Democracy is a disorderly form of government, often inefficient, always frustrating. Maintaining liberty and security, governing in such a manner as to achieve desirable political outcomes and at the same time military effectiveness, is among the most difficult dilemmas of human governance. – Professor Richard H. Kohn, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (An Essay on Civilian Control of the Military, 1997).
The purpose of the military is to defend society, not to define it. Civilian control allows a nation’s popular will to define its values and to set policy, even if contrary to the desires of its military leaders, whose institutional values are, by necessity, anti-democratic. The United States Constitution makes explicit this premise. The President is the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States” (Art. II, Sec. 2). Congress alone is granted the power to “declare War”, “[t]o raise and support Armies,” and “[t]o provide and maintain a Navy” (Art. I, Sec. 8). “The greatest danger to liberty is from large standing armies,” declared James Madison during the constitutional convention in 1787. The Founding Fathers countered the threat of an unfettered military by embedding in the Constitution the principle that military authority remains subservient to the two branches of government elected by the people.
American history is replete with examples of presidents displaying the upper hand in public spats with their generals. During the Civil War, President Lincoln fired Union General George McClellan after McClellan repeatedly refused Lincoln’s orders to more aggressively fight Confederate forces (it did not help matters that McClellan often referred to the president in letters as an “idiot” and a “gorilla”). In 1951, President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur after MacArthur publicly assailed Truman’s refusal to invade and attack China directly during the Korean War. Similar incidents of lesser fame include President Lyndon Johnson’s dismissal of General Curtis LeMay in 1965 after LeMay publicly criticized the White House for not carpet-bombing North Vietnamese cities. And just two years ago, President George W. Bush forced the resignation of General William J. Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command, after Esquire magazine profiled Fallon as the Administration’s sole voice opposing an attack on Iran (a matter that, even if true, was not for public consumption and potentially undermined Bush’s strategic planning).