Why Replacing Civilian Control with Military Command Is a Bad Idea

A fundamental aspect of any democracy is the understanding that the military should be subservient to civilian control and that certain tasks and political positions should only be held by private citizens. This is in no way meant to denigrate the military or those who honorably serve in our armed services. It is a recognition of historical fact: that when unelected generals displeased with their society’s political decision making (sometimes with good cause) use their awesome power to make the changes they desire, the consequence of this sort of unilateral action is political and economic instability, as seen in numerous empires and nations from the Roman Empire all the way to the modern Egyptian state.

Civilian control is important because it encourages civic participation. When civilians understand that the military cannot and will not bail them out of a domestic, non-violent political crisis, they recognize that the only solution lies with themselves. This encourages citizens to be active participants in the governing of their own society.

That’s why President Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for stacking his civilian cabinet with military officials is so concerning, and why his current plan to send the military to our southern border with Mexico should be opposed.

Trump made waves by appointing the eminently reasonable and competent retired General James Mattis as head of the typically civilian controlled Department of Defense, and by putting active duty Lt. General H.R. McMaster at the head of the National Security Council, among other military appointments.

But these appointments are overshadowed by his desire to place the military at our southern border. By doing so, Trump is harming our military and our civilian US Border Patrol in a number of ways and sets both institutions up for failure.

By weakening the mandate of the US Border Patrol and by fostering a reliance on the military to assist them in their duties, Trump is effectively hobbling the civilian agency. By forcing the military, which typically doesn’t police American civilians, into the role of border guards, he is setting the military up for numerous politically charged scandals that would undermine the military’s nearly universal support among the general populace.

By now, most Americans have seen numerous examples of border guards either illegally or improperly searching US citizens at the border and the damaging news stories that follow. Does the military really want a similar situation on their hands?  Do US border guards really want to be seen as the lackeys and underlings of the military when it comes to their main function, protecting the border? Will the military be able to perform all of its other necessary tasks both here at home and around the world if they’re also acting as border agents?

These are all important questions and ones that will drastically impact not only our security, but the esteem of our military and our civilian government agencies. President Trump should reconsider this rash plan. Allow the military and border guard to do their respective jobs free from political interference and grandstanding.