During his first overseas troop visit in late December 2018, President Donald Trump signed campaign memorabilia — including “Make America Great Again” hats and campaign flags — for soldiers and airmen stationed in Iraq and Germany. When members of the media released pictures of the event, controversy ensued.1 Some critics claimed it was a clear violation of the military’s tradition of non-partisanship, with uniformed servicemembers showing partisan favoritism that extended beyond normal respect and deference for the commander-in-chief. No servicemembers were formally sanctioned for their actions because they had broken no laws. The items Trump signed were personal items and they had not been distributed by the White House.2 Nevertheless, several experts agreed that this behavior, while legal, had crossed the line and violated a norm prohibiting partisan behavior by those in uniform.3
The norms and informal institutions that many scholars and pundits believe play an important role in civil-military relations increasingly have made headlines over the last few decades. In large part, the storyline has been the same: Long-held norms of American civil-military relations may be breaking down.4 As partisan polarization and confidence in the military have grown among the public writ large, so have the incentives for political leaders to portray the military as favoring their side in domestic political disputes and for military leaders — both active duty and retired — to use their public esteem for political, and sometimes partisan, purposes.5 Since the late 1970s, there is evidence that more active duty military officers are openly identifying with a political party; more retired military officers are involving themselves in electoral campaigns and political debates; more civilian political leaders are openly soliciting support from veterans; and more civilians are interfering in military issues for domestic political gain.6
Despite the attention this trend has gained in popular commentary, however, scholars of civil-military relations have done relatively little to study precisely what norms currently exist and how they constrain or shape the behavior of military or civilian leaders.7 To the extent that norms are discussed in the subfield of civil-military relations, scholars tend to focus primarily on what norms should exist, such as norms against military leaders resigning in protest or expressing public dissent or norms against civilian political leaders invoking military support for electoral purposes.8 This emphasis is understandable: As demonstrated in the broader political science literature, studying norms presents significant observational and methodological concerns.9 It is far easier for political scientists to study institutions or behaviors they can observe. When it comes to civil-military relations, these limitations are even more pronounced. Outside of violations of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice or of election law, material sanctions for the violation of civil-military norms occur infrequently.10 Despite the methodological challenges involved, understanding whether — and how — non-material sanctions might help enforce the unwritten rules of the game should be of particular interest to scholars of civil-military relations.
In this paper, we turn to an often overlooked source of insight on civil-military relations: ancient political philosophy. Although ancient political philosophers wrote in a significantly different context than we face today — in terms of the structure of formal political institutions, the pace of technological change, and the geopolitical threats in a state-based system — there are several reasons this approach is of particular value. First, ancient political philosophers devoted a great deal of attention to the fundamental question of civil-military relations: how to structure a relationship between a society’s rulers and its military that maximizes both the political control of the rulers and military effectiveness. Second, the very lack of formal political and bureaucratic institutions caused the ancients to think critically about how non-material factors — such as bestowing public honor or shame — might constrain or shape behavior. Ancient philosophers were concerned not only to prescribe norms but to understand what norms were and how they shaped behavior. Finally, ancient political philosophers were quite attentive to how politically divided publics might threaten civil-military norms.
This paper explores the role of norms in structuring civil-military relations by returning to the earliest foundations of the field: not Samuel Huntington’s The Soldier and the State, but Plato’s Republic. We argue that Plato and his most thoughtful followers established a way of thinking about civilian control of the military that focused on the use of public honor and shame — rather than material incentives, such as coercion or financial penalties — to enforce the norms that constituted their society’s rules of the game. The norms that uphold democratic values are an extremely important part of a healthy system of civil-military relations. These norms can be collectively enforced through the apportionment of honor and shame in conjunction with — or even in the absence of — other formal institutional or material incentives.
We make this argument in three stages. We begin by looking at how present day political scientists have approached norms, and we argue that understanding norms as “rules of the game” (a term we explain below) offers the most fruitful way to conceive of their influence on civil-military relations. In the second part of the paper, we examine a similar approach to norms in the works of three foundational political philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius. We turn to these ancient theorists not so much to recommend or adapt the particular norms they prescribe, but for their rich analyses of what norms are and how they work. In the third section of this paper, we illustrate these ancient theories of norms in political practice by applying them to an ancient case: the breakdown of civil-military norms in the Roman republic during the time of Marius. Finally, we conclude by suggesting how a theory of norms might be applied to examples drawn from American politics. As scholars of American civil-military relations wrestle with the erosion of longstanding norms, our excavation of a rich tradition should help to illuminate the significance of norms in the contemporary study of civil-military relations. Perhaps ancient insights will inspire strategies for defending against their erosion today.
Norms and Informal Institutions
In the literature on American civil-military relations, most discussions of norms begin with a response to those Huntington proposed as part of his model of objective civilian control. Huntington’s model attempts to maximize military effectiveness by requiring a non-partisan, apolitical, and professional military and non-interfering civilians who grant significant autonomy to military leaders.11 Importantly, these norms are prescriptive rather than descriptive. Huntington is advocating what should be instead of exploring what is. In this sense, his seminal work and many of the responses to it in the civil-military relations literature are highly normative, as Peter Feaver has argued.12 But a normative theory is quite different than a theory of norms.
Numerous political scientists have challenged Huntington’s proposed norms on theoretical grounds, questioning whether adopting them would, in fact, increase military effectiveness or civilian control, as well as whether a military — or at least its officer corps — can be apolitical or non-partisan in practice.13 Other scholars have focused on empirical studies of attitudes and behavior, often suggesting that certain norms do or do not exist because civilians or members of the military hold a certain attitude or because civilians or servicemembers exhibit a particular behavior or set of behaviors.14 There are no major studies in the American civil-military relations subfield, at least none of which we are aware, that attempt to develop a theory of civil-military norms that identifies why certain norms are adopted, when and why they change, and whether the existence of norms matters with respect to important dependent variables such as civilian control or military effectiveness.15 However, some scholars, notably Marybeth Ulrich, have hinted at this deficiency in the literature, citing scholars’ lack of understanding of the role that professional military education currently plays or could play in promulgating civil-military norms, in particular.16
We turn to these ancient theorists not so much to recommend or adapt the particular norms they prescribe, but for their rich analyses of what norms are and how they work.
Political scientists and sociologists outside of the civil-military relations subfield have invested substantially more effort in developing theories about the development, evolution, and impact of civil-military norms. The work done by international relations and comparative politics scholars is particularly impressive. Constructivists such as Alexander Wendt, Peter Katzenstein, and Jennifer Mitzen show how identities and norms influence the way political communities understand their interests and security.17 Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, as well as John Gerard Ruggie, examine how norms develop and change both within nations and across the international system.18 Audie Klotz and Stacie Goddard, among others, demonstrate that norms and ideas can translate into real political power.19
Yet, even in this broader literature, scholars’ understanding of norms is nascent and incomplete. The literature focuses on how norms develop and evolve in an international context as well as on whether and how norms shape the behavior of leaders and states as they relate with other states. The object of our inquiry is substantially different. We are focused on the internal dynamics between actors within states. Military organizations typically possess significant coercive capacity compared to other civilian actors inside the state, but these types of intrastate power dynamics are not fully explored in the international relations literature. Civil-military norms can potentially shape both internal interactions between military and civilian institutions as well as international relations with other states.
There is also no standard definition of a norm among scholars. In fact, there is even some dispute over what term scholars should use. Most sociologists and some political scientists use the term “norms” to refer to the same phenomena that other political scientists — particularly in the rationalist tradition — call “informal institutions.”20 For our purposes, we will use both terms interchangeably.
Existing Views of Norms
There are three dominant views of norms in the existing literature: 1) norms as equilibria, 2) norms as learned values, and 3) norms as “rules of the game.” While each of these approaches can help explain certain aspects of human and group behavior, we argue below that understanding norms as rules of the game offers the most productive way forward for scholars of civil-military relations.
The view that norms are equilibria is grounded primarily in game theoretic approaches to studying human behavior. It is particularly useful in explaining regularized patterns in repeated interactions.21 These patterns are generally understood as self-enforcing, in the sense that it is not rational for any one individual to break a norm because of the negative consequences that will follow the breach. This approach to the study of norms has some significant drawbacks for understanding social interactions, however. As Julia Azari and Jennifer Smith note, a large crowd of individuals walking down a city street on a rainy day may all use an umbrella, for example, not because of social pressure to do so, but simply because they do not want to get wet.22 Additionally, this approach assumes that norms exist to help achieve a goal or because they are socially useful. Norms are supposed to be society’s way of coping with market failures, a mechanism for internalizing externalities, or a welfare-maximizing device.23 As a result, this approach does not explain norms that are harmful (such as bullying), norms that do not create material benefits, and norms based on social inequalities. Finally, this way of studying norms attributes changes or evolutions in norms to outside shocks to the system, making it unable to account for norms that break down on their own.
Norms based on learned values are often referred to by sociologists as “moral norms.”24 Moral norms are often based on learned behaviors, but adherence to them is based on purely intrinsic calculations, such as guilt or pride, rather than on social expectations. For example, a moral norm would be said to exist when an individual learns she should not litter, either through familial interactions and social instruction or by watching others not litter, and subsequently chooses not to litter even when no one else is watching.25 This approach to the study of norms may miss important social interactions that shape or reinforce expectations about appropriate behavior, however, since it focuses only on the establishment of norms with no account of their enforcement or evolution. This approach also excludes the importance of the communal and contested context in which many norms are developed and enforced. As Azari and Smith have argued,26 norms may be particularly prevalent and important when it comes to issues that are difficult to legislate. For example, there may be general agreement that a rule needs to exist for a specific situation, but disagreement on the particulars of that rule, or there may be recognition of the need for a general principle that could apply across multiple situations, but disagreement about which situations the principle should cover.
The rules-of-the-game approach provides somewhat more flexibility in accounting for the social and political dynamics inherent in civil-military norms and holds more promise as a starting point for exploring them. We adopt Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky’s definition of informal institutions (or norms) as “socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside officially sanctioned channels.”27 This definition has several attractive features. While it is broad enough to encompass the regularized patterns of behavior described by the equilibria approach, it also stipulates that the behavior must be rule-driven, based on shared expectations. Moreover, it can subsume moral norm explanations because it allows for the social creation, communication, and teaching of norms, while also incorporating the possibility of using both material or non-material sanctions and incentives as enforcement mechanisms. Finally, the rules-of-the-game approach also works well with existing normative frameworks in the civil-military relations subfield because rules, unlike equilibria, prescribe what individuals should do and “state a standard of conduct.”28
Relatively few studies in the modern political science or sociological literature have focused on two important questions that arise within the rules-of-the-game approach to norms: whether non-material sanctions can serve effectively as an enforcement mechanism, and how and why norms adapt or break down.29 Although modern scholars of civil-military relations have paid scant attention to these topics, another group has: ancient political philosophers.
The rules-of-the-game approach provides somewhat more flexibility in accounting for the social and political dynamics inherent in civil-military norms and holds more promise as a starting point for exploring them.
As noted above, the political science literature provides a compelling, but potentially incomplete, explanation of how norms might operate in a civil-military context because it largely omits discussion of the hierarchical and coercive nature of military institutions within the state. The existing literature also ignores some of the social and cultural factors that might make military organizations different than other domestic institutions. It is within these gaps in the literature that ancient insights might have contemporary relevance. The apportionment of honor and shame are uniquely important to military institutions, in part because these institutions celebrate tradition and ceremony. Few other modern institutions so self-consciously refer back to ancient virtues or make them so central to their own organizational identities, education systems, and incentive structures.
Plato and his immediate successors provide important insights on these points and make for an unlikely intermediary between contemporary political science scholarship and civil-military tradition. Writing prior to the development of the modern state, with its financial and legal tools for restraining the military, many ancient philosophers emphasized the norms that govern civil-military relations and how and why they might change over time.
Civil-Military Relations in Ancient Political Thought
The long tradition of reflecting on civil-military relations, much like the European philosophical tradition, can be thought of as a series of footnotes to Plato.30 Admittedly, contemporary philosophers are more conscious of their debts than scholars of civil-military relations — and for good reason. It is not obvious that works written with hoplites and popularly elected strategoi in view could have anything to teach scholars and statesmen confronted with military-industrial complexes and professional officers.31 Nevertheless, the political philosophical problem at the core of civil-military relations was stated with perhaps greater clarity and probity when it was first articulated by Plato than it has ever been stated subsequently. And the series of responses it provoked among Plato’s immediate intellectual heirs — the first of many footnotes — are likewise of enduring relevance.
Seen from the vantage point of contemporary civil-military relations, Plato and his heirs make two important claims: First, control of the military is a profound problem because those bearing arms naturally seek to rule. Second, this problem can best be solved by using non-material incentives — praise and shame, primarily — rather than coercion or financial incentives to educate for virtue and establish unwritten rules of the game to govern behavior. Although these philosophers also recommended norms that should govern the military — some of them quite utopian, others more practical — understanding them is not our goal here. As in our discussion of present-day political scientists, we are interested not in normative theories, but in theories of norms. In that sense, these ancient thinkers offer a robust and compelling view of civil-military relations centered on norms as rules of the game rather than punishment.
Plato’s Republic attempts to answer the central question of civil-military relations: Who shall guard the guardians themselves? But just as significant as Plato’s peculiar and powerful answer to this question is the fact that his Socrates can put it in the first place — i.e., that he conceives of guardians as distinct from the normal run of men. This functional specialization is a philosophical innovation. Socrates’ guardian, like Huntington’s officer, is an expert in violence who must cultivate his expertise. “Will a man, if he picks up a shield or any other weapon or tool of war,” Socrates asks, “on that very day be an adequate combatant in a battle of heavy-armed soldiers?”32 Immediate mastery is attainable in few human endeavors, and it certainly is not possible in war. Socrates sets the soldiers of his utopian “best regime” apart from the rest of the city not only because of their training, but also by virtue of their very nature. A guardian must be keen, quick, and strong. Above all, he or she must be spirited, assertive, and aggressive in defense of his or her own city.33 When Plato’s Socrates wonders whether a power strong enough to protect his ideal city (kallipolis) from its enemies might also endanger the city, he worries not only about civic institutions, but also about the trustworthiness of human nature. It is this readiness to explore the psychological foundations of the civil-military divide that most distinguishes Plato’s approach from that of his modern heirs. Plato’s Socrates places at the center of his reflections on civil-military relations not an economic or technological problem, but a philosophical question: Is it possible for spirited individuals to acquire expertise in coercive force without aspiring to tyranny?
Socrates ultimately answers in the affirmative but the conditions for his assent are perplexing. The argument begins innocuously enough. While it might seem paradoxical that the same warrior could be harsh toward foreign enemies and gentle toward fellow citizens, nature provides a paradigm of the paradox’s solution in the “noble puppy,” barking and snapping at strangers but never the hand that feeds him. Since the city itself supports the guardian, one need only nurture the guardian’s soul along the lines that nature provides and so order it that it responds to its master’s commands. A puppy’s trainer might employ physical pleasures and pains to this end, but in the training of kallipolis’s guardians Socrates appeals instead to education — which might described as the social creation, communication, and teaching of norms in modern political science terminology — broadly construed to include the way we ought to speak about the gods, heroes, even animals.34 Educating guardians is no small task. Socrates understands it to require something like a cultural revolution, because the better part of Homer’s poetry would need to be revised (and eventually removed from the city) to ensure the guardians will grow up thinking the gods are benevolent, the just are happy, and the heroes are stoic and courageous. The guardians are provided with the “greatest safeguard” against their turning into tyrants, Socrates says, “if they have been really finely educated.”35 But if a fine education is as demanding as Socrates suggests, one might rightly wonder whether any real-world regime can really guard itself against its guardians.
In addition to their education, guardians are subjected to severe restrictions on owning private property and are given a range of positive incentives for virtuous action.
One might wonder all the more when one considers that Socrates himself does not entrust education alone with the watch. In addition to their education, guardians are subjected to severe restrictions on owning private property and are given a range of positive incentives for virtuous action. It is necessary to prohibit private land, houses, and families among the guardians lest their loyalty to one part of the city overcome their loyalty to the city as a whole.36 The best soldier on each campaign, however, is singled out from among his comrades to receive a crown, kiss whomever he pleases, and then be worshiped whenever kallipolis “honors the good with hymns.”37 These forms of additional social instruction — one blending the dog into the pack, the other calling him by name for a reward — might seem to work at cross-purposes, but they are more similar than they first appear. Socrates understands virtue to be most effectively incentivized not with money but with honor (i.e., receiving praise).38 Honor depends always on the audience that praises. Genuine public esteem cannot be compelled and it must constantly be renewed. One therefore does not own praise in the same way that one owns material property, since praise always belongs to the person doing the praising, even after praise is “given.” Because Socrates develops his theory of norms in the context of a utopian best regime, it is tempting to see the theory itself as utopian. But it is actually broadly applicable. Socrates suggests that the rules that reflect what a group honors are necessarily “socially shared” (in the words of Helmke and Levitsky) and they can be enforced without being written down or officially endorsed.39 In the best regime, the guardian never belongs to himself or herself, even in the moment of receiving personal praise. The guardian is both trained and incentivized to belong always to the city.40 Although other regimes may use different norms to govern their guardians, Socrates suggests that norms of some kind will always figure prominently in the relationship between rulers and their military.
Socrates does not ultimately entrust his best regime to the guardians, however, but to philosophers. Virtue that is nurtured by public admiration — the opinion of one’s worth based on honor bestowed by an audience — is less secure than virtue that is founded on knowledge. The philosopher who has, or at least is in pursuit of, such knowledge is thus the proper ruler of kallipolis. As in the soul, where the rational is separate from and superior to the hot-tempered or spirited, so in the city the “civilian” in its highest form (the philosopher-king) should be separate from and superior to the military. An essential part of the philosopher’s rule consists of overseeing the guardians’ training, both through education and exposure to honor and shame. Ultimately, for Plato, it is up to the rulers to establish — and enforce — the civil-military rules of the game.
Aristotle’s approach to civil-military relations has a paradoxical connection to Plato’s. With one hand Aristotle seems to strike at the heart of his onetime master’s teachings on this subject, while appropriating, albeit subtly and in a more moderate form, much of its original force.
First, the attack: Aristotle claims that Plato’s Socrates got the psychology of the guardian wrong. Socrates found the soul’s capacity for selfless sacrifice to be rooted in spiritedness. Aristotle argues, to the contrary, that spiritedness generates sacrifice only for what one considers to be one’s own, not what is commonly owned. It is for this reason that “what belongs in common to the most people is accorded the least care.”41 A certain amount of self-interest is essential to spiritedness — it is not something that can be eliminated through education or with incentives.42 The city must, in some sense, belong to the guardians for them to relish serving it. But a city belongs most of all to its rulers, and it is central to Socrates’ conception of the best regime that ruling requires a nature and education distinct from what is required for guarding the city militarily. Aristotle therefore attacks the very notion of the philosopher-king. Assigning permanent rule to one class of men “can become a cause of factional conflict even in the case of those possessing no particular claim to merit,” Aristotle writes, “not to speak of spirited and warlike men,” for “spirit is a thing expert at ruling and indomitable.”43 The spirited guardian may resemble a noble puppy when young, but he aspires someday to lead his own pack. Socrates’ attempt to divide military power from civil power is therefore impracticable.44 The same disposition that leads a man to want to defend a city also leads him, of necessity, to want to rule it.
Aristotle marshals an army of historical data to prove the point that changes in a regime’s military lead to changes in the regime’s politcs. When great generals led their cities in war, the Greeks lived under heroic kings. When many men of sufficient means to keep horses arose in the cities, cavalry became the chief military branch and the Greek regimes became oligarchies.45 Once the “hoplite revolution” had demonstrated the military efficacy of heavily armed men locked in tight ranks, Greek regimes shifted from oligarchies toward what Aristotle calls politeiai — broad-based rule by a multitude of virtuous citizens.46 Then came a democratic revolution, following close on the heels of a military revolution. Aristotle writes that “The seafaring mass, through being the cause of the victory at Salamis and, as a result of this, of the leadership [the Athenians exercised] on account of their power at sea, made the democracy stronger.”47 The many learned to rule while rowing in unison as something akin to socially shared identities and norms developed. Everywhere and at every time, Aristotle suggests, rule and arms coincide.48
Thus, when Aristotle outlines his best regime, he does not separate civil and military authority as Plato’s Socrates did. Instead, military power and political rule “should be in a manner assigned to the same persons, and in a manner to different persons.”49 Artistotle argues that granting the military the promise of future power can keep its natural thirst for immediate rule in check:
Insofar as each of these tasks belongs to a different prime of life, the one requiring prudence, the other power, it should be to different persons; but insofar as it is impossible that those who are capable of using compulsion and preventing [it from being used against them] will always put up with being ruled, to this extent they should be the same persons. For those who have authority over arms also have authority over whether the regime will last or not.50
It is against the nature of “those who have authority over arms” to relinquish rule entirely. However, it is not against their nature to accept rule by their elders because they are confident that they, too, will rule as elders.51 Aristotle therefore recommends politeia, in which citizens own heavy arms and all others are forbidden both to possess arms and to participate in ruling. Enslaved farmers and artisans afford each citizen the leisure to specialize in military affairs. Under this regime, civil and military spheres are indistinct, save for the fact that those who are actively serving are ruled by veterans.
Aristotle’s best regime — with its enslaved workers, its expert warriors, and its sovereign elders — bears a striking resemblance to Sparta. And indeed, Aristotle praises many elements of the Spartan regime.52 Yet his criticisms of Sparta are trenchant. To secure the happiness of their city, Aristotle argues that Spartans look only to war, while, to secure their own individual happiness, they look to a particularly savage species of courage.53 The problem with this conception of city and man became evident not on the plains of Leuctra, when Thebes crushed Sparta’s power once and for all, but in the sullen households and grieved wives that met the shattered soldiers when they returned home. The true catastrophe of Sparta’s “fall” was that the soldiers considered it catastrophic. For what, Aristotle asks, had the Spartans really lost? It is “ridiculous,” he writes, “that they should have lost [the chance for] living nobly even while abiding by [their legislator’s] laws, and in the absence of any impediment to putting the laws into practice.”54 Had the Spartans known how to live well in leisure and peace, they would have been infinitely stronger than they proved themselves to be. Had they known some pleasure other than victory, they may well have stood a better chance at Leuctra, but they certainly would have stood a better chance of living well in its wake.55
Aristotle’s solution to the civil-military dilemma is to teach warriors that there is more to life than war. He does not follow Socrates in severing the link between civilian and military spheres, nor does he follow Lycurgus in casting the civil in a military mold. Instead, he educates warriors with a view to instilling virtues that, while not self-evidently military in nature, are not so elevated as to soften their soldierly spirit. The discussion of education with which Aristotle’s Politics concludes does not, therefore, touch on metaphysical questions of the sort Socrates entertained in the Republic (nor even the theological perplexities with which the Athenian Stranger wrestled in The Laws). Instead, Aristotle focuses on the use of instrumental music in the education of his warriors, and he praises this music for its very lack of utility. Music is “liberal and noble.”56 It is not made for achieving success on the battlefield, but for finding rest and relaxation once the battle is done. The aim of education — even, or perhaps especially, a warrior’s education — is the proper use of leisure.57
Nevertheless, when Aristotle considers what sort of music the citizens of the best regime should listen to and learn from, he proves a censor even more severe than Socrates. Whereas Socrates had permitted both the Phrygian and Dorian modes — a type of musical style corresponding to a particular scale — in kallipolis, Aristotle prohibits the Phrygian, since, like the flute, the Phrygian mode is “frenzied and passionate.” The Dorian mode, on the other hand, induces a “middling and settled state” and is thus “the most steadfast and has most of all a courageous character.”58 For Aristotle, the warrior must be capable of loving leisured peace as well as war, but the sort of leisure a warrior can love is not meant to consist of philosophical flights or divinely inspired frenzy. Rather, it is the sedate and moderate pleasure of the Dorians — the sort of pleasure the Spartans themselves might have enjoyed, had they remained true to the best of themselves rather than continually marching to the music of the flute.59
Aristotle’s solution to the civil-military problem was less radical than Plato’s, even though it shared Plato’s orientation toward what we would call norms. Aristotle recognized the difficulty of subjecting spirited soldiers to the rule of civilians like Plato’s philosopher-kings. Rule by moderate veterans, educated to enjoy culture at least (if not to philosophize), offered a more practicable alternative. Nevertheless, the success of Aristotle’s regime, like Plato’s, rested on education and the proper assignment of praise and blame, on the development of social expectations and social pressure. Neither formal institutions nor a code of law backed by coercive punishment offers the best way to keep “spirited and warlike men” from dominating the city, but norms.
Neither Plato nor Aristotle considered imperial conquest evidence of a regime’s success in regulating civil-military relations — quite the contrary, in fact.60 But when, in the second and first centuries BCE, Plato’s heirs confronted the rise of Rome, it was the Romans’ vast empire that piqued their interest. “Who is so worthless or indolent,” Polybius wondered, “as not to wish to know how and with what sort of regime the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole of the inhabited world to their sole government — a thing unique in history?”61 Even in framing the question, Polybius suggests his answer: “The chief cause of success or failure in all affairs is the structure of the regime.”62 Rome enjoyed the “best of all regimes,” Polybius thought, and this, rather than military might alone, explained its meteoric rise. The Roman regime struck a balance between civil and military responsibilities unlike anything anticipated by Plato or Aristotle. Indeed, Polybius suggests that it was ultimately Rome’s novel answer to Plato’s foundational question — who shall guard the guardians? — that enabled its awe-inspiring conquest. That answer, as we shall see, involved not only the apportionment of military honor to influence a citizen’s standing, but even more so the power of a new institution — the Roman Senate — to regulate the republic’s “economy of esteem.”63
The Roman regime does not fall within the conventional taxonomy of regimes developed in Greek political philosophy. The most common theory, according to which there are three regime-types (kingship, aristocracy, and democracy), cannot account for Rome, nor can extrapolations of this theory that double the number of regimes by allowing for good and bad versions of each. The Roman regime is rather a synthesis of all the regimes known to Greek political thought — a “mixed regime.” The mixed regime unites “all the good and distinctive features of the best governments” and thus mitigates the tendency of unmixed regimes to degenerate into their worst forms.64 Balanced and stable, Rome’s mixed regime appeared to be a novelty sufficiently profound to account for its unprecedented success.
Polybius’ discussion of the Roman camp in his History serves the same function as Socrates’ education of the guardians and Aristotle’s musical training of soldier-statesmen in the founding works of political philosophy.
Polybius’ account of the Roman regime includes a sizeable digression on the organization of the Roman military, including a peculiarly detailed account of the Roman military camp, introduced in terms that point back to his work’s guiding question regarding Rome’s regime. “Who is so averse to all noble and excellent performances,” he asks, “as not to be inclined to take a little extra trouble to understand matters like this?”65 Polybius frequently compares the camp to a polis of perfect mathematical precision.66 From the moment an ensign is planted to mark the consul’s tent, an area of exactly four plethra unfolds and streets exactly 50 feet wide emerge.67 The legion’s camp retains its dimensions no matter the terrain — unlike Greek armies, the Romans trust in their own plans and labor rather than “the defenses which nature itself provides” — and no matter how many additional legions join it on a campaign.68 It is versatile, scaleable, and modular — and it is not exclusively Roman.69 Soldiers from allied cities double each legion’s numbers, and no matter their land of origin they take their place alongside the Romans, all of them in the well-ordered rows under the military tribunes’ watch.70
The Romans and their allies alike are subject to punishments such as the fustuarium, where a soldier would be publicly beaten and stigmatized for breaches of security and comparable transgressions. They also qualify for honorary prizes granted for varied acts of valor. Both the punishments and rewards reach beyond the camp into civilian life. Those who survive the fustuarium are not allowed to return home, Polybius says, for “none of the family would dare to receive such a man in the house.”71 Those who receive military honors similarly find their status elevated both in camp and at home:
The recipients of such gifts, quite apart from becoming famous in the army and famous too for the time at their homes, are especially distinguished in religious processions after their return, as no one is allowed to wear decorations except those on whom these honors for bravery have been conferred by the consul; and in their houses they hand up the spoils they won in the most conspicuous places, looking upon them as tokens and evidences of their valor.72
The military camp is thus an integral part of Rome’s domestic regime. It plays a central role in creating and spreading shared norms surrounding laudatory and damnable behavior, and it establishes clear expectations of the kind of praise and dishonor that should be given in response to that behavior. If the camp is like a microcosm of the Roman world, the camp’s regime epitomizes Rome’s rule. While the camp is, in theory, a monarchy (under the rule of the consul), it is in practice an aristocracy (under the rule of the tribunes). But it is by no measure a democracy.73 For Polybius, the success of Rome’s mixed regime depends on each Roman spending between 10 and 20 years in the unmixed regime of the military camp.74
Polybius’ discussion of the Roman camp in his History serves the same function as Socrates’ education of the guardians and Aristotle’s musical training of soldier-statesmen in the founding works of political philosophy. For Polybius, education proceeds through incentives rather than speech or song, however. The allure of honor is paramount. Just like the military camp gathers regularly to bestow public recognition and honorary prizes, so Romans gather to hear eulogies of the illustrious dead.75 The death masks of the deceased are displayed conspicuously, and during public sacrifices and funerals they enable a ritual reincarnation.76 The Romans put the masks “on men who seem to them closest in resemblance to the original in stature and carriage,” and these men then march with all of their ancestor’s magisterial regalia. For young men “in love with glory and the good it is not easy to behold a more noble sight,” writes Polybius. A lifetime of such scenes leaves them “inspired to endure every suffering for the public welfare in the hope of winning the glory that attends on brave men.”77 However, if this did not incentivize good behavior, there were always disincentives. Instead of the soldier’s fear of a grisly fustuarium in camp, the citizen feared divine punishment. “The Romans’ religious convictions,” Polybius writes, “make them most distinctly superior to others,” because what is a matter of reproach for others is for them a source of the state’s cohesion — “superstition.”78 Polybius’ Romans are loyal to their oaths in part because “invisible terrors” supplement honor.79
Polybius suggests that these elements of Roman life — the rituals at camp and at home that inspire individual courage and fear — do more to explain Rome’s success than the mere ordering of its governing institutions. Rome shares its mixed regime with other city-states, after all, including Sparta and its great rival, Carthage.80 But while the Carthaginians employ expert mercenaries, the Roman citizens fight themselves. These citizen-soldiers make up for their lack of expertise with the “fury” that arises when they fight for “fatherland and children” and for a state in which they share the responsibility to rule.81 And whereas the multitude has a say in the Carthaginians’ foreign policy deliberations, in Rome only the most eminent men share in the formulation of strategy.82 Rome’s superiority to Sparta is of a different sort. Polybius suggests that the same austere laws that stimulated Sparta’s spiritedness and secured its domestic concord ultimately undermined the city-state’s ambitions abroad, for such “enterprises demand a currency in universal circulation and supplies drawn from abroad.”83 Sparta’s abolition of money was the paradoxical source of both Sparta’s strength and its impotence, leaving the city eager to dominate but unable “to aspire to any position of influence in Greece, much less to supremacy.”84 Rome surpassed Carthage owing to superior courage and prudence. She surpassed Sparta owing to superior financial savvy.
In both cases, Rome’s superiority derives from its senate. When Polybius first presents the Roman mixed regime, the Senate’s authority appears confined to the city of Rome. After all, the consuls have “virtually unlimited” power over preparations for war and over the army once it is deployed.85 And even in Rome, the Senate’s authority seems limited by the people’s “right to confer honors and inflict punishment, the only bonds by which the kingdoms and states and in a word human society in general are held together.”86 The Senate’s power derives, in large part, from its control of the public treasury.87 As Polybius’ analysis of the Roman regime progresses, this power proves increasingly important. Consuls cannot carry on their enterprises without supplies sent by the Senate, and their one-year terms prevent them from seeing extensive campaigns to completion unless the Senate appoints them as proconsul or proprietor.88 Furthermore, the Senate adheres to tradition — what we would call a norm — limiting the number of consecutive terms to which military leaders are appointed. Similarly, the people have difficulty conferring honor without formal occasions for them to do so. Thus, the Senate’s control of funds for triumphs — public celebrations to honor a military commander who had led Roman soldiers to victory — gives it considerable control over the city’s “economy of esteem.”89 The Senate’s control of public funding for making internal improvements throughout Italy is also a mode of rule, both over the Roman people and over those living on the Italian peninsula as a whole.90 The Senate, then, is the source of Roman money and honor. It controls Rome’s army and the army’s consular leaders by obscure financial means that shape not only material incentives but also set the rules of the civil-military game. It deploys incentives familiar to Spartans and Carthaginians, but in ways that no mixed regime had deployed them before.
In the final analysis, however, Polybius did not believe his mixed regime could remain mixed. Sparta’s mixed regime declined into oligarchy with the introduction of foreign currency into the city, while the Carthaginian mixed regime became an oligarchy and later a democracy. Both behaved exactly as Greek political philosophy suggested they would, had they been aristocracies.91 And Polybius expects the Roman regime to follow the same path. Like Carthage and Sparta, he believed the Roman aristocracy would, under the weight of the prosperity brought on by its conquest, slip into oligarchy. Then it would “change its name to the finest sounding of all, freedom and democracy, but would change its true nature to the worst thing of all, mob-rule.”92 One need only refer to the hoary old Greek cycle of regimes to learn why this is so, and to see that on the heels of mob-rule will come a new monarchy.
However, so long as the Roman Senate takes money in hand without losing its virtue and maintains its careful administration of the Roman esteem economy, Rome will continue to thrive. Material factors do play a role in the Senate’s control of Rome’s military, but not a strictly instrumental one. For Polybius, as for Plato and Aristotle before him, the challenge of civil-military relations is to check the natural tendency for arms and rule to coincide. Prior to the rise of modern economies, there were a number of tools one might turn to the task: One could separate the two by educating guardians for virtue and supplementing that education with honorific incentives, as Plato’s Socrates did. Alternatively, one could accept that guardians would inevitably rule and use constitutional mechanisms to ensure that older, more prudent guardians restrained their younger, more impetuous heirs, as Aristotle did. Or one could follow the Polybian path, which at times veered quite close to the world of modern civil-military relations. After all, Polybius linked the power of the Senate to its oversight of the Roman treasury. But even in this moment of close encounter, where Polybius’ voice seems to speak from his world into ours, the basic orientation of the ancients — toward the use of non-material methods to shape civil-military — remains. For it is by pulling the financial strings of honor (allowing for triumphs, for instance) rather than by threatening to defund legions, that the Senate had its most profound influence.
These ancient modes of approaching the problem of civil-military relations — through education, honor, and unwritten norms and social pressure — have the virtue of enduring applicability. By tying the political role of the military to the philosophical matter of man’s spiritedness and the ways in which it can be controlled, these ancient political thinkers can provide insight about how to address today’s civil-military challenges as well as their own. Many of the specific norms, educational processes, or enforcement mechanisms they recommend may be difficult to transplant directly into modern politics without some modifications to account for our current cultural and political context. Their broader theory of norms, however, can help us better understand breakdowns in both ancient and modern civil-military relations.
Civil-Military Norms and the Fall of the Roman Republic
The fall of the Roman republic can serve as a case study for the themes we have discussed so far.93 As one might expect, following Polybius’ depiction of a certain sort of civil-military relationship as crucial to Rome’s success, a disorder springing from the relationship between the soldier and Rome’s political authorities figured prominently in the republic’s century-long decay. Gaius Marius is the hero and villain of this story. His reforms of the Roman military vastly expanded Rome’s power, but at the considerable expense of upsetting the civil-military relations Polybius describes. We shall see in this section that the creation of a powerful, consolidated military combined with the relaxation of norms securing the Senate’s regulation of Rome’s economy of esteem to undermine the republic. By gaining acquiescence from the Roman people — and eventually from the Senate — to violate existing norms so that he could remain consul in the interest of military expediency, Marius gradually usurped the Senate’s role as the locus of the esteem economy.
The armies of the Roman republic grew out of a group of citizen militias that dated back to nearly 700 BCE. Initially, there were only three of these militias and they were composed of 1,000 soldiers each.94 As the republic grew and external threats emerged, however, Rome put as many as several hundred thousand citizen-soldiers under arms.95 Rome maintained no standing or professional forces, but called up the soldiers required for each campaign season, disbanding them shortly thereafter. Prior to 107 BCE, only landowners and citizens in one of the five highest wealth classes were officially eligible for conscription. The army’s senior officers, including its commanders-in-chief, the Roman consuls, were all elected annually at the People’s Assembly. Once it had defeated Hannibal and the Carthaginians, Rome faced no immediate existential threat and turned its military toward a number of lesser challenges on its expanding frontiers.
One such challenge arose not far from where Carthage had once stood. In 146 BCE, Rome created the province of Africa. Roman traders and businessmen on the Italian peninsula quickly developed interests in the new province and in the neighboring client kingdom of Numidia.96 A succession dispute between two potential claimants to the Numidian throne led the Roman Senate, in 116, to order the division of the land. Jugurtha, one of the claimants, refused to accept the settlement, and, as a result, the Roman army was drawn into a decade-long conflict to impose the Senate’s will. From 109 to 107, the Roman consul, Metellus, oversaw what appeared to be an effective strategy. His progress was halting, however, owing in part to a lack of troops.97
Gaius Marius is the hero and villain of this story. His reforms of the Roman military vastly expanded Rome’s power, but at the considerable expense of upsetting the civil-military relations Polybius describes.
Gaius Marius, a staff officer under Metellus, returned to Rome to stand for the consulship and won. His victory led the Roman people to overrule the Senate’s extension of Metellus’ African command and send Marius to replace him. This action broke from a norm that gave the Senate the right to allocate provincial commands.98 In short order, Marius himself broke with tradition by reforming the manner in which Rome raised its armies, compounding the deterioration of the rules of the game Polybius had described. Marius refused to draw his soldiers from only the five propertied classes and looked instead to men of lesser means.99 These semi-professional soldiers soon made up a spirited and sizeable force, and they succeeded marvelously in Africa. But their loyalty was more to Marius than to the Senate. By breaching two norms — the Senate’s control over provincial commands and the manning of legions only from propertied citizens — Marius sowed the seeds of a powerful standing army and popularly acclaimed military dictators.100 These changes also created new financial demands that helped begin to shift control of the esteem economy away from the Senate to Marius and eventually other military leaders as well.
The Alliance Between Marius and Saturninus
Marius further widened the cracks in Rome’s longstanding civil-military norms for the sake of military expediency by disregarding the customary interval that prevented consuls from receiving consecutive commands, and he did so with the acquiescence of the Roman people. As Marius was claiming victory in North Africa, a more serious military challenge was emerging in the north from two Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones. At Arausio (in the southeast of modern France), the consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus suffered the worst Roman defeat in over 100 years.101 Although Marius had not yet returned from Africa, the Roman people elected him to a second consulship for the year 104 and gave him command in Gaul against the Cimbri and the Teutones. In doing so, the Roman people disregarded the traditional requirement of at least a 10-year interval between consulships for the same man, again violating an existing norm in the name of military expediency.102 Marius was subsequently elected consul each year until his sixth term in 100, effectively creating new shared expectations surrounding the power of military leaders in Rome’s political life and weakening the power of the Senate to dictate the behaviors deserving of honor and shame. Marius and the generals who would follow him began to rely less on the Senate for their position and power, preferring instead to cultivate their own popularity among their soldiers and the people.
Marius went on to break norms that limited the duration of consular power, restricted the consul’s manipulation of domestic politics, and limited the time soldiers served in Rome’s legions. While raising and training his new army, Marius forged an important political partnership with Saturninus, a powerful Roman senator and tribune. Saturninus helped to secure the Senate’s approval of Marius’ fourth consulship, and, in return, Saturninus was able to benefit from Marius’ popularity among the people and his armies.103 When Saturninus was not admonished for his role in facilitating the rise of Marius’ political power, individual senators likely realized they, too, might benefit from co-opting military prestige without fear of punishment. Thus, the norm curtailing the duration of military command disappeared. Military leaders observed these changing norms, too, and learned that the rules of the game that dictated the assignment of honor and shame had fundamentally changed. Marius continued his practice of recruiting soldiers from among those without land. He also disregarded the practice of conscripting citizens for short terms, instead enlisting volunteers for a 16-year obligation. In so doing, Marius further bound his soldiers directly to him and weakened the Senate’s control of the financial strings of honor and shame by serving as an intermediary between the Senate and his soldiers.
By 100 BCE, when Marius returned to stand for a sixth consulship, his armies had successfully defeated the Germanic tribes. Marius owed a great deal of his success to his military reforms. He had effectively consolidated control over a standing military force with a cadre of experienced career soldiers. Increasingly, however, these landless volunteers began to look to Marius to provide spoils and help them when they returned from the campaign.104 Because the Roman republic had not developed any scheme for taking care of veterans, Marius used his relationships with key senators, including Saturninus, to ensure the passage of an agrarian law to provide allotments of land for his men. This was an important change to statutory law and the financial incentives offered to soldiers, rather than the informal rules of the game we have been discussing so far. Nevertheless, Marius’ rise to a position of sufficient prominence to carry off such a reform had everything to do with his willingness to violate Rome’s norms. This reform, in turn, gave future consuls new powers that could be turned against previously untouched precedents and customs. By violating norms to remain in power far beyond prior limitations, Marius also was able to develop political power that likely caused his soldiers to see him as the source of the reforms rather than the Senate.
In late 100 BCE, Saturninus again began to press for measures to give colonial lands to Marius’ veterans and to lower the price of state-distributed wheat.105 When opposition arose in response to one of the bill’s provisions, Saturninus called on a small contingent of Marius’ army to join him in the Forum. With the backing of these veterans, Saturninus routed his opponents and imposed his measures by the threat of force.106 Riots and violence continued until the Senate turned to Marius himself to restore the safety of the state. Marius then betrayed both his erstwhile political ally and his veterans by cutting off their water supply and forcing the contingent to surrender.107 Disgusted with their rash actions, Marius had relinquished the opportunity to seize power and had instead sided with the Senate in putting down the revolt.108 Yet his prior, repeated violation of norms had laid the foundations for the very crisis he was forced to resolve.
Although some accounts emphasize Marius’ lack of political savvy or ambition in this situation, this explanation is rather implausible.109 Having served six straight terms as consul and having repeatedly broken with longstanding traditions to secure the state, Marius was clearly the most powerful man in Rome. He did not want for ambition or savvy. He was also, however, a man of some virtue. The sight of riots in the Roman Forum — the spectacle of the Rome he loved and served falling apart — simply appalled him.110 Seeing senators engulfed in chaos and powerless to act on their own was no less appalling, and so Marius responded to their call. It was his virtue and his professional identity as a servant of Rome, ultimately, that saved his city from even greater disorder.111 Although the time Marius spent in Polybian-style camps may have impressed upon his own conscience the importance of the norm that prohibits the use of military force inside the Forum to resolve domestic disputes, the rules of the game — and the expectations of rewards and punishments undergirding them — had already collapsed.
The Rise of Sulla and the Fall of the Roman Republic
Rome’s most fundamental civil-military norms — the prohibition on settling political disputes through military force and the customary authority of the Senate — would continue to be violated as Rome descended into civil war. In 99 BCE, Marius departed Rome for exile in the east. The republic enjoyed six years of relative peace until news of the assassination of Drusus, a tribune who had proposed extending full citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies, caused many of the Italian states to revolt. The ensuing chaos called Marius once more to Rome. He shortly served alongside Sulla in an attempt to subdue the allies, only to withdraw on account of poor health. Sulla was left to suppress the revolts alone and to win the loyalty of Rome’s legions.112
The Social War in 91 BCE brought with it the complete breakdown of coordination between the Roman Senate and the People’s Assembly. After the war concluded in 88 BCE, the Senate made Sulla consul and appointed him to campaign against King Mithridates, who had invaded Greece and was attempting to conquer Rome’s provinces in the east. The People’s Assembly broke with the Senate and granted Marius the same command. Sulla refused to accept the assembly’s decision.113 Joining his army at Nola, Sulla urged the legions to ignore the assembly’s declaration and accept him as their rightful leader. The army obeyed. Sulla then led them to Rome and launched the first of Rome’s civil wars. His six legions easily defeated the small band of gladiators Marius had managed to cobble together. Many Roman citizens were shocked and dismayed by Sulla’s actions, while others welcomed him. Neither the Senate nor the people could coordinate effectively to oppose him.114 In the absence of both norms and formal laws to orient and restrain behavior, Sulla’s ability to control greater force proved decisive.
Rome’s most fundamental civil-military norms — the prohibition on settling political disputes through military force and the customary authority of the Senate — would continue to be violated as Rome descended into civil war.
Sulla established control over the city and within three years had ended the war with Mithridates. During the eastern campaign, Sulla would expand Marius’ military reforms.115 Sulla allowed his veterans to extort the wealth of local communities and granted them plots of land without waiting for the Senate’s approval, effectively undermining that body’s power. He also implemented a system of taxing and fining conquered provinces. These methods allowed him to expand the size of his army and sustain its operations without the support of the Senate.
As Sulla began to plot his return from the east, his rivals organized to resist him.116 They feared that he would use his now-consolidated legions to usurp power, which is, in fact, exactly what he did, once he had won a climactic battle near Rome’s Colline gate. Sulla then took control of Rome and implemented constitutional reforms that allowed him to rule as dictator with no term limit.
Over the course of 30 years, Marius’ successive violations of Rome’s civil-military norms created the conditions for the republic’s first civil war and its eventual fall. The precedents set in this tumultuous period eroded the power of the Senate to bestow honor and shame. Marius’ and Sulla’s reforms of the Roman military, meanwhile, allowed Rome to consolidate control over its legions for a time, but in doing so they effectively destroyed the republic.117 When the Roman people awarded Marius the African command held by his one-time superior, Metellus, they violated the norm that granted the Senate its traditional prerogative over provincial commands. The people also repeatedly made Marius consul, in violation of the norm dictating a decade-long period between terms. In doing so, they presaged Pompey’s rise and then Caesar’s elevation. And when the Senate awarded Sulla an indefinite dictatorship, in violation of the dictator’s traditional six-month term, they foreshadowed Caesar’s “dictatorship for life” and eventually Augustus’ life-long rule (albeit without the dictator’s title). All of these precedents acquired their subsequent force thanks to the military changes that Marius ushered in, which not only enhanced the prestige of military commanders but also stripped the Senate of much of its power over Roman military forces. By raising armies of men who required remuneration and ensuring that their wages and bonuses were understood to come from their commander rather than the Senate, Marius put a professionalized army at the service of its immediate leaders.118 Less conspicuously, these reforms also may have effectively removed the Senate’s power to dictate the terms of the civil-military relationship, by reducing its power to use financial means to bestow honor and shame on soldiers and even its control over who served in the Roman legions. Had the Senate regularized the soldiers’ payments and pensions through legislation — administered perhaps by a republican bureaucracy anticipating the imperial bureaucracy that would arise on the republic’s ashes — the soldiers’ allegiance to the republic may have proven stronger than their allegiance to military leaders.119 But perhaps even more fundamental was the Senate’s acquiescence to a thoroughgoing revision of ancient norms, partly in response to military necessity, partly in response to novel political conditions at home, like the furor over Italian citizenship and the Gracchi’s proposals for redistribution of land and wealth. The combination of a powerful consolidated military and the relaxation of the republic’s unwritten rules prepared the way for the Roman Empire.
Although political scientists have recently focused on rationalist and interest-based explanations of civil-military relations, Plato and his earliest respondents suggest not only that norms matter, but that they should be central to our understanding of civilian control. While interest-based explanations have certainly enhanced our knowledge and should not be scrapped, we argue that modern political scientists should think more carefully about the role that norms still play. The ancients submit that honor and shame — as distinct from material incentives like money or coercion — are important mechanisms that can shape behavior in the civil-military relationship. And yet, scholars pay little attention to these mechanisms today. There is significant room for further research on the role of norms in American civil-military relations, both among civilian elites and among the military.
While debates about what norms should govern civil-military relations will continue, they need to be supplemented by additional empirical work that examines which norms exist, when they matter, and how they change. Similarly, the field would benefit from developing a better understanding of who controls the articulation of norms and how they are transmitted to both civilians and the military. Although most attention in the literature focuses on norms among military servicemembers, recent events — and the example of Rome’s decline — suggest that civilian adherence to civil-military norms, or the lack thereof, may have an important impact on dynamics between political and military leaders.
Contemporary events in American civil-military relations indicate that control over honor and shame still plays a key role in shaping the relationship between civilian society and the military today, and that the rules of the game may be changing. Trump is not alone in attempting to politicize the military, even if some of his attempts have been particularly egregious. Elected political leaders and aspiring office holders routinely use photo ops and social media to demonstrate their support for the troops, and they frequently recruit retired generals and admirals to support their campaigns or boost their credibility with the public.120 As in the case of Marius and Saturninus, these developments suggest that elected leaders are, at least to some degree, less concerned with how to reward or punish adherence to civil-military norms than they are with how to appropriate the military’s prestige for their own benefit. Indeed, political scientist Risa Brooks recently went so far as to question whether and how the military could continue to adhere to norms of non-partisanship when political leaders themselves so grossly violate them.121
Contemporary events in American civil-military relations indicate that control over honor and shame still plays a key role in shaping the relationship between civilian society and the military today, and that the rules of the game may be changing.
Moreover, the potential use of honor and shame — and their importance in shaping civil-military outcomes — was also apparent in the cases of convicted war criminals Clint Lorance and Eddie Gallagher as well as in the case of alleged war criminal Mathew Golsteyn. In all three instances, attempts to shape the narrative and mobilize public support to mitigate criticism of these men’s actions were extreme, with Gallagher appearing on Fox News to defend himself despite being on active duty and a contingent of their supporters vocally requesting pardons from Trump.122 The White House statement on the president’s decision to grant executive clemency to Lorance and Golsteyn and to promote Gallagher referenced a petition signed by 124,000 Americans and more than 20 members of Congress.123 This decision sent a clear message about which behaviors are worthy of honor and which are not.
Perhaps an even clearer example of the impact of norms in contemporary civil-military relations is the apology of Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after an appearance in his combat uniform with Trump on June 1, 2020. In the midst of divisive domestic debates about police brutality and the use of the military on domestic soil, the chairman joined Trump for a domestic public relations event only months before a presidential election. Milley followed Trump across Lafayette Square, which minutes earlier had been cleared aggressively by police with the support of National Guard personnel, to Saint John’s Church for a controversial photo op. His decision to join the president “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”124 After the appearance, an unprecedented cohort of retired senior generals and admirals criticized the president and the administration’s response to the Black Lives Matters protests, targeting Trump’s use of divisive language, the deployment of the National Guard troops to support the police who cleared Lafayette Square, and a controversial “show of force” by a National Guard helicopter trying to get protestors to disperse.125 Milley, in particular, faced heavy criticism for his role in the events in and near Lafayette Square. While still somewhat speculative, initial evidence suggests that this broad public reprimand — through the attribution of shame — played a significant role in Milley’s decision to apologize and to reaffirm the importance of military adherence to the norm of non-partisanship.
The success of the modern republican approach to civil-military relations should not blind us to the enduring relevance of the ancient approach. Although Americans may be accustomed to speaking of military virtue with the more modest and egalitarian label of “professionalism,” citizens rely all the same on the officer’s character, particularly in moments of crisis and temptation. And even if financial and coercive incentives sometimes complement norms based on honor and shame, American society still relies on fame (e.g., medals of honor and other awards) and infamy (dishonorable discharges) to shape the behavior of American soldiers. Even scholars of civil-military relations exert some power over norms when they praise or condemn violations of “unwritten rules” — like recent breaches in the prohibition of partisan behavior by the military. While debates about civil-military relations today often begin with the writings of Huntington or Janowitz, ancient approaches to civil-military relations — with their focus on norms and immaterial incentives — remain relevant. Modern modes of control rest on a substantial normative foundation that can be easy to take for granted.
As scholars, policymakers, and military officers struggle to understand and respond to changes in civil-military relations today, ancient modes of civilian control may be an important source of insight. The less observable, but still powerful, ways of shaping and maintaining civil-military norms that Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius proposed — through education, honor, unwritten norms, and social pressure — have enduring value. Their orientation toward non-material incentives can help us better understand why civil-military norms have been weakening in the United States over recent decades, and their insights could potentially help America prevent the same type of civil-military breakdown that hastened the fall of the Roman republic.
Jim Golby is a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin and co-host of the Center for Strategic and International Studies “Thank You for Your Service” podcast.
Hugh Liebert is an associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy. He is the author or editor of six books, including Plutarch’s Politics (2016).
Acknowledgements: We are grateful to Kori Schake and numerous others who offered helpful feedback on this essay during the 2019 biennial meeting of the Inter-University Seminar on the Armed Forces and Society, the cadets of West Point’s “Social Sciences 472: The Soldier and the State,” and the anonymous referees for helpful comments on drafts of this article. The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Military Academy, the United States Army, or the Department of Defense.