Commentary: The downside of high trust in the military

The gap between trust in the military and trust in civilian institutions of government helps explain our 20 years in Afghanistan.

(Jasper Rietman | The New York Times)

With the United States military withdrawn from Afghanistan, we are faced with many pressing questions, among them: How and why did we engage in war for so long with so little to show for it?

A common explanation blames the American public for inattention and indifference to the war’s lack of progress. At the heart of this alleged public apathy is an ever-widening gap between the military and the society it serves: When the public is almost totally insulated from the human and financial costs of war, it has no reason to care. Call this the “the military is at war, Americans are at the mall” theory. For those who hold this view, the solution is to make Americans pay the costs of war more directly, through a draft or explicit war taxes or both.

We’re not persuaded by this argument. First, the perception that most Americans are “at the mall” is not new. “Off the base, it was as if there was no war taking place,” one veteran said of Korea, America’s original “forgotten war” (despite the use of the draft and a large number of veterans in the population). “The war wasn’t popular, and no one wanted to hear anything about it.” Second, policymakers are unlikely to implement policies like a war tax or draft in a way that imposes substantial political costs, as American experience in Vietnam demonstrated. Finally, the logic of this argument — which shames the public while putting the military on a pedestal — may actually be making things worse.

We see a different civil-military relations problem — one that American experience in Afghanistan and the past 20 years of American foreign intervention have made painfully clear. The fundamental problem is a yawning gap between trust in the military and trust in civilian institutions of government.

For decades polls have shown that Americans trust the military more than most other institutions. One recent survey found that Americans were significantly more likely to say that the military has done a good job in Afghanistan over the past 20 years than to say the same of any relevant presidential administration.

This trust gap suggests at least a partial explanation for the longevity of the war in Afghanistan. As Phil Klay, a U.S. Marine veteran, argued in 2018, one reason the public doesn’t critically engage with military policy is that civilians have been convinced that they should defer to those with military experience and that criticizing the wars is akin to failing to support the troops.

It’s true that public opinion polling has suggested that the war in Afghanistan has not been popular for some time — but it does not show that the public has overwhelmingly turned against the war. Even if Americans were not enthusiastic about the war, they did not impose those preferences on elected officials or organize large-scale protests. This is consistent with the detrimental effects of the trust gap: Excessive deference to the military has made Americans less willing to weigh in on public debates where they believe they lack expertise or moral standing.

The post-Vietnam shift to the all-volunteer force layered new recruiting and retention incentives on top of an already large standing military. A result has been concerted efforts both to reassure Americans that such a force does not threaten civilian control by emphasizing the military’s professional, apolitical nature and to attract recruits and public support by emphasizing the special honor and status associated with military service.

At the same time, confidence in civilian institutions, and particularly in politicians, has plummeted. Civilian policymakers and politicians have exacerbated the trust gap by attempting to turn the military’s popularity to their own advantage, using the military and military advice as either a shield to defend their policy choices or a weapon to attack their opponents. Studies have found that public opinion on military and foreign policy is sensitive to perceptions of military recommendations and that civilian leaders are willing to defer to the military when it is politically useful. So military expertise has been favored over civilian expertise, and criticism of the military has been understood to be politically unacceptable.

Presidential decisions about Afghanistan were often framed in terms of their accordance with military advice. For example, debate over President Barack Obama’s troop “surge” in 2009 was shaped in part by the leak of a grim review of the situation in Afghanistan by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. And many observers believe that in 2017, “Trump’s generals” persuaded him to send more troops to Afghanistan.

There is some evidence that military leaders and veterans are less willing than civilians to initiate use of force but, once it is engaged, prefer higher levels of it. It is not surprising that military leaders would be reluctant to give up on a mission their organization had invested so much in. But the issue is not the content of the military advice itself — there were certainly plenty of voices in civilian policy circles supporting a continued effort in Afghanistan.

The bigger concern is that in the context of the trust gap, this framing suggests that the public should be concerned not with evaluating the policy itself but rather with whether the military gets its way. Military expertise has an important place in sound policymaking. But in a democracy, it cannot be substituted for value judgments made on behalf of society by their elected leaders.

In addition, service members and veterans have a perceived moral competence. There is a perception that their service and sacrifice mean they have earned the right to weigh in on conflicts in a way civilians have not. But this impulse risks downplaying the importance of other forms of public service and civic engagement.

These troubling “trust gap” trends may have far-reaching effects. When the military is seen as the most competent, trustworthy government institution, it becomes tempting to invite the military to undermine civilian control and democratic governance. This was evident in public speculation about the role the military might play in adjudicating or enforcing the 2020 presidential election and in recent reports that largely portray Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a check on an out-of-control president in the final days of the Trump administration.

So what can be done? We would benefit from efforts to demystify the military and re-emphasize the role of civilian policymakers. Making military bases less isolated from their surrounding communities and more accessible to civilians — as the congressionally mandated National Commission on Military, National and Public Service recommends — could be part of a strong foundation for such a change. The Defense Department could also do more to publicize the role of civilians in the conduct of the nation’s wars and emphasize the degree to which the day-to-day experience of many military jobs is relatable to civilians.

In the long term, as difficult a challenge as it may be, we should make every effort to shore up confidence in civilian democratic institutions and to elevate other forms of public service, which can be done without denigrating military service.

Any real solution will require political will on the part of America’s civilian leaders, who must publicly own the value decisions that can legitimately rest only on their shoulders.

Jessica D. Blankshain is an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Max Z. Margulies is the director of research and an assistant professor at the Modern War Institute at West Point. (The views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Department of Defense, U.S. Naval War College, West Point or any other agency of the U.S. government.) This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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