Civilian control of the military is a precedent set forth by the United States constitution. The appropriation of funds by Congress as well as the Presidents title of commander in chief are examples of this. Because both Congress and the President are elected officials this civilian control has been an important aspect of our democracy. However, in recent years we have seen this separation deteriorate. The root of this can be seen through the politicization of the military, creating a divide between the people and the armed forces (Beliakova 2021).
During the onset of former President Trump’s presidency, Americans saw an increase in appointments of military personnel. This included James Mattis as secretary of defense, John Kelly as secretary of homeland security, and Michael Flynn as national security advisor. While some may argue that these positions regarding our national security should be held by someone experienced in the armed forces, that was not the issue with President Trump’s appointments. Many previous secretaries of defense have had previous military experience, but for Mattis to be appointed an exemption to the National Security Act had to be passed by congress. These appointments were dangerous in they showed “high-ranking members of the military profession deemed it appropriate, and even necessary, to use their political power to impose constraints on presidential policy decisions.” (Beliakova 2021). When high ranking military officials are put into policy positions in other countries, we have seen military coups and upheavals of democratic governments. While this did not happen during Trump’s presidency it sets a dangerous precedent for the future. The concept of erosion by deference is an important aspect when looking at appointments of military officials into policymaking roles (Beliakova 2021). This concept displays that these appointments are in fact a threat to civilian control of the government. By deferring policy making positions to military officials the checks created by our constitution become obsolete
Another aspect of politicization of the military has occurred through political parties claiming that they are the party of the military. This can be dangerous especially when there is information being spread that the opposition does not care about or dislikes the military. Misinformation on social media can be a major tool used to push these narratives. Recently President Biden was present while the procession of soldiers who died in Afghanistan passed, and a picture surfaced of him looking at his watch. This was used by right wing media to try and undermine Biden’s public image by implying he did not care about the soldiers that had been killed in action. This is just one example of how an out of context picture or misinformation can affect public opinion about military relations within the government. This politicization of the military is not new but during Trump’s presidency we saw it firsthand from the leader of the nation. Tom Bowman’s article for NPR dives into the repercussions of these actions by Trump and how they have affected the military. In Bowman’s paper he interviews Aaron O’Connell, a Marine Corps officer who served in Obama’s National Security Council. O’Connell agreed with the statement “(Trump) was constantly undermining civilian-military relations around the bounds of what is acceptable behavior” (Peter Feaver). O’Connell goes on to list the example of pardons for Edward Gallagher and Clint Lorance who were both convicted of war crimes by the military. These pardons proved nothing besides former President Trump’s conviction of supporting the military. These examples show the problems that can occur when the military is politicized and how it can make civilian and military relations uneasy.
When there are military officials being appointed to policy making positions and politicization of the military by our elected officials this important boundary created by civilian oversight is lost. As we progress throughout President Biden’s term it will be interesting to see if he is able to repair this fundamental relationship that deteriorated under Trump. It seems that he may not be off to a great start after the military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the repercussions that have followed. Biden’s appointment for secretary of defense also was granted a waiver to the law requiring a nominee to be out of active duty for seven years. This is the same exemption that James Mattis also received. Biden’s appointments for secretary of homeland security and national security advisor moved away from the military and towards career public servants. This is promising in continuing civilian oversight. As a country that prides itself on having the strongest military in the world, it only makes sense for our checks on that institution to be just as strong.