Americans generally think of the Cold War military as a threat to civilians, but Huntington, a Harvard political scientist who died in 2008, contended that it was often the other way around. America’s enduring liberal traditions were, he claimed, profoundly antimilitary, seeing large armed forces as threats to liberty, democracy and peace. Moreover, ambitious civilian factions could seek power over the military’s affairs, leading to “civilianizing the military, making them the mirror of the state.” Huntington was appalled both by zealous civilians trying to politicize the military, like Senator Joseph R. McCarthy attacking the Army, and by soldiers forsaking their professionalism by turning political, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He warned against a “political officer corps, rent with faction, subordinated to ulterior ends.”
While Huntington’s book is now seen as essential even by its critics — including scholars like Eliot A. Cohen, Peter D. Feaver and Stephen Peter Rosen — it caused an uproar when first published. Huntington, a lifelong Democrat, was accused of blimpish conservatism, jingoism or worse. The New York Times Book Review called “The Soldier and the State” “brilliant” but ultimately “a failure,” prompting “explosive disagreement” with “nearly every other page.” In The Yale Law Journal, Telford Taylor, a former Nuremberg prosecutor, praised Huntington’s iconoclasm but complained that his “political opinions have surged like a tidal wave over” his argument. The book’s harsher detractors scorned it as Prussian-minded drivel, with a reviewer for The Nation jeering, “Mussolini’s old slogan had more style: Believe, obey, fight!”
Others have objected that the military remains quietly resistant to civilian bidding. Andrew J. Bacevich, a historian and Vietnam veteran, wrote that “the dirty little secret of American civil-military relations” under Bill Clinton and other presidents is “that the commander in chief does not command the military establishment; he cajoles it, negotiates with it, and, as necessary, appeases it.” For his part, Jim Mattis, Trump’s defense secretary, who is a retired Marine Corps four-star general, clearly largely agrees with Huntington. But in a 2016 book chapter written with Kori Schake, the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies who was then a fellow at the Hoover Institution, he argued that the real problem is not military insubordination, but the disconnection of American society from its all-volunteer force. They warned of the danger of the military seeing itself as “a society apart, different from, and more virtuous than, the people they commit themselves to protecting, like praetorian guards at the bacchanalia, as one soldier described it.”
What can be learned by reading Huntington today under the shadow of Trump? In one respect, Huntington has prevailed: The scholar’s admiration of the military has become ubiquitous, despite, or perhaps in part because of, the inconclusive slogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was shocking in 1957 when Huntington ended his book by concluding that “America can learn more from West Point than West Point from America.” Yet as Col. Suzanne Nielsen, the head of West Point’s department of social sciences, has uneasily noted, President Barack Obama echoed that sentiment in his 2012 State of the Union address, exhorting civilians to learn from their selfless, effective troops: “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.”
Precisely because of the American military’s prestige, Huntington’s warnings about its politicization by civilians are worryingly relevant — as demonstrated when Trump signed his Muslim travel ban in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes. Of course, Trump is hardly the first president to use the military as a prop. Ronald Reagan began to return salutes from the troops even though previous presidents had underlined their civilian status by not saluting, and in May 2003, George W. Bush prematurely claimed victory in Iraq by strutting in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier with a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Obama’s State of the Union speech in 2012 began and ended with panegyrics to the troops, which Jonah Goldberg of National Review called “disgusting” and reminiscent of North Korea. Even so, Trump has broken new ground in trampling the norms and regulations that restrict the political behavior of service members. He gave a partisan, campaign-style talk at MacDill Air Force Base in February 2017, and last July, at the commissioning of the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, he urged sailors to lobby Congress on health care and military spending. Here was the commander in chief trying to enlist warfighters as his personal boosters.