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Congress and Civil-Military Relations

Congress and Civil-Military Relations, edited by Colton C. Campbell and David P. Auerswald. Georgetown University Press, 2015, 223 pp.

Professors Colton Campbell and David Auerswald, noted scholars affiliated with the National Defense University, deliver a well-crafted compilation of individual essays that address critical aspects of the multi- and interdisciplinary civil-military relations discussion. The book's structure offers scholars and practitioners a logical progression of thought, beginning with the tools and processes available to Congress and ending with case analyses of national security and parochial issues that create tensions within and among the various actors. While useful for those who regularly study civil-military relations, the editors' approach and the authors' "bottom line up front" style offer the casual reader accessible insights into an intriguing aspect of governance. Despite the relative dearth of appreciation for Congress as a political entity over the past few decades, the editors contend that any understanding of US civil-military relations necessitates an appreciation for that body's role. Rather than engage in the often "less than productive" debates regarding partisan congressional activity, Campbell and Auerswald's authors provide straightforward, useful developments of historical, current, and future issues that influence the civil-military relations narrative and national security policy-making apparatus.

The book's first section offers a cogent assessment of four primary means through which Congress influences the "civil-military relations contract." Officer selection is addressed with a review of the various methods used to appoint US military officers during the nation's history. Given that the extant literature regarding civil-military relations continues to focus on the officer corps—although inclusion of enlisted matters is a maturing theme—Mitchel Sollenberger's treatment offers a solid contextual underpinning for the book and a history of the profession that all US officers should comprehend. Katherine Scott and Jordan Tama address the issue of congressional oversight in separate yet supportive chapters. Scott provides an instructive review of Pres. Harry Truman's efforts regarding oversight and control of what became the modern military establishment and which presaged current concern and effort regarding acquisition and contracting reform. Tama's subsequent analysis of congressional commissions addresses an often-derided tool—due to the seemingly acrimonious atmosphere of some standing defense committees—that Congress uses to perform its oversight function. The author accurately posits that the success of ad hoc commissions is debatable. They are useful, however, in their ability to help advance agendas, facilitate the oversight process, and/or help avoid the potential for "blame" due to faulty policy (sometimes a commission simply helps delay the need to make a decision). John Griswold addresses the third tool available to Congress regarding influence or control of the military: delegation of authority. Specifically, Griswold peers into Congress's "delegation" of mission sets and responsibility between the Reserve, National Guard, and active duty military.

The author deftly navigates issues regarding applicable US Codes and focuses on the key issue: "How best to balance the reserve component's efforts between domestic and foreign roles." Serious scholars of military roles and missions should recognize the continuity between Griswold's argument and Samuel Huntington's recognition of the National Guard's influence on national security policy in his 1957 work, The Soldier and the State. Moreover, both active and reserve officers should become intimately familiar with this issue, given the continued blending of efforts regarding domestic and foreign policy and how each plays into a growing interagency or "whole-of-nation" approach to national security. Rounding out the opening section is Alexis Lasselle Ross's analysis of the role Congress plays regarding the fourth tool of influence or control: incentives. In looking at the issue of entitlements, Ross debunks the oft-cited claim that Congress has largely abdicated its responsibility concerning control or influence on the military. Using the TRICARE for Life (TFL) benefit as a case study, Ross articulates an alternative "reality": Congress supported this benefit for military retirees in spite of executive branch arguments against doing so. Arguably, the decisions regarding TFL influence current debates about military pay and compensation and force tough personnel and platform decisions in an effort to balance labor and operational costs in a rather austere budget environment. In sum, the first section elicits a more appreciative mind-set regarding the role of Congress in civil-military relations and establishes a firm foundation for the second part, which analyzes Congress's general approach toward parochial and national security interests.

Chuck Cushman launches part two of the text with a clear-eyed analysis of congressional activity regarding defense issues. The upshot of his piece is that the post–Cold War environment of the legislative branch is less bipartisan than the previous era due to "harsh ideological differences." What was considered "regular order"—effective oversight and empowerment of defense-related committees—has devolved to staunch adherence to partisan beliefs. Cushman offers that Republicans focus attention primarily on budgetary policy, while Democrats tend to focus on domestic priorities. In essence, defense is viewed as but one of many policy areas for legislative consideration. Despite these changes and seemingly negative impacts, the author offers some solace in that defense-policy processes and outcomes seem to be faring better than those of homeland security and intelligence. Although there appears to be divisiveness on defense policy writ large, Charles A. Stevenson's subsequent chapter, "Congress and New Ways of War," indicates that Congress tends to partner with "military factions" that promote or advocate new ways or means of war, which counters a frequent claim that Congress "forces" unwanted or unnecessary platforms on the Department of Defense (DOD). As with any activity, it is folly to generalize the activities or choices of primary actors. While new platforms or capabilities may be funded, it is often following a lengthy hearing and committee debate calendar after which one should not expect a consensus. Stevenson offers that cyber capabilities and the use of drones (autonomous systems) provide two specific capabilities that continue to evoke confusion and disagreement as to their viability and use—views often driven more by parochial interests than any substantive discussion on capability.

As briefly described above, the first two of five chapters in section two have clear applicability and linkage to what might be considered "normal" civil-military relations discussion. With that in mind and at first blush, Louis Fisher's analysis of the issues surrounding the closing of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp and Frank Mora and Michelle Munroe's chapter on civil-military relations in Latin America and the Caribbean seemed out of context. Reflecting on the chapters' contents and the editors' stated purpose for the book, one realizes that indeed this collection is rather unique in its breadth. While the issue of Guantanamo seems primarily focused on a standoff between Congress and the president, the DOD is drawn into the political fray—offering a classic case for the need to maintain balance in civil-military relations. Mora and Munroe's analysis of Congress's approach toward Latin America and the Caribbean over a nearly seven-decade period effectively demonstrates that, as with foreign policy, civil-military relations issues do not "stop at the water's edge." Moreover, their discussion of the shift in focus from Cold War containment to post–Cold War emphasis on human rights issues illustrates the type of analysis needed regarding the use of military force in that capacity, especially given the increased emphasis on human rights in our national security strategy and United Nations's adoption of the Responsibility to Protect concept.

The editors offer a nice concluding chapter that provides a concise summary of key points made throughout the book. They accurately surmise that three key issues will influence future civil-military relations discourse regarding the role of Congress. Not surprisingly, the future fiscal picture for defense in the aftermath of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom is rather foreboding. Issues related to Congress's "social change agenda" are gaining attention, and general "civil-military belief" is altered by a decreasing number of legislators having military experience. In essence, Campbell and Auerswald continue a dialogue started more than 50 years ago by Samuel Huntington, Morris Janowitz, and Samuel Finer. In that regard, Congress and Civil-Military Relations provides the reader a necessary and up-to-date analysis of a critical civil-military relations component: the role, responsibility, and influence of Congress. Perhaps most important, it reminds us of the need to remain vigilant concerning "unhealthy" trends or unbalance in civil-military relations.

Ronald N. Dains, PhD
Associate Professor
Air Command and Staff College


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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