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Securing the State: Reforming the National Security Decision-Making Process at the Civil-Military Nexus

Securing the State: Reforming the National Security Decision-Making Process at the Civil-Military Nexus by Christopher P. Gibson. Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008, 172 pp.

Col Christopher Gibson’s book is a review of modern civil-military relations but doesn’t contribute significant perspectives to the modern debate over military and civilian relations. Gibson provides an admirable overview of civil-military relations, especially of Samuel Huntington and Morris Janowitz, but then attempts to resolve the civil-military relations dilemma with an untenable utopian solution. He quickly assumes a “balanced approach” solution is required and coins his balanced model as the “Madisonian” approach, wherein military officers “partner” with civilian defense authorities in a near equal relationship to resolve military and defense issues. In actuality, Gibson’s model does nothing more than significantly raise the status and influence of uniformed leaders. In developing his model, Gibson not only succumbs to his own military bias, but also fails to fully consider the full spectrum of politics and downplays the situations where the “best military advice” was inherently flawed.

There will always be tension between civilian and military leaders, but successful leaders frequently overcome this tension through mutual cooperation and understanding. Gibson’s purpose in researching the project is to quantify that cooperation and mandate it into an enduring “balanced approach.” He draws not only upon his previous research but also from his extensive military service. Unfortunately, his military perspective excessively intrudes into his research and taints a legitimate search for a solution. Gibson relies too heavily on H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty and on the politically charged and critical works of Tom Ricks, Bob Woodward, and Rowan Scarborough. His bias toward strong civilian control manifests no other solution except for the obvious: expanding the influence and power of senior military leaders. His research would have been better served by less-biased analysis and by discerning the perspectives of Donald Rumsfeld, Gen Richard Myers, and Gen Tommie Franks, instead of completely discounting them. In fact, one might suspect that his purpose is to publish a critical exposé on the Rumsfeld/Myers relationship rather than to produce a more serious analysis toward a solution in civil-military relations. A more even-handed approach to the material would make this a valuable work and pertinent to today’s discussions.

However, Gibson does provide a useful review of subjective and objective models from Huntington, Janowitz, and more modern perspectives from Richard Kohn. This is very useful for the reader who needs to understand the myriad of issues involved. However, he somewhat falls into the “military trap” of proffering Gen George Marshall’s relationship with Henry Stimson as the best role model for civil-military relations—a model many military officers view as the most professional approach to civil-military relations and yet one that would be difficult to apply in today’s modern political-military environment. Although General Marshall may symbolize the model soldier, he obtained unprecedented personal status and influence in the Roosevelt wartime administration during his tenure as Army chief of staff. In reality, Marshall imperialistically ran the Defense and Army staffs, hand-picked Army and Air Force general officers, and delved into civilian and sometimes domestic policy when it suited him. The modern political-military environment is obviously much different than that of the 1940s, and it is doubtful Marshall’s status and influence would survive today wherein all significant decisions by senior defense leaders receive heavy scrutiny by both the media and Congress.

Furthermore, Gibson’s Madisonian model is merely a guise for substantially increasing the influence of military officers within the Department of Defense. He essentially uses the overbearing personalities of Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara as the primary justification to balance or check senior civilian perspectives with senior uniformed officers. He proposes establishing a modern equivalent of a commanding general of all the US military with nearly equal status to the secretary of defense. To break the “tyranny” of the office of the secretary of defense, he proposes other senior military officers carry the equivalent influence of senior civilian officials and have unhindered access to the elected officials. Gibson envisions this concept as a “partnership” where senior civilian leaders and senior military personnel routinely negotiate for amicable solutions on all defense matters. In fact, he actually suggests dual chains for strategy and policy development, wherein elected leaders (including Congress) have “fully developed” options from competing interests. The drawbacks are obvious: partnerships are seldom equal, political considerations typically take precedence over military equities, and competing interests inevitably develop. While Gibson acknowledges that the civilian leader is the ultimate authority of strategic decisions, he fails to analyze situations relevant to the modern environment where political and domestic issues often intrude into military issues, even at the operational level of war.

Gibson’s Madisionian model is flawed on a more basic level; he fails to acknowledge that the “best military advice” can routinely be flawed and leaves the impression that only military officers are capable of understanding the intricacies of military affairs. He makes no mention of horrendous military advice from past influential military leaders such as Curtis LeMay and his suggestion to “nuke” Cuba, Maxwell Taylor’s Pentomic reorganization of the 1950s, the grand potentate MacArthur with his China escapades, or even his service’s leading commanders’ original opposition to the current “surge” in Iraq. Gibson therefore misses a chance to explore a significant aspect of the real dilemma in civil military affairs: civilian leaders considering the “best military advice,” concluding that it is flawed, and then having to find other solutions in a charged and dynamic political environment. While academia often study this aspect, military officers frequently avoid it, and yet understanding this dimension of civil-military relations has great potential for the military officer to research.

In sum, Gibson provides a useable review of civil-military theory to establish the modern dilemma, but allows his professional military bias to inhibit the development of an acceptable solution or alternative. His Madisonian concept is nothing more than a cover for raising the status of senior uniformed officers to unsustainable levels of influence in today’s modern political environment. He does the reader a true disservice by failing to fully disclose the negative aspects of his concept, the extent of his professional bias, and the pitfalls of following poor military advice. As the nation is concluding its seventh year of conflict in Iraq, it is important and relevant that military officers examine new concepts in civil-military relations. However, it remains just as important to examine them in an unbiased and fashion.

Col Stuart K. Archer, USAF

Department of State

The views expressed in the book review 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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