A Discussion of Civilian Generals

Since much of the commentary on our site is generated through a Military Prism viewpoint, it is important to expound on what we mean by the term "Civilian General."
One of the beauties of the U.S. Constitution is the insistence that the powers vested with the Commander in Chief of our nation’s military, remain in the hands of an elected civilian official. In this situation, we mean the President of the United States. Of course, the very first president of the United States was George Washington, who obviously was a former military general, just recently retired from the battlefields.

It might come as a surprise to many citizens, even well-read U.S. citizens, that there have actually been a dozen former military generals elected President of the United States. They are: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, John Garfield, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Notice that since the late 19th Century when Benjamin Harrison was elected, only one former military general has been elected president. We do not think the distinction is that noteworthy. We use the term: civilian generals and military generals as almost interchangeable because both have so much in common.

Rising through the ranks of the military is as much a successful political process, as it is a merit-based process. This reality is exacerbated by the fact that appointments at the very top of the military food chain fall into the hands of successful politicians. While the military has a separate culture from the domestic political arena, sometimes the similarities seem almost endless.

There is competition between the branches of the military, for both resources and power. Like their civilian counterparts, generals/admirals are often engaged in contentious battles for the power to direct resources. Consider the confrontations between Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton or even Douglas McArthur and Chester Nimitz. Confrontations between civilian and military generals like Franklin Roosevelt and Douglas McArthur also remain legendary. Roosevelt claimed that nobody ever talked to him the way McArthur did. FDR called McArthur the most dangerous man in America. Perhaps FDR thought McArthur would one day run for public office?

We are reminded that it was the Civilian General FDR who decided to imprison all Japanese-American citizens into “camps” for the duration of World War II.

Watch the presidential debates before any election to gain a sense of how common it is for candidates to engage in vicious rhetorical warfare. In America, taking command as a Civilian General means taking command of all military generals because civilian generals obtain the power to appoint military generals. Military generals who want to retain their authority, are advised to stay in political favor with the winning Civilian Generals.

The differentiation of America's process of controlling its military is significant when comparing our governing framework to the ones in place that led to the rise of military dictators like Tojo, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Castro. However, make no mistake, Americans who aspire to hold national offices are the civilian equivalent of military generals. American citizens enjoy more levels of constitutional protection from all generals.

Again, we see history and current events through a Military Prism and we keep a close eye on the backgrounds and philosophies of ambitious would-be Civilian Generals.



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