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What Today’s Army Officers Can Learn From George Washington

July 2024
4min read

A FEW YEARS AGO, writing in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the distinguished historian Henry Steele Commager charged that while civil-military relations had been healthy during most of the nation’s history, the relationship had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. Something close to “reverse principles” now governed our thinking, and the official line now held “that the military should never be challenged, that it is not the business of people to inquire into or to challenge what the military does, [and] that it is proper for the military to make wars on its own. …”

To be sure, we will have our disagreements about the truth of Commager’s assertion. Some may respond that all military men do not think alike, that there is hardly a monolithic military establishment in America, and that hawkish civilian leaders in the Pentagon are a greater threat to world peace than the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In any event, few would disagree that the military career of George Washington casts light on what should be the first principles of civil-military relations.

As a wealthy young colonel of militia, commanding Virginia’s frontier forces during the French and Indian War, Washington displayed scant understanding of the problems of his superiors, civilian or military. Quick to fault others for obstacles not easily remedied in a backwoods conflict marked by shortages, Washington unfairly blamed Gov. Robert Dinwiddie for a variety of ills and went behind his back to appeal directly to Speaker John Robinson of the House of Burgesses. On a later occasion Washington circumvented another superior, Gen. John Forbes, who was preparing to construct a road from Raystown, Pennsylvania, westward for an assault on French Fort Duquesne. Washington complained to his Virginia friends that a more southerly route made better sense; Forbes, he said, had been duped by Pennsylvanians who hoped to use the Raystown artery later to corner the Ohio Valley trade. Washington was clearly biased in favor of a route that would benefit his own colony. Forbes was right when he commented sadly that the young colonel’s “behaviour about the roads was no ways like a soldier.”

Washington, in fact, was a good soldier, but in a very narrow sense. A first-rate combat officer, he was brave and tenacious, even inspirational. Yet he could never see the big picture in his youth. There is surely irony in all of this, for his most notable weaknesses as a field-grade officer were to be corrected in time and become the area of his greatest strength as commander in chief in the War of Independence.

HOW DID HE BROADEN his horizons? He spent two crucial decades as a provincial legislator. In the Virginia assembly he learned how political bodies behaved, how the legislative mind perceived things. Most important, he became more aware of the English tradition of civil control of the military. This tradition, absent elsewhere in the eighteenth-century world, held forth in British America. In the Colonies the provincial legislatures closely regulated the local militias and also found ways—sometimes to the frustration of royal officers—to keep British army units occasionally garrisoned there from infringing on the rights of the citizens. Concerns about the British army, however, increased in the dozen years before the Revolution when England stationed an unprecedented number of troops in the Colonies.

Colonial legislatures, with their own partiality for militias composed of upstanding citizens and their growing fears of a vastly different kind of military presence in their midst—they called it a “standing army”—looked for leadership to a newly created intercolonial body: the so-called Continental Congress.

When, after the outbreak of hostilities, Congress chose Washington to head the American army, it dipped into its own membership: he had been a Virginia delegate from the beginning. The lawmakers knew and trusted him; and he in turn was devoted to the forum that had bestowed such honor and responsibility upon him. He never deviated from his deference to the civil authority. Though Congress at times did not see things his way, he now could usually understand its thinking, could recognize that it had other considerations to bear in mind. This was not always easy for him when his Continentals were ill clad and lacking arms or when they received what he considered unjustified criticism from the lawmakers. But he acknowledged, however maddening it might be, that in a free society the soldier is the servant and not the master. It was, and it still is, a price—if we deem it that—one pays for a military career.

Commager’s remarks demonstrate that today’s officers as well will feel the sting of severe judgments, which sometimes come in waves or cycles. During the past year, for instance, we can point to a much discussed article by Drew Middleton in the Sunday New York Times Magazine and to a CBS television feature that raised disturbing questions about the possibility of a conspiracy at the army’s top levels to alter and withhold intelligence during the Vietnam War.

For some officers Vietnam touches a still-raw nerve, as Middleton wrote in his essay “Vietnam and the Military Mind.” He says that officers just entering the senior ranks today complain of not having been given a freer hand in Southeast Asia, an argument that makes us at least vaguely mindful of General MacArthur’s conflict with President Truman during the Korean War. “It still rankles,” declares Middleton, “when they recall the incomprehension of military realities,” as the soldiers see it, “on the part of the civilian leadership,” including Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. As one officer confided to Middleton, the civilians had “no military background” that would have helped them “understand the situation.” But if the politicians lacked the military background, Middleton wonders whether the military had the political background.

Whether or not Middleton is right about the convictions of men entering the upper echelons, it is essential for officers in the modern army to comprehend fully the nation’s civil-military heritage.

IF GEORGE WASHINGTON fathomed this truism, so did another commander in chief with a frosty exterior, George C. Marshall. Working in the 1930s with the Illinois National Guard and the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps—assignments narrow-minded soldiers would have scorned as being dead-end—Marshall managed to profit handsomely. He understood that American generals in time of war would always lead armies essentially civilian in character, controlled by civilian leadership in the White House and in Congress, and that two-way communication was imperative for military and civilian authorities alike.


To ensure such interaction, perhaps it would be helpful if we could require every general to serve a term in Congress or on the White House staff, and insist that the most influential national political figures on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch direct a field army. But since the ideal is never the reality and since the military will continue to receive its lumps from civilians from time to time, where are we left? For one thing, we must not forget that the military probably suffers no more abuse than other sectors of government—and since Vietnam, even less: less than the President, the Con- gress, and the Supreme Court. Washington, for example, received far more slings and arrows as President than he did as general, and so did Jackson, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower.

If, like George Washington, our military leaders can learn to grasp the big picture, they can understand criticism from the public, even if they disagree and think it unfair. Without criticism from the outside, there is likely to be only minimal change or improvement in human institutions; and to be free of criticism is to live in a society without freedom. As General Washington once said, we are all in it together: “We should all be considered Congress, Army, &c. as one people, embarked in one Cause, in one interest; acting on the same principle and to the same End.”

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