The U.S. will finally get a new chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff today, with Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown formally succeeding Army Gen. Mark Milley as the nation’s top military official. Normally a routine transition, Brown’s Senate confirmation had been held up for months by one lone senator: Sen. Tommy Tuberville has been refusing to approve a variety of Defense Department nominations and military promotions to protest a Pentagon policy ensuring that service members’ access to reproductive health care, including abortions, is not hampered by state restrictions imposed after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade.
Though Tuberville’s obstructionism has to do with the contentious U.S. debate over abortion rights, the episode highlights a broader point: that a nation’s military is not immune to the political machinations of the society that surrounds it. While this can prove detrimental to a nation’s military readiness, this dynamic is a feature, not a bug, of modern governments. While the military command is entrusted with leading nations’ armed forces, the ultimate use of those armed forces—particularly the decision of whether or not to go to war—is too important to be left to the generals. Control of the military and the fighting of wars are political decisions, and so they must ultimately be in the hands of the political leadership that is entrusted with the wellbeing of society. This is why civil-military relations are a core component of how a military relates to the government and nation that it is entrusted with protecting.
Civil-military relations are critical to governments of all regime types. In democracies, the armed forces ultimately answer to civilian elected leaders, due to concerns about military dominance of society and politics. Indeed, the U.S. takes this a step further, prohibiting not only active-duty generals but also—with rare exceptions—those who have been retired for less than 10 years from serving as secretary of defense. But even in many autocratic countries, there is a separation between the political leadership and the military officials who handle day-to-day military affairs and war planning. This separation of civilian and military leadership is also driven in part by the need for specialization, as political leaders have more to think about than just military affairs.