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The term civil-military relations denotes the field of social science inquiry that analyzes the relationship between the armed forces and society and/or the state. Since the state is often defined, following Max Weber, as the organ of society that holds the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, the relationship between formally constituted bodies of force and the state or society is a major indicator of the nature of that state. Indeed, in our own time the presence of independent military organizations or paramilitaries organized along political, sectarian, or ethnic lines and not answering to the command of a legitimate state testifies to the presence of the phenomenon of state failure in such countries as Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, and several sub-Saharan African states. Where all political power literally grows out of the barrel of a gun, the state and a legitimate political order are absent and anarchy, if not a war of all against all, reigns.
Alternatively, although the method by which the armed forces are subordinated to the executive and accountable to the legislative body varies in democratic states, the depoliticization of armed forces (including the police), their inability to take part in partisan politics, and their enforced accountability to legitimately elected organizations and heads of state testify to the democratic tendencies of the state. In these states, the use of force is under legal control, and ideally force can be employed only with legislative approval. In such a state the military similarly regulates itself by means of the internal rule of law (military law codes), which ensures that officers and soldiers are accountable for their acts. In the twentieth century and beyond, efforts have been made, beginning with the Nuremberg and other anti-Nazi trials, to extend that accountability to the international sphere, making commanding officers and even soldiers responsible to properly organized international tribunals for their acts.
Likewise in antidemocratic—that is, authoritarian— states, a critical signifier of the nature of the state lies in the sphere of civil-military relations. If the armed forces and police are divided into multiple overlapping forces with overlapping jurisdictions and the authority to monitor each other, this indicates that the legislature is weak and has been bypassed in its role of enforcing accountability. It entails as well the supremacy of the executive, which is above accountability to the legislature and its ability to exercise direct control over the armed forces through such multiple overlapping militaries. In such a state the military is politicized, a player in partisan politics, or else the means by which ambitious politicians seize power. Alternatively, a general or generals may decide to use the forces under their command, whether regular army, secret police, or some other force, to seize power for themselves. Here again the forms of such relationships among the executive, legislative, and military may vary widely among states. Nevertheless, these symptoms of authoritarianism and lack of legal accountability lead to the presumption of the existence of an authoritarian if not totalitarian state. And in totalitarian states, if not authoritarian ones, the primary function of the state is to prepare for war. Such states are frequently, if not always, organized for military action against either internal or external adversaries. In this case, not only are democratic controls over the armed forces absent but also war and a military ethos for the state administration are glorified. Even if a state is not militaristic in the sense of glorifying war, such regimes often promulgate a cult of so-called military virtues and discipline that should characterize the state administration.
This leads to the question of the relationship of the military to society. Crucial questions here are whether the soldiery is organized as a professional volunteer force or conscripted, the ethnic and religious composition of the armed forces, and the relationships among different armed forces, the police, and the military—or what in Europe is increasingly called the security sector. It also is critical to determine if the military and its commanders, as well as the police, can break criminal laws with impunity or whether they are truly subordinate and accountable to their country’s laws. This consideration obviously includes the extent of economic corruption and the ability simply to seize property by force, the latter being a sign of a demoralized military and a failing state. In this connection the field of civil-military relations also embraces the question of public support for the armed force and the image society holds of its members.
The public standing of the armed forces in any society is a good indicator of the nature of the relationship between that society and its armed forces. For all that the armed forces are trained specialists in the use and control of violence, they are recruited from society and cannot be artificially isolated from a society’s values or pathologies. Thus a society undergoing stress will find that stress translated into its armed forces, even if there is a lag between them.
The field of civil-military relations encompasses the entire range of relationships between the various forms and missions that armed forces take and the society and state that empowers them to act. It is an inherently comparative field because all states and societies have armed forces with which they interact. Indeed, the absence of either the state or the armed forces in the equation underscores the severity of a crisis for the community in question. Yet despite this inherent bias toward a comparative approach, each state and society relates uniquely to its own armed forces. The topicality of this relationship remains crucial to the understanding not only of our own state and government but to the broader world of international relations.
- Desch, Michael C. 1999. Civilian Control of the Military: The Changing Security Environment. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Feaver, Peter D., and Richard H. Kohn, eds. 2001. Soldiers and Civilians: The Civil-Military Gap and American National Security. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Finer, Samuel E. 1988. The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics, 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Herspring, Dale R. 2005. The Pentagon and the Presidency: CivilMilitary Relations from FDR to George W. Bush. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
- Huntington, Samuel P. 1957. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Janowitz, Morris. 1960. The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
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