Joyner and Mazur make clear, agreeing with their views should not be automatic.
Mark Perry writes regularly on military issues. His most recent book, The Most Dangerous Man In America, the Making of Douglas MacArthur, was released in 2014. His next book, The Pentagon’s Wars, will be released next year.