Time to Rethink the Soldier's Role in Civilian Life

BEREA, KENTUCKY. — What next for Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf? Now that he has marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House before 200,000 cheering citizens and stormed New York with 24,000 troops, been dubbed a knight ("Sir H. Norman"?) by Queen Elizabeth and even appeared with Madonna on the cover of Spy magazine as a "Really, Really Popular Kid," what new worlds can await him?

Actually, admirers began offering suggestions for the general's future while he was still in Saudi Arabia, even before he delivered his now-classic televised account of his winning war strategy. Watching one of his earlier briefings, a teen-aged viewer made a comment that caught my attention and foreshadowed many opinions to come. "You know," she said, "I could vote for a man like that."


General Schwarzkopf has not been the only object of such sentiments. We have heard much speculation about the vice-presidential possibilities of another Desert Storm commander and impressive TV performer, Gen. Colin Powell -- speculations that with some people took on an urgent note a few weeks back when President Bush's heartbeat suddenly flared into fibrillation. General Powell on the ticket in '92? It sounded pretty good.

We can thank these generals, whether or not either of them ever does run for office, because the stir they've made gives us a fresh opportunity to take a look at an old paradox in our public life. We declare our belief in the separation of the civil from the military, but as soon as a commander wins success -- whether on horseback, at a command desk or in front of the TV cameras -- we are likely to start turning him into a politician. Not every officer, of course -- our man (as it has thus far always been) must have some trait or quality that inspires public admiration and trust. U. S. Grant conveyed a sense of power and simplicity, Douglas MacArthur won the needed admiration but failed to inspire much affection, Dwight Eisenhower offered an unbeatable combination -- remarkable likability together with the glamour and the glory that came from leading the great World War II Allied coalition to victory in Europe.


Even Gen. John J. Pershing, the American field commander in World War I, was courted by political operatives and at one point began to envision himself as a 1920 presidential candidate. But the general's aide, an extraordinarily self-confident officer named George C. Marshall, sternly disapproved, once going so far as to turn away a deputation that came calling on Pershing. A soldier was a soldier and a politician was a politician, Marshall believed. As he commented years later, he did not want his much-admired chief to "cut down his prestige by being involved in that sort of thing."

Marshall could hardly have foreseen that, in spite of his genuinely strong convictions, his own actions in a later and greater war would lead to a weakening of the barrier between soldier and politician. This came about because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's pronounced preference, in matters of high diplomatic policy, for military over civilian advisers, which led naturally to his turning increasingly to Marshall, his Army chief of staff. Though Marshall did not seek such responsibilities, his sense of duty did not allow him to evade them, and after the war President Truman completed the general's evolution from professional soldier to political official by appointing him special envoy to China and then secretary of state.

What was wrong with that? After all, did not Marshall, at State, preside over the creation of the justly named Marshall Plan, probably the most successful U. S. diplomatic and economic initiative in history? What was wrong, for one thing, was simply that the world does not hold very many George Marshalls, persons who accept the call of duty but refuse to seek civilian rewards for their military successes. (Marshall had no private wealth, but in rejecting all offers for his memoirs he turned down sums, in 1950s dollars, that might have tempted Cincinnatus himself.)

But the underlying problem here is that the anticipation of wielding power in the civilian world can affect an officer's professional conduct. By the nature of his job, the military officer controls the nation's armed force, which must hold itself constantly ready -- as in the Persian Gulf crisis -- to serve the civilian authority, whatever policies that authority may follow. Under the Defense Department reorganization of 1986, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs not only received powers of decision over all the armed services, but acquired a seat on the National Security Council.

In this capacity, he has every right to advocate particular policies, but when decisions are made he must follow them. Would we ever want this position to be held by a person who saw himself as a future civilian office holder -- a president, perhaps? Can a president afford to worry about the political reliability of the chairman or any other high officer?

This is not merely a theoretical problem. In the years since the moves first of Marshall, then of Eisenhower, into the civilian world, we have seen the emergence of a new type of American officer -- the political general.

Perhaps the most notable example has been Alexander Haig, who shuttled between the military and the civilian worlds, holding a purely political post as head of Richard Nixon's White House staff, then returning to the military side as U. S. and Allied commander in Europe, finally taking office as secretary of state and seeking the Republican presidential nomination. The line of separation became so hard to discern that it was difficult to say whether General Haig was a political general or a military politician. Even General Powell, when he served as Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, in his identification with the administration sounded more like a politician than a soldier.

We like to believe that, even if the civilian-military line becomes a little blurred from time to time, the civilian power will always reign supreme in the United States. But we have no guarantee here. As one writer commented some years ago, "Civilian control of the military is not a natural state for a polity and may even be unnatural, considering the experience of others."


A political scientist at Rutgers University suggested that we might not have a genuinely competitive presidential election in 1992 unless the Persian Gulf war produced "a hero with political aspirations and Democratic leanings." The war went on to do its part, producing not merely one but two heroes -- but Democratic leanings? A nice joke. Anyway, the notion shows very neatly how we tend to think.

If civilian control is not a natural state, however, can we keep on threatening it and yet taking it for granted?

Thomas Parrish is the author of the 1989 book, "Roosevelt and Marshall," published by William Morrow and Co. His "The American Codebreakers" (Scarborough Books) is out in paperback.