Gongol.com Archives: July 2022

Brian Gongol

July 21, 2022

News Military advisors

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, seven American citizens co-signed a statement that "The principle of civilian control of the military predates the founding of the Republic [...] The president's dereliction of duty on Jan. 6 tested the integrity of this historic principle as never before, endangering American lives and our democracy." The authors prescribe "robust training, guidance and resources for service members" to stand in the way of future risks to the Constitutional order of government and the necessary civilian oversight and control of the military. ■ What has raised eyebrows in particular about the op-ed is the employment history of its authors: All seven "are retired four-star generals and admirals in the U.S. armed forces", according to the editors. And those editors published the piece under the headline "We Are Retired Generals and Admirals. Trump's Actions on Jan. 6 Were a Dereliction of Duty." ■ Carrie Lee, a professor at the Army War College, notes that "using one's rank and service to wield political power -- even when that person is retired -- can also endanger civilian control." Kori Schake, who directs foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, cautions that "they are arguing their views merit special consideration -- which research shows doesn't move policy attitudes, but does reduce public support for the military." ■ This is a matter worth further attention, particularly as credentialism becomes ever more normalized throughout society. Even mainstream publications (like the New York Times) with their own well-established authority and credibility have in recent years turned to running op-eds under various iterations of, "I'm an [occupation]. Here's why [confident assertion]." It's a hackneyed formula anyway, but it's subject to watch more carefully for its potential to have spillover effects. ■ On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. And so lots of people cram their Twitter biographies, LinkedIn profiles, and other digital avatars full of credentials, compressing the traditional CV down to 280 characters -- mainly so that the general public takes their opinions seriously. ■ But the net effect of flattening publishing access to mass audiences via the Internet is that there is no obvious end in sight to the continued expansion and impact of credentials. Ideas ought to stand on their own -- even the Federalist Papers were published pseudonymously, after all -- but credentials provide convenient heuristics. They make it easy for the reader, overwhelmed by a limitless expanse of opinions, to narrow down whose thoughts to read first or weight most heavily. ■ Good citizenship requires obtaining some knowledge on the big issues so that voters don't simply defer to authority. But it can be hard to detect a real public appetite for learning about complex but essential public policy areas, like economics or cybersecurity or civil-military ("civ-mil") relations. ■ Those subjects and many others will continue growing more complex without diminishing in importance. Meanwhile, the trends accelerating credentialism will continue growing, too. People are specializing ever more as technology, the economy, and society become ever more advanced. ■ That's a recipe for trouble, particularly if we're not alert to how it can create a perfect antidemocratic storm. Some people respond to increasing complexity by retreating to the simplest and most sweeping answers they can find. Others find a conspiracy around every corner. And many disengage altogether, surrendering to the challenge of keeping up -- a third of eligible adults didn't even vote in 2020. ■ Voters need to be engaged, thoughtful, and well-informed. Each of those characteristics takes work, and strong is the allure of listening to the advice of those with shiny credentials. But only so much thought can be outsourced to others before important principles become endangered. ■ Calvin Coolidge put it well: "It has been my policy to seek information and advice wherever I could find it. I have never relied on any particular person to be my unofficial adviser. I have let the merits of each case and the soundness of all advice speak for themselves." Critical thinking depends upon the quality of the advice, rather than the source from whom it comes. That lesson becomes even more important to observe, even as (and perhaps because) it asks more and more from us all the time.