One of the most important principles underlying American democracy is civilian control of the military. This principle has been undercut, however, by our society's growing tendency to defer uncritically to the judgment of military leaders and, worse, to regard any questioning of that judgment as unwise or even unpatriotic. This point is supported by U.S. Naval Academy professor Aaron B. O'Connell's op-ed that I noted last week. It is further bolstered by an op-ed in today's New York Times by military writer Thomas E. Ricks.
Ricks notes that during "an unnecessary war in Iraq and an unnecessarily long one in Afghanistan," civilian leaders have been criticized but "our uniformed leaders have escaped almost any scrutiny from the public"--even though they "bear much of the blame for the mistakes in the wars." Congress fails to exercise oversight, for fear of being seen as "criticizing our troops," and the military itself seems uninterested in self-examination.
The failure of civilian leaders to subject the American military to serious scrutiny has not only allowed poor military decisions in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to go unpunished (a point that Ricks makes), it has also resulted in a bloated defense budget at a time when the nation can ill afford it. The fault, of course, lies not just with civilian leaders but with citizens--voters--who seem to believe the military can do no wrong. Perhaps General David Petraeus, as he leaves the CIA, can remind us that even the best and brightest of our military officers can, like the rest of us, suffer lapses of judgment.