The Role of Civilians in the Military

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A person following the pursuits of civil life, especially one not active in the military or a police force. Civilians are distinguished from combatants in situations of international armed conflict and non-international armed conflict, although the distinction may be difficult to make. In such cases, civilians retain the special protections afforded by the main international humanitarian conventions on the conduct of hostilities and their treatment in captivity.

Civilians also play an important role in the United States’ system of civilian control of the armed forces. This concept, rooted in Articles I and II of the Constitution of the United States, ensures that the President’s authority to launch military actions is strictly limited by the Congress’ War Powers Clause and the President’s authority as commander-in-chief.

This concept of civilian control, in turn, ensures that the military will not be used as an instrument of foreign policy without the express consent of a civilian leader. In addition, it promotes the principle that military commanders must be allowed to disagree with civilian policy guidance that is deemed unwise in their professional judgment.

There is no question that civilians have a lot to offer the military. They bring a wealth of experience in managing complex projects, working with teams from diverse backgrounds and balancing competing interests. They often have extensive experience in dealing with public opinion and navigating political issues that can impact the effectiveness of defense and national security policies.

Despite these valuable contributions, however, many military veterans are uncomfortable with civilians taking leadership positions in the military. This is largely due to the difference between the civilian and military worldviews and career paths.

Civilians tend to have careers in fields such as business, law, government and public administration. They have spent their lives learning how to work within highly-regulated institutions, manage people and resources, and balance multiple competing priorities. They have a unique perspective on the relationship between national security and society and how military policies can positively impact that relationship.

It is true that many senior military officials do not have civilian careers before entering public service, but this should not diminish the value they add. In fact, civilians can be more valuable to the military than their counterparts in other government sectors because of their experience in the full range of societal and public policy issues that a defense or national security official must address.

Civilians have a lot to teach the military about balancing extremely diverse interests and navigating political considerations. They can help to ensure that the defense or national security community does not lose sight of its mission, or the importance of ensuring that the safety of civilians caught up in conflicts is protected. This is precisely what the military needs from civilians. And it is why the broader civil and private sector should embrace the talents that civilians can bring to these roles.