The sensitive question of civilian control of the armed forces is one which Western democracies like the United States and France must continue to confront so long as they wish to be considered functioning democracies.
The principle of civilian control has been challenged in very public ways over the past few months.
This spring the French political establishment was rocked by two open letters from current and former members of the French military, both warning that France was on the brink of civil war.
It is worth considering this same matter in contexts far afield from France—not least ours in America. What is the relationship among the Western democracies between their armed forces and the institutions that are supposed to impose political authority over them?
More than 1,000 mostly retired members of the French military, including 20 retired generals, signed the first letter, published in the rightist magazine Valeurs Actuelles in the last week of April. “The hour is late, France is in peril, threatened by several mortal dangers,” it warned. These included “Islamism” and “hateful and fanatical partisans [who] seek to foment a racial war.”
The French establishment, to whom the letter was directed, was outraged—appearing as it did on the 60th anniversary of the failed 1961 coup by French generals who opposed de Gaulle’s efforts to negotiate France’s withdrawal from Algeria, a colony formally integrated as a département of metropolitan France more than a century earlier. French Prime Minister Jean Castex called the generals’ letter “an initiative against all of our republican principles, of honor and the duty of the army.”
In short order a second letter appeared in defense of the authors of the first, also in Valeurs Actuelles. In it, a self-described group of active-duty servicemen and women warned, “If a civil war breaks out, the military will maintain order on its own soil… civil war is brewing in France and you know it perfectly well.” Within days of its release, the second letter garnered more than 250,000 online signatures from the public.
The French political establishment is not wrong in seeing some parallels to the events of April 1961. According to a contemporary account by the journalist and editor Jean–Marie Domenach, beginning in the late 1950s, as it became clear that France’s position in Algeria was unsustainable, the French Army:
“….took on the shape of an autonomous power, not in order to support a political party or the aspirations of a dictator, but on the contrary in order that it could remain faithful to its mission to carry out to the very end the orders which it had received, to save the nation from itself, to protect the West even if it did not know its peril.”
The same might be said not just of today’s dissident French generals but also of our own increasingly renegade military establishment, which now sees its role as protecting its prerogative to wage a never-ending global war on terror, never mind what the elected civilian leadership of the country has to say about it.
While little noted in the corporate press, what we have seen in recent years is a serious erosion in civil-military relations that extends back at least as far as 2009.
President Obama’s attempt in the early days of his administration to wind down the war in Afghanistan was met with swift resistance from the military and the national security establishments, of which he was ostensibly in charge. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates conspired with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Mike Mullen, and the head of Central Command at the time, Gen. David Petraeus, to railroad Obama, the civilian commander-in-chief, into sending upwards of 30,000 more troops into the un-winnable war in Afghanistan.
As the debate over Afghan troop levels raged inside the administration, another incident of military insubordination came to light by way of the late reporter Michael Hastings, who revealed in a noted Rolling Stone piece that General Stanley McChrystal and his staff in Kabul were openly, indeed flamboyantly contemptuous of the civilian leadership in Washington.
At the time, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey noted that McChrystal joins “a long list of reckless, renegade generals who haven’t seemed to understand that their role is to implement policy, not design it.”
Over the course of the past three administrations, civilian control of the American military has eroded in large part due to the appointment of former and current generals and admirals to what have historically been (with the forgivable exception of George Marshall) civilian cabinet positions. These recent and troubling appointments include Adm. Michael Hayden as CIA director, Adm. James Clapper as director of national intelligence, Gen. Petraeus as CIA director, Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, also as secretary of defense.
Under Trump, the military (with the encouragement of hawkish civilian advisers such as former national security adviser John Bolton) took a page from the Gates/Mullen/Petraeus playbook and thwarted Trump’s orders to withdraw American troops from Syria. Some former Trump officials, such as James Jeffrey, the egregious special envoy to Syria during Trump’s final years in office, have spoken openly of their role in undermining the president’s order to withdraw.
And in May it came to light that, in response to Trump’s direct presidential order for a complete withdrawal of American troops from Somalia and Afghanistan, issued in December 2020, the chairman of the joint chiefs, Mark Milley, along with national security advisor Robert C. O’Brien and acting defense chief Christopher Miller, again undermined the president. Indeed, in a disturbing echo of the aforementioned piece by Jean–Marie Domenach describing the mindset of the treasonous French generals in 1961, Axios reports that U.S. generals under Trump:
“…fundamentally disagreed with the president’s worldview. They were personally invested in Afghanistan. And several would come to see it as their job to save America and the world from their commander in chief.”
These matters noted, there is a key difference between the situation in France today and the situation here in the U.S.
Public opinion appears to back the position of the dissident generals and military personnel in France. Indeed, a number of French officials have grudgingly acknowledged the threat to the polity posed by an internal Islamist threat.
The situation in the US with regard to our own renegade generals is reversed: Public opinion in the U.S. most certainly does not back the subversion of policies intended, primarily but not only, to end the forever wars.
To put it plainly: Even though insubordinate, the retired French generals and active duty military personnel are seeking to save the country they serve from what they see, and not without reason, as a very real internal security threat. The situation here is rather different. Our renegade generals—in connivance with hawkish political appointees, have been working against both public opinion and the orders of the past two presidents to wind down a series of fated-to-fail interventions that are inimical to U.S. national security, even as they are waged in its name.
*James W. Carden is a former adviser to the US state department and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative and The Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft.