Military and Politics Research Paper

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Virtually all nations have some form of military force for protection against external foes, for international prestige, and often to maintain internal order. The relationship between a nation’s political life and its military is a fundamental and enduring problem which may be understood as a matter of managing the boundary between them. Civil authorities desire to control the military; but, militaries are more effective when they are professionalized, which requires substantial autonomy and minimal civilian penetration into their internal operations (Wilensky 1964).

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1. Civilian Control of the Military

The scale of the problem of relations between military and politics differs between modern democracies and less well developed and differentiated societies. In stable democratic regimes, widely accepted political norms and formal institutional mechanisms serve to maintain the boundary. Historically, standing militaries have been viewed as contributing to tyranny because of the expense of their maintenance. In modern times they gain political influence through symbiotic relationships with the private enterprises that produce their weapons systems—the ‘military–industrial complex’ that former United States President Eisenhower warned against in


Within democracies, institutions of civilian control include constitutional, legal, and administrative mechanisms such as military budgets and establishments, civilian confirmation of officer commissions, appointment of top military officials by civilian authorities, and prohibitions on military employment for domestic problems. Even powerful and popular military officers who exceed existing boundaries may be removed from their positions by their civilian superiors, as when, in April 1951, US President Harry Truman summarily relieved General Douglas MacArthur.

Professional, full-time military, consists of members who devote all of their time to their duties, minimizing conflicts of interest. In some regimes, civilian authorities worry about militaries with a capacity to compete with their authority. In both communist and fascist regimes, specialized political officers have been employed within military units with lines of authority parallel to military commanders as a means of ensuring the latter’s compliance with regime dictates.

However, such institutions are not effective absent an underlying foundation of well-developed and widely accepted norms in the broader political culture, which may take centuries to develop (Landau 1971). Political norms include general acceptance of military subordination to civilian authorities and specific prohibitions on serving officers engaging in political activities such as legislative lobbying or standing for elected or appointed office. These norms constitute essentially a social contract about the roles and functions of civil and military authorities, respectively. The exact character of this contract tends to berenegotiated over time.

In democratic regimes, such as Britain, a pattern of norms developed over centuries in which both civilian and military bureaucracies were subordinated to the control of Parliament. In the United States, representative political institutions were constitutionally established before any other, with the result that control of the military by civilian authority has never been at issue, nor has the legitimacy of representative institutions relative to the military. In developing nations, representative political institutions may still have to compete with the military for legitimacy (Stepan 1971).

Development of separate and effective institutions for domestic law enforcement and state militias, combined with firmly established political norms allowing employment of militias internally only in extreme circumstances of natural disaster or civil unrest, have reduced pressures to use military forces internally.

2. Military Participation in Politics

In developing nations, the military, because it tends to be socially conservative, is typically the best organized of institutions, and controls lethal force, has been both motivated and able to act as an independent political factor. It has superseded civil authority by coup d’etat, influenced public policy by threat of intervention, been used as an instrument of terror. It has made successful claims for special privileges, such as special stores and facilities, achieved large budget allocations, or achieved direct military control of economic enterprises as in former communist regimes.

When a nation’s military is dominated by particular ethnic or racial groups, or by geographic regions, the probability increases that it will be used in internal political conflicts, or for repression of certain ethnic groups, as events during 1999 in Indonesia concerning East Timor have shown. Only occasionally has the military acted to facilitate the establishment or restoration of democracy in such nations.

Following World War II, because the perceived role of the German and Japanese militaries in causing the war, and of their role in supporting authoritarian regimes, the Allies deemed it of utmost importance to demilitarize both nations, including constitutional proscriptions against the use of offensive military force. Efforts by western democratic states to professionalize the militaries of developing nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have been only partially successful given the military’s role in internal political control (O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986). It remains to be seen whether analogous western efforts to assist former Soviet-bloc militaries to adjust to existence in democratic states will prove more fruitful (Linz 1996).

3. Autonomy for the Military

The military also benefits from well-defined boundaries between it and civilian politics. When militaries are relatively insulated from civilian intrusion into promotion and assignment to duty they have proven more effective (Chisholm 2000). To the extent that militaries are perceived by their civil societies to be professional organizations whose members are engaged in service to their nations and are not principally mechanisms for patronage, nepotism, and informal welfare, militaries are accorded a relatively higher status (Janowitz 1960).

The use of force is usually considered at three levels of analysis: strategic, operational, and tactical. Civilian leadership typically takes responsibility for the strategic level of decision, advised by the military. The mere presence of military capability may indirectly influence decisions by civilian leaders about strategy. In 1999, for example, NATO found it politically feasible to intervene militarily in Kosovo because the sophistication of its air forces promised military effectiveness with low risk of casualties. Disputes between civilian leaders and military officers most often occur at the operational level of decision. The military is usually primarily responsible for the tactical level. In recent years, with dramatic improvements in communications capacities, civilian leaders have become increasingly involved in operational level decisions, and even in tactical decisions, such as the ill-fated US effort in 1976 to rescue the crew of the merchant ship Mayaguez from their Cambodian captors.

Where civilian leaders have heeded their professional military officers on questions concerning the use of force, ill-advised adventures and misuse of the military have been less likely. As the technology of warfare has become more complex, the need for expert military advice to civilian decision makers has become more acute. Civilian leaders have not always shown themselves capable of seeking advice, or listening to it, or understanding it. Ironically, senior military officials are frequently less prone to use force than their civilian counterparts. Changes in warfare have also effectively doomed the hastily thrown together citizen army as an effective means of national defense and created pressure for standing militaries.

4. Interpenetration of Military and Politics

Established boundaries do not mean impermeable barriers, however. Historically, there has been concern that a military set completely apart from civil society might prove dangerous to the latter. In the late nineteenth century the United States Navy relied predominately on citizens from other countries to staff its ships, and sailors were considered social pariahs to be excluded from polite society, while officers were drawn disproportionately from higher social strata. Both factors contributed to separation of that service from American civil life (Karsten 1972).

Universal conscription has lessened such separation, as have reserve officer training programs in civilian universities, both of which create a regular flow of individuals in and out of the military. This at once increases civilian influence on the professional military, enhances civilian understanding of the military, and provides mechanisms by which militaries can expand and contract in response to external threats. Ironically, it also increases the potential political cost of military actions, as the United States found with Vietnam, and Russia discovered in its Chechen endeavors during the 1990s, in which parents of conscripts pressured the government to end the action.

Development of smaller, all-volunteer, career militaries runs counter to this historical trend, and to the extent that in the generations following World War II fewer top civilian leaders in western nations have performed military service, trust between civilian and military leaders appears to have diminished (Ricks 1997). Moreover, it may mean reduced understanding by civilian leaders of the appropriate uses of and limitations on military force as an instrument of national policy, especially as nations expand the use of their militaries for limited armed conflicts and for operations other than war. Employment in the 1980s of the United States Marines in Lebanon at the behest of the State Department and against the opposition of senior military officials exemplifies the misuse of military forces at the operational level. Pressured to act by domestic constituencies during various international crises, civilian leaders appear to turn to the use of military force, even if they cannot achieve the ends sought.

As a relatively closed institution and with socially conservative inclinations, the military has often had difficulty adjusting to changes in civil society. However, changes of values in the broader society do penetrate the military, evidenced by improved treatment of enlisted personnel. Desegregation and the integration of women and gays into the military have proceeded at a faster pace than in civilian institutions, perhaps because of its hierarchical, command organization. Changes have been instituted by the command of civilian authorities, an approach impossible in most sectors of civil society.

Militaries also have acted as interest groups with their own political agendas. In stable democracies, they must compete with other institutions for legitimacy and for scarce resources. The influence of militaries waxes and wanes with the centrality of external threats to their societies, the perceived ability of the military to contend with threats, and in some cases, the degree of internal political unrest. A military’s failure, as the Argentine military found in its war with Britain over the Falkland Islands in 1982, may have profound consequences for its domestic standing, even where it has previously functioned to suppress political dissent.

Militaries have historically also served as a mechanism for social mobility for less advantaged groups, particularly during economic recession and following wars when veterans have received pensions, tax relief, health care, and education and real estate subsidies. For example, the US GI Bill following World War II provided college education for a broad sector of society that was previously excluded, contributing to the sustained growth of the postwar American economy. Military training in technical specialities such as aviation or electronics also provides skilled personnel at subsidy to private economies. The importance of this has increased as technical skills in demand by military and civilian sectors have converged. Convergence makes it more difficult for militaries to retain skilled personnel, especially during periods of strong economic growth.

Political dictators have been educated and trained in the military, but in democratic regimes this has not been a problem because of their inherent flexibility and because agents of change come from a range of institutions.


  1. Chisholm D 2000 Waiting for Dead Men’s Shoes: Origins and De elopment of the U.S. Na y’s Officer Personnel System. 1793–1944. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  2. Janowitz M 1960 The Professional Soldier. Free Press, Glencoe, IL
  3. Karsten P 1972 The Na al Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Na alism. Free Press, New York
  4. Landau M 1971 Linkage, coding, and intermediacy. Journal of Comparati e Administration 2: 401–29
  5. Linz J J 1996 Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  6. O’Donnell G, Schmitter P C (eds.) 1986 Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentati e Conclusions About Uncertain Democracies. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  7. Ricks T E 1997 Making the Corps. Scribner, New York
  8. Stepan A 1971 The Military in Politics: Changing Patterns in Brazil. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  9. Wilensky II 1964 The professionalization of everyone? American Journal of Sociology 87: 548–77
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