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Civil-Military Relations in Perspective: Strategy, Structure, and Policy

Civil-Military Relations in Perspective: Strategy, Structure, and Policy, edited by Stephen J. Cimbala. Ashgate, 2012, 211 pp.

The edited volume Civil-Military Relations in Perspective includes works by several civil-military relations scholars, many of whom have experience working with the Department of Defense (DOD), including service academy and war college professors. With Penn State Brandywine's distinguished professor of political science Stephen Cimbala at the helm, this compilation covers a wide variety of subtopics in the civil-military relations field, comparative studies of Russia and Canada, as well as analysis of strategy and missions pressing new demands on the civil-military dynamic in the United States. By utilizing the expertise of scholars with military backgrounds, Cimbala has done a remarkable job of assembling an edited work on civil-military relations, the chapters of which address the field with an eye for civil-military relations from a military perspective.

While each of the chapters are valuable contributions to the field, the target audience of Strategic Studies Quarterly will likely be drawn to two in particular—both of which represent nonstandard approaches to civil-military relations. In chapter 1, Isaiah Wilson III, Edward Cox, Kent W. Park, and Rachel M. Sondheimer analyze the differences in military professionalism across generations and offer a unique counterpoint to traditional models. Meanwhile, in chapter 6, C. Dale Walton considers problems in civil-military relations and grand strategy following the 9/11 attacks and asserts that military leadership should not simply accept civilian ideas of war and strategy but should challenge those notions, especially where challenging civilian strategy will improve the chances of a successful operation.

According to Wilson and company, at any given point in time, the US armed forces are composed of three distinct generations, with the differences between each simultaneously helping and hindering the training and development of the forces. By recognizing and articulating the variance among generations and the society in which these service members grow to adulthood, these researchers' chapter encourages discussion as to how leadership can best harness the comparative advantages of younger generations while avoiding the transference that can impede getting the most from junior personnel. The researchers specifically note the high degree of autonomy in the millennial generation compared to the baby boomers now leading the DOD. Millennials, raised in a collaborative environment, will have different views of leadership than boomers who were raised in a more hierarchical fashion. Wilson concludes that the challenge of creating a single professional ethos is one each service will need to address to leverage the decades of experience from the boomer generation in a fashion that simultaneously harnesses the collaborative learning methods of millennials—the latter of whom have a different way of looking at problems and could well be put off by efforts to constrain unorthodox thinking or problem solving.

In stark (and welcome) contrast to prevalent civil-military relations constructs, Walton contends that military personnel have an obligation to confront civilians as to the veracity of their strategic thinking and objectives—albeit doing so privately to preserve civilian authority. Walton's contention is not that civilians have failed in their responsibilities to the military but rather that senior military officers have failed in their responsibilities to their respective services. By failing to challenge civilian superiors, military leadership has been willing to accept vague and ill-designed strategy, potentially at the cost of greater military casualties. According to Walton, the "terror-centric" approach to strategy has contributed to an overall failure to develop and employ a truly grand strategy for engaging the challenges of the current international system.

As a whole, Civil-Military Relations in Perspective is a thorough and often original contribution to the field, and the variety of the individual chapters ensures that the book will have something for most readers interested in politics, the military, and the nexus of the two. As a slight critique, a couple chapters begged the authors continue their research to the next logical conclusion. For instance, while Walton's "The War without a Strategy" advocates for a stronger voice from senior military leadership when counseling civilian strategy, he falls short of pointing out that failure to challenge civilian strategy could be considered an abdication of military duty, inasmuch as those generals and admirals are responsible for the safety of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines charged with carrying out civilian orders. Poor strategy leads inexorably to casualties in combat, most of which are borne by young men and women trusting their safety to the leadership of those same senior military officers charged with advising the politicians. Similarly, while Wilson and company describe the importance of top-down, bottom-up, and peer-to-peer learning in "Kids These Days," recommendations are missing regarding how bureaucracies predicated on the notion that time in service equates to superior expertise can actually learn from the younger generations that might have less experience with general staffs and grand strategy but have honed expertise in Iraq and Afghanistan and are not tied to concepts and lessons from conflicts of decades past.

Apart from these minor critiques, the chief shortcoming of Civil-Military Relations in Perspective is largely an issue of form over function. While the quality of the book is such that the compilation belongs on each Chief of Staff reading list, the price of the book puts ownership out of reach of those military officers and noncommissioned officers who could benefit most from the research. At $120, the lessons and recommendations of the book will likely only be consumed by institutional libraries, graduate students, and other researchers in the civil-military relations field. This is unfortunate because, unlike many such works on civil-military relations that seem to pay scant attention to the military role, Cimbala's compilation actually speaks directly to the military side of the equation.

Maj Kevin McCaskey, PhD, USAF Academy


"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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