Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Huntington’s The Soldier and the State at Fifty

As some of you may know, I am at work on a history of US civil-military relations. In that regard I would note that this is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sam Huntington’s seminal book, The Soldier and the State, which is one of the most important books written on the topic. Huntington was the first to attempt a systematic theoretical analysis of what Peter Feaver has called the civil-military problématique: the paradox arising from the fact that, out of fear of others, a society creates "an institution of violence" intended to protect it, but then fears that the institution will turn on society itself. That was very much on the minds of the Founding generation, which had to strike a balance between vigilance and responsibility.

The Soldier and the State is an important but flawed book. I am a "two cheers for Huntington" guy as my retrospective look at the book here illustrates.

As I see it, there are three problems with the book. First, elegant as it may be, his theory doesn’t fit the evidence of the Cold War. Second, Huntington’s historical generalizations concerning the alleged isolation of the military during the late 19th century are at odds with the evidence. And third, the line of demarcation mandated by Huntington’s theory is not as clear as some would have it.

This last point is the subject of Mike Desch’s article in Foreign Affairs and some rejoinders, including my own in a subsequent issue.

The Soldier and the State is very popular with the uniformed military. Unfortunately, many officers have concluded, based on their reading of the book, that military autonomy means that officers should be advocates of particular policies rather than simply serving in their traditional advisory role—indeed, that they have the right to insist that their advice be heeded by civilian authorities. Such an attitude among uniformed officers is hardly a recipe for healthy, balanced civil-military relations.

Despite its flaws, The Soldier and the State continues to provide useful insights into the nature of civil-military relations, especially our own. It addresses the central problem of civil-military relations: the relation of the military as an institution to civilian society. And its best empirical insights—the civilian-military distinction, the idea of military subordination, essential to democratic theory, the importance of military professionalism—do not depend on the problematic parts of Huntington’s model.

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