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Civilian control of the military was never the issue.
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Indeed, Americans’ frank, candid and yes, public talk about contentious public-policy matters is not a weakness, but a strength; and military personnel should vigorously partake in our public dialogue. The U.S. military, after all, is not the Nazi military. We do not (or at least should not) cultivate robotic automatons who mindlessly follow orders.
Sure, American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines follow orders — of course. But we also contest orders — when, for instance, orders are illegal or unlawful. And we pride ourselves on having an educated and professional military.
Yet, the minute U.S. military men and women dare to think for themselves, we hear overwrought cries of concern from the Washington political and media elite. Such thinking “threatens civilian control of the military,” they cry.
No, it doesn’t, not even close. The principle of civilian control of our military is so deeply engrained in the U.S. military culture that no one need worry it’ll be overturned or ignored. That simply ain’t gonna happen, not now or ever.
A more legitimate concern is that we’ll cultivate a military of mediocrities who are incapable of producing fresh and original thought. Yet, if our political and pundit class continue to punish military leaders like McChrystal, that’s exactly what will happen. Talented and creative military officers, after all, are unlikely to remain in an organization whose members are told, in effect, to shut up and be quiet.
Talented and creative military officers want, of course, to have the freedom to think, create and explore. They want the freedom to engage intellectually with the outside world and to partake in the public dialogue and debate. And if they can’t achieve that within the U.S. military, then they’ll leave the institution altogether. But is that really what we want? Would that be good for America?