Chairman of the horde

Managing the Military: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Civil-Military Relations” by Sharon K. Weiner,

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Managing the massive U.S. military is no meager task in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), considering all of the hands on deck with authority to stir the Pentagon in one pot or another: The House, the Senate, the White House, the Defense secretary (of course), the chairman and vice chair of the JCS, the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, the combatant commanders, and the in-house Department of Defense (DOD) teams all have the right – even a duty – to have a say. 

Couple that multi-organizational input with the DOD’s own maze-like structure. One example (of many) in “Managing the Military: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Civil-Military Relations” notes that JCS’ Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS) produces a National Military Strategy (NMS) that ought not conflict with White House views. The NMS provides information for the secretary’s Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), which is supported by the service branches’ own Program Objective Memoranda (POM). Four abbreviations and an acronym in a couple of paragraphs.

Not surprisingly, “concerns remain about the timeliness or usefulness of the NMS or the Quadrennial Defense Review,” says author Sharon K. Weiner, an associate professor at American University and veteran of White House and JCS work. “It takes the Pentagon two to three years to build a budget for any one fiscal year,” she writes.

A reader wonders, in view of the morass of no-doubt crucially meticulous detail produced on the western banks of the Potomac, how anything gets done. Who is in charge? Through evolution, the chairman of the JCS.

That’s the primary message of Weiner’s empirical and scholarly analysis and history, which covers four presidencies, five secretaries, and five JCS chairmen.

The initial organization of the JCS began “with a weak chairman who was more of an office manager than a leader.” 

Not anymore.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 – “the most significant set of organizational changes to the Defense department” since 1947 – produced a chairmanship that has evolved into “the most politically powerful military officer in the U.S.”  

He (will there ever be a “she”?) is also the designated military adviser to the commander in chief and the DOD secretary and the National Security Council, and the chairman’s word has “significant sway” regarding strategy, operations, and spending decisions.

Why ought this matter to U.S. citizens? 

Because of the nation’s highest-level civil-military relationship, which is subtitle of the book. And because of a need “for understanding the origins of military advice and the soundness of the policy choices that are derived from it.” Weiner clearly makes the point early (Page 6):

The chairman “has become so influential that he requires deference and compromise from the president and the secretary of defense.” Conciliation from the commander in chief and from a Cabinet secretary constitutes influence.

But not to worry, sort of: The service chiefs are there to offer “an important check on the exercise of this power,” cooperation that occurs despite the nearly four-decade-old Goldwater-Nichols Act’s failure “to achieve its goal of increasing jointness.”

The chairman’s power is dependent on the character of the man himself – his choices, Weiner says, and, a reader surmises, his style. Also contributing are situational politics and the aforementioned service chiefs. “The services will tolerate some independence from the chairman,” she writes, if he (“he” again) consults with the chiefs and visibly supports the military’s position in White House discussions.

Colin Powell was the first chair after the 1986 legislation and provides a robust example of what Weiner shows the position can achieve, including Powell’s prescience in “anticipating that the chairman would become the primary military voice in defense policy.” Powell’s own memoir, she cites, mentions his adding “chairman” to his JCS stationery, a not-so subtle declaration in type.

In the book the Powell letterhead is spelled “stationary,” a common misspelling that stands out in a work with evidence of discerning research and deserving of respect. Also, two style issues distract: “JCS” sometimes refers to the office – singular, as in “JCS was” – and sometimes to the joint chiefs themselves – plural, as in “JCS were.”  Another thing that  would drive a newsroom copydesk crazy:  References to the service branches are in lower case: army, navy, marine corps, air force.

The Army’s Powell and the Navy’s Mike Mullen each sometimes contradicted their service chiefs’ ideas – but simultaneously were “savvy political infighters” who ably and often convinced civilian leaders to stick with the military’s advice.  (Visually astute readers will see that a truncated Mullen is the book’s unidentified cover boy.)  In contrast, Weiner says, Richard Myers and Martin Dempsey “were seen as advocates for the secretary of defense” – as was Peter Pace, derisively called “Pete the Parrot.” 

“Civilian control of the military has been more problematic” since 1986, she says. In retrospect, Powell and Mullen were “policy entrepreneurs” who used advocacy and bureaucracy to convince presidents to favor military chiefs’ preferences. Hugh Shelton showed the “power of inaction” in his refusing to help Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s agenda – while Myers and Pace tried to help Rumsfeld but failed.

What is the situation now? 

There’s a “tendency to discuss the military as if it is a unitary actor, merely the sum of its individual parts,” says Weiner. However, “Managing the Military” subliminally reminds a reader that service members, like their civilian counterparts, do not think alike.

The book, probably intended for academics and-or military professionals, is worth a wider, general readership if only because Weiner knows what she’s writing about. (If you are pressed for time, read at least the first and last chapters.)

Managing the military might be an elusive venture, to borrow her observation, but the professor’s precise about the provenance of a JCS chairman’s opportunities to note his predilections is not. 

“Too often,” Weiner concludes, “civilian control of the military in the U.S. is assumed to be a mandate to obey. In reality, it has always been an act of persuasion.” 

Huffman’s book reviews received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Marine Corps University Press, 2012)