It Doesn’t Matter Who Controls the Military

There are more than 8,000 troops still fighting in America’s longest war. According to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, we need about 3,000 more. The idea that 3,000 troops will change a decade and a half long stalemate seems dubious, but that’s the number Mattis suggests. Others in the administration are reportedly arguing that that number is too small.

The war in Afghanistan seems to be never-ending, but now something is a little different. The military is making the calls more directly. That’s not how it generally works. The Constitution specifies that civilians will control the armed forces. This has been laid out more overtly in subsequent legislation.

Congress is supposed to vote on war, though that only happens sometimes, and executives feel free to use drones, missiles, and Special Forces in countless countries on which the US has never declared war.

There are a lot of "supposed tos" that aren’t happening in US foreign policy. The president decides to go to war, and congress is too timid to enforce their ability to vote on it. The post-Richard Nixon War Powers Resolution has never once been actually used against a commander in chief who engaged troops or bombs or drones, or some combination, without approval from the legislative branch.

Few expected Donald Trump to be a micromanager of the armed forces. During his campaign, the future president talked the occasional good game about the benefits of the military being less of a presence in the world. When real world politics caught up with him, that supposed skepticism towards America’s past military adventures started to look a lot more like trusting the military to handle their own affairs – and that’s the most generous way of putting it.

To some, that’s a positive step. Trump sure thinks so. In April he said that the armed forces were making their own decisions on the ground and "frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately."

Who knows the military better than the military? They’re the ones in combat, and on the ground. They are not some suited, distant figure who doesn’t know about what they speak. But they are also now the ones choosing to do things like use the most powerful bomb in the US arsenal, as Gen. John Nicholson did in Afghanistan in April. Meanwhile, Mattis was so recently in the military that he needed special permission to take the job as defense secretary. He is very experienced in this area then, but he also is particularly far from being a civilian. A Marine Corp general, Mattis got special permission to take the job after only being out of the military for three years, instead of the usually required seven.

Some conservatives seem relatively happy that the military is being given organic control of the situation, whatever that may be. The right mostly assumes that the armed forces know best – unless, they’re the types who have seen wars, and have some uncomfortable feedback about how maybe we should stop having them. On the other hand, liberals can get uncomfortable with what appears to be a lack of balance of powers. Nobody wants a military junta. Civilian control of the military feels safer, tethered. Perhaps it is better than the alternative, but it hasn’t stopped any of the myriad wars the US had enthusiastically fought over the past 110 years.

Maybe the military making its own choices will be an improvement over the status quo. There could be fewer opportunities for executive cowboying across the globe. The US armed forces have plenty to occupy their time with on the ground in Afghanistan, and dabbling in Iraq, Syria, and a half dozen other countries with a drone presence – not to mention, the more than 100 nations that host military bases or troops.

Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that because our volunteer army makes wars easier to ignore, bringing back conscription would somehow stop this. The most common example to turn to is Vietnam. Though the draft provoked mass outrage, it also didn’t magically end the conflict – not before some 60,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese were killed.

Similarly, here is the fundamental distraction that lies at the heart of this conversation about who should decide which wars to fight, and how. At the end of the day,new wars will be fought if someone wants them – or they will simply be continued ad nauseum as in Afghanistan. There are arguments to advocate for Congressional votes on war, but democracy exercised by 100 or 435 people does not prove that it is a just, judicious, or moral endeavor, any more than when it’s a whim by a bully pulpit president. A bad war is a bad war, and just about every war imaginable leads to dire consequences, and civilian casualties.

There are arguments to make in favor of harm reduction in war-making policy. Congress, again, is divided and mostly unable to come to a consensus. That sounds like a decent, practical stopping method for wars. But again, it’s not a moral or even a practical one. Bad wars have been voted upon. Wars justified on paper turn to dead innocent people. No matter who is the mastermind, war is a bad idea justified by ignorance of its terrible cost.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.