Civil Military Relations and the Making of Strategy

When the First World War broke out the governments of the belligerent states confronted a new challenge. Between 1871 and 1914 they had created general staffs for their armed forces, but they had yet to work out how to integrate these engines of national power into government as a whole. One of the principal responsibilities for staffs was strategic planning for major war, but their vision of strategy was naturally limited, specifically military.

The scale of war in 1914-18 required strategy to extend into all facets of national mobilisation – economic and social, as well as political and military. Their integration was brokered by way of civil-military friction, generated along fault lines between politicians and soldiers. The results had repercussions which shaped subsequent perceptions of civil-military relations with two effects that have blighted scholarly approaches to the topic.

First, the focus on civil-military friction made the subordination of the armed forces to civilian control the principal purpose of the emerging bureaucratic structures. Samuel Huntington’s The Soldier and the State (1957) dominates the debate. It obscures both the improbability of an actual military coup and the pressing need to generate integrated structures for strategy making. The latter only creeps up the agenda when persistent or major war makes it urgent, but even then can be constrained by the norms of the former consideration.

Second, Huntington’s study prioritises ‘objective’ military control over ‘subjective’. ‘Objective’ military control addresses the relationship between governments and armed forces: it is about elites. ‘Subjective’ military control is concerned with the relationship between the armed forces and their parent societies. Clausewitz’s Trinitarian vision has been replaced by a binary one, albeit against the background of rapid democratisation. Even today constitutions struggle to identify how to reconcile the formation of national strategy with popular politics. The social strains are more evident in ‘lesser’ wars than major wars, precisely because ‘the people’ and possibly their governments are less engaged.