Four Guardians: A Principled Agent View of American Civil-Military Relations

  • Published

Four Guardians: A Principled Agent View of American Civil-Military Relations by Jeffrey W. Donnithorne. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018, 192 pp. 

The resignation of Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, USMC, general, retired, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, USMC, general, retired, give pressing interest to Jeffrey W. Donnithornes’ new book on civil-military relations: Four Guardians: A Principled Agent View of American Civil Military Relations. Donnithorne, applying social science methods, provides a model for readers to evaluate and anticipate future reactions by the USA, USN, USMC, and the USAF to policy changes.  His book refines Dr. Samuel P. Huntington and Dr. Peter D. Feaver’s writings providing more refined conceptions of service behavior. A comparable work of recent production is Austin Long’s The Soul of Armies: Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture in the US and UK, which examines the effect of service culture on individual behavior. As Air University’s chief academic officer and a former USAF pilot with a career of joint experience, Mr. Donnithorne is well-placed to comment on the behavior of America’s four services. The book is a great read for field-grade officers preparing for joint staff or any assignment that requires making predictions on other services’ behavior in policy debate. Donnithorne argues that thinking about the services’ decision making through the lenses of bureaucratic self-interest and rivalry are inadequate models of behavior. The services’ decision making, he posits, are better understood as the products of ”principal agents” behavior shaped by their unique service culture. Additionally, he states that the phase of the process—policy development or execution, and the clarity of the policy at hand are essential to guiding a service’s decision. To illustrate this process, Donnithorne provides a quad chart which matrices the clarity of policy against the phase against the third axis of service culture. The succeeding six chapters describes the four service cultures, two case studies, and two examples of future application.


The service analysis and selected examples make a great case for Donnithorne’s thesis. Each analysis is useful for service members seeking to understand other services. He distills primary and secondary sources into easy-to-read service summaries that nevertheless capture their essence. For example, the author uses Russell F. Weigley’s The American Way of War and the History of the United States Army to supplement his personal experience with the US Army. Donnithorne’s case studies—the development of US Central Command (USCENTCOM) from the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force and the signing of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986—are the most important developments for the DOD in the twenty-first century. To support his case studies, he uses the memoirs and official correspondence of the personnel involved. The memoirs and correspondence lend great credence to his research and conclusions.


For social scientists, the measure of one’s theory is its ability to supersede other available models on the market of decision making. Mr. Donnithorne’s book is very successful in this respect as readers with limited exposure to social-science models can quickly and easily learn and employ his quad chart to structure their thinking. A reader lacking experience with the branches of the defense department will also come to understand the services in an academically useful way. Moreover, a reader will quickly get a sense of the struggles in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Although the book is unlikely to be read as popular entertainment, Donnithorne supports his book with enough details and spicy exchanges to keep the reader’s interest.


The author’s argument is quite convincing but not without its flaws. Fortunately, the book’s background data on the services overcomes its shortcomings. On two occasions, I think Donnithorne failed to adequately examine or explain phenomena that would impact his thesis. Donnithorne does not bring attention to the USA’s domination of the United States European Command or the USN’s domination of the previous United States Pacific Command during the standup of USCENTCOM. Combatant commanders’ proposals were the service’s attempt to seize the power, prestige, and funding and he does not address this maneuver. In the second occasion, it seems Donnithorne gives the Army too much credit for its neutral status leading up to the Goldwater-Nichols Act. In his description, the USN appears to be a greedy manipulator while the USA appears as the humble American servant. The USA looks neutral because the policy gave the USA power over its rival, the USN. For these two examples, less culturally-attuned models would reach the same predictions of behavior, but those models would require an in-depth knowledge on the readers’ part. His book’s ability to provide context and a model, that does not require preexisting knowledge, overcomes these flaws. 


I would recommend this book for mandatory reading for intermediate developmental education and for officers preparing for an assignment on the joint staff. Despite six years of joint experience, including five years on USA posts, I found new insights into understanding the other services. Officers never have enough time to read every book and crave quickly accessible wisdom. The Four Guardians is especially useful in this area because it can be read as a whole or by chapter and the author provides notes which accelerate the comprehension of his work. We are destined to fight together and Donnithorne’s book prepares the reader for that destiny.

Capt F. Jon Nesselhuf, USAF

"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."