Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Why Even Good Militaries Do Not Make Good Governments

Hidden amidst all the celebration and joy these last 24 hours in Egypt, and in those who support democratic movements around the world, is a piece that seems to have been lost… and that is that, contrary to the Egyptian Constitution, President Mubarak ceded power not to the leader of Parliament, but to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces… the Egyptian equivalent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff here in the United States. What has occurred amounts to a military coup in Egypt.

Now, Egypt has a pretty good military. They have not been involved in any serious charges of internal repression or human rights abuses. They are a highly trained, well equipped, and professional force. Their military officers are American trained, attending the U.S. National War College, the National Defense University, and other such institutions. The Egyptian military has shown amazing restraint during the demonstrations of the last two weeks, and did not allow themselves to be used as forces of repression by their civilian government. They are indeed one of the few organizations left in Egypt that holds the respect of the people of that nation.

And, about the worst form of government a nation can have is a council of military officers. This is not just true historically, but it is blatantly obvious when you look at how military officers are trained, how they think, and how they are taught to respond to the challenges they face. This would apply just as equally to the U.S. Military as to anywhere else…

Let me give you a few examples of what I mean…

Military officers are trained to focus overwhelming force upon a point of conflict, and to remove any and all resistance by the means of that overwhelming force. On the battlefield (and even in internal military bureaucratic conflicts) this works amazingly well. On the battlefield it saves lives in the long run. In the realm of government and politics, we have a different name for this tactic… it is called repression. Oh wait… we call it that in the military too.

Military officers are trained to seek clarity by having one person, selected by a higher authority, to be ultimately responsible. Always the officer in that position is held accountable by that specific higher authority. A Battalion Commander is directly responsible to a Brigade Commander, a Brigade Commander is directly responsible to a Division Commander, a Division Commander is directly responsible to a Major Command Commander, who is directly responsible to the Secretary of Defense who is responsible to the President. When Military Officers find themselves in the position of having no specific person they are directly responsible to, nothing in their experience has prepared them to manage that completely different model of responsibility and authority. Politicians have gained the skill of being responsible to something as amorphous as “the people” or “their constituents” or “the nation”. Military officers have never had to acquire that skill. Therefore, they tend to become responsible to no one.

Military officers, even in functioning democracies, like the United States, have very little to no practical experience in the actual functioning of a democracy. I remember a former commanding officer who used to say to his soldiers “We defend democracy, but we do not practice it!” The statement is funny, but it is also quite literally true. A military cannot function as a democratic institution, so it does not even try. A well functioning military is a merit autocracy. What that means is that you can rise within the institution based on military merit, but its power-flow is autocratic. Now, there are some exceptions to this… in that a good military leader learns that it is better to inspire obedience than order it… but that is a matter of technique, not doctrine.

Military officers tend to have very little experience with the art of political compromise, or with the need to keep avenues of diplomacy and discussion open, or with the political necessity of a well-formed and balanced opposition. They tend not to have developed skills of public relations and managing an electorate’s mood. They also tend to seek clarity, and not be comfortable with ambiguous situations… when most of politics and civilian governance consists of varying degrees of ambiguity. The challenge of ambiguity is something the U.S. Military Officer’s Corps is struggling with now, as we are involved in several military actions in which there are few, if any clear-cut answers.

And, let’s not forget that a military’s trained response to threats is to kill people and break things.  One of my favorite military fiction authors refers to the military as the “clean-up crew”… and in many ways it is an appropriate description. 

I could go on and on (and I know I often do), but the basic point is this… nothing in the training, experience, or practice of a military officer prepares them for the specific challenges and tasks of civilian governance. Some individual military officers have been able to make this transition… and that usually involved time and their own form of transition. In U.S. history, the transition from a military officer to a politician has always happened during an election campaign. It is also true that the successful military officer who becomes a civilian statesman does so alone.

I have searched throughout human history to find an example of a military council that was a successful, non-repressive, non-autocratic civilian ruling authority. It may be out there, but I cannot find it. Egypt may have bought themselves the worst of all worlds, by ignoring their constitution in the departure of Hosni Mubarak.

We’ll see.

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

5 Thoughts on “Why Even Good Militaries Do Not Make Good Governments

  1. Let us all hope that they have the sense to be place holders for an elected civilian government until the mechanisms to achieve that election are created and that they then have the courage to relinquish power. That would be an inspiration to the world.

  2. Sent you an email David, but have you considered your view here might be racist towards Arabs? I’ve had some UUs tell me that’s the case.

  3. Thank you for this insightful response to the situation in Egypt. I don’t know a lot about politics, but I wondered why everyone was so happy about Mubarak’s action. I felt like I was missing something.

  4. Bill,

    How could what I said even remotely be considered racist towards Arabs? I think I made it pretty clear that the limitations of military officers in light of the needs of Civilian governance applies just the same throughout history and beyond culture… The U.S. Military would face the same kinds of challenges if it were to assume civilian leadership responsibilites… as would just about any other military in existence today. This is an issue of the necessities of military life and training verses the necessities of civilian governance.

    I have a feeling you either are just trying to bait me, or you did not bother to even read the article before you posted. Both of which I have come to expect from you.

    If I’m being prejudiced against any identified group in this article, it is a prejudice against military officers…. of which I am one…

    Yours in Faith,


  5. Pingback: UU bloggers respond to Egypt, union battles, and more « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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