Nick Fotion
Emory University


Professor Nicholas Fotion discusses "Serving the Society" and focuses on the question, "How should the military relate to the other institutions of society?" He observes that, unlike other nations, the US has never found the military in a dominant institutional role. We can compare the roles of the medical profession and the military profession. In both, if the professional agent does not have the full consent of the client, something is amiss. For the military, the nation is the client. To obtain, full, informed consent, doctors and military officers must be open with their clients in ways both groups have at timesbeen reluctant to follow. Professor Fotion argues that obtaining national consent for major decisions about military expenditures and the commitment of military forces (within specifiable security limitations) makes utilitarian sense. Openness should be the basis, he claims, for the military's relations with other social institutions as well.



Consider the following institutions: the national government, including its executive, legislative and judicial branches, state and local governments and their branches, business, the health-care system, the mass media, religion, education, and the military. These institutions are found in almost all countries including the United States. One of many questions that can be asked about them is 'How do they in fact relate to one another?' Another is 'How should they relate to one another?' In this paper I will focus on the military as an institution, paying most attention on the question 'How should the military relate to the other institutions?'

Clearly one way institutions relate to one another is by way of domination. In a country like contemporary Iran, religion dominates the other institutions. In the United States early in this century and late in the 19th presumably business dominated; and in many South American countries in the past the military dominated. Dominance might inhere in an institution not mentioned thus far, viz., a political party. China at present and the now defunct Soviet Union are good examples of this form of institutional dominance, as was Nazi Germany.

Another way the various institutions can relate to one another is by sharing power by a kind of balance of power arrangement. Any two or three institutions might share power with perhaps one institution being more powerful for a time, only to give way to another institution, again for a time.

In the United States the military has never been in a dominant role, except perhaps briefly during major wars. Nor did it share power on an equal basis with another institution. It was designed from the beginning so that the military would not dominate; and we have pretty much stayed with the design.1 Historically the worry was that the military is an inherently dangerous institution to the society it serves. Controlling armaments as it does, the military, or some element within it, could physically coerce the society to do its bidding. That was the fear. So in this society, as in most, steps were taken to keep the military in line--that is, to keep it subservient in some sense to some other institution in the society. Being a "liberal-democratic" society it was natural for us to make the military subservient to the government since in such a society the government represents the people.

The subservience is of a special kind. It is not like the prisoner's subservience which, presumably, is intended to punish and even reform the prisoner. It is more like the subservience of a maid or a man servant. We don't speak of the branches of the military as the services for nothing. Those inthe service serve. They serve the interests of the government and, through the government, serve the interests of the people.

But even the maid and man servant metaphor doesn't get it quite right. Others provide services who have, as it were, a loftier status than maids and man servants. Physicians for example serve in a real sense as do lawyers, teachers, and ministers. The not very original suggestion at this point is that at least some of those serving in the military provide their services more in line with these loftier servants. The further suggestion is that insofar as they do, we can gain insights into what the relationships should be between the military and those the military serve by comparing what the relationships should be between physicians, lawyers, teachers and ministers, on the one side, and their "masters," on the other.

For the sake of brevity I will focus on physicians in making these comparisons. Such focusing should have no ill consequences. What one says about physicians will hold with some small differences for the rest of the high professions.



Notice first off that the trend in medicine when dealing with patients is to raise their status. More than in the past, physicians are urged not to act paternalistically. Patients are not supposed to be thought of as children so that it is no longer fashionable to say things like "The doctor knows best." To be sure, no one denies that doctors know a lot. Their training is far too extensive for anyone to issue a denial here. But patients know something too. They know about their preferences and their goals.2 Given some exceptions, such as with those who are severely mentally disturbed, patients know about these preferences better than anyone else.3 So before medical procedures are initiated, physicians today are urged to obtain consent from their patients. And the consent must obviously be informed so that the patients can make intelligent decisions. The consent must also be made freely, that is, in a setting where patients are not or do not feel coerced to do what their physicians and other health-care providers desire.


In a real sense this uplifting of the status of patients was long overdue. It was always granted that physicians are supposed to serve their patients. But by traditionally not asking patients about their preferences, it eventually became evident that physicians were not properly serving their patients. At best they were only conjecturing about patient preferences and thus imagining that they were serving their patients well. At worst they were serving themselves first and their patients second by, for instance, doing profitable but unnecessary surgery.

The analogy to the military is obvious. A military establishment that carries out its tasks without obtaining full consent from the nation (i.e., the military's patient) can also be said not to be doing its job properly. If we follow the analogy out, the military should be more fully informing toward those it serves than it has been in the past in order to make proper national consent possible. It should be more open about weapons purchase, weapons testing, costs, recruitment practices, preparedness, embarrassing incidents (e.g., crimes of various sorts) occurring on its facilities, and the like. In this connection, high profile events such as the secret nuclear, chemical and biological experiments on people during the early part of the cold war,4 the cover up of the My Lai5 and the events and cover up related to the Tailhook scandal6 come to mind. Scores of less well-known incidents involving too much secrecy and cover up could be cited. As painful as it is to talk about some of these things more openly, the argument will be that it is both morally and prudentially advisable to do just that.



There are at least three objections to this general proposal about greater openness, and each in effect questions the validity of the analogy being made to medicine. The first is concerned with who is served by those in the profession. In medicine it is the individual person--although, to be sure, some public health providers serve groups of people as well as persons. In contrast, the military serves the whole society--although, interestingly enough, it can serve a local community as when it defends it from enemy attack. Given this difference, an objector might say: "Yes, I know what it means to obtain consent from an individual, but it doesn't make sense to get consent from the whole nation."

The objection has some bite to it. It isn't easy to get consent from the nation as it is from an individual. But the notion of national consent is not nonsense. Basically it can be done in two ways. In a liberal-democratic society one way is through the people's representatives.7 They give consent to military activities on behalf of the people. They, in effect, tell the military what services the people desire. And they do so by being fully informed about the military's capabilities and activities. The second way is through the people. Indirectly they give consent by voting one way rather than another on a president, on senators, and representatives in Congress. They also give or fail to give consent by engaging in political activity such as forming political action groups and by writing letters to their representatives. To give consent in these ways they too need to be fully informed.

The second objection is concerned with the need for secrecy in the military, and can be expressed as follows. The analogy to the medical area breaks down since, in medicine, there is no place for secrecy the way there is in the military. Military people have to deal with an enemy that seeks information, and then uses it to its own advantage. It would be foolish for a nation to hand over such information to its enemy on a silver platter under the rubric of giving consent to its people and their representatives.

Again there is force to the objection. There is a need for secrecy and thus in some sense the people and many of their representatives cannot be in position to give fully informed consent to certain military activities. For example, if the United States Air Force possesses Aurora aircraft, that is, a type that can allegedly fly at six or seven times the speed of sound, it may be best to keep it a secret for now.8 And if the United States plans an invasion of a country where surprise is important to success, it no doubt is best to keep those plans a secret. But even if one assumes these and perhaps other kinds of military secrets are legitimate, this does not justify the general level of secrecy found within the military. Consider an example, or what can be better be described as a wide cluster of examples. At present the U.S. military is engaged in extensive research in so called non-lethal weapons. These weapons include low frequency sound generators that incapacitate and disorient humans, acoustical beam weapons, laser rifle weapons that temporarily blind humans, various biological and supercaustic agents that can destroy or degrade a wide variety of military equipment made of rubber, metal and other materials, and also combustion inhibitors that can incapacitate engines that run tanks, trucks, airplanes and the like.9 Much of this research is cloaked in heavy secrecy. This is especially true of many of the details of these weapon systems. But even the non-lethal weapons program considered as a whole is still highly secret. As a result, the society, either as a whole or through its representatives, has not had the opportunity to discuss whether it wishes its military to develop and deploy some or all of these weapons. The society might very well wish to engage in such discussion since some of these weapons, if used in battle or in riot control situations, will have nasty effects not only on humans but on the environment. Some of them as well either violate, come near to violating, or may soon violate international law.10

Still, the objector might persist by saying that it would be total foolishness to hand over secrets to potential enemies. The objector might add that it is extremely important for the United States to maintain its technological edge, and what helps in that regard is that secrets be kept.

In replying to this objection it is useful once again to refer back to the medical analogy. In medicine patients give consent and in the process are said to be fully informed even though they are not given all the information available. The reason some information is withheld is not because of some enemy, but because patients have only limited knowledge and understanding of medical technology. Still, the expression 'fully informed' is meaningful since patients are given enough information to allow them to make rational decisions about their health. They are told in layman's terms both about the procedures to be performed and about the medicines to be given to them; and also about the probable risks and benefits of each. All is not told, but enough is so that rational decisions can be made.

In a similar vein the society can be fully informed about military matters even though all is not told. The society as a whole, and even most of its representatives, need not know all the details of the F-22's performance envelope to be in position to make a rational decision about whether it should be built and deployed early in the 21st century as the U.S.'s version of an air superiority fighter plane. Surely in making it possible for the society to make this decision some performance characteristics of the F-22 that might have been kept secret will become public. And some potential enemy might welcome this information (assuming that it was not smart and assertive enough to obtain the information on their its initiative anyway). Still, the point is, if that is the cost for keeping the society well informed about the military then that cost needs to be paid.

Keep in mind that secrecy has its own costs--at least three in fact. The first, is concerned with duplication and the resulting waste. Secret programs within one segment of the military have a tendency to duplicate secret programs in another segment.11 Its the old story of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing. The flip side of this point is that if there is more cooperation between the services, and even perhaps more selected cooperation with allies, each hand will know better what the other is doing.12 Second, there is the blanket problem. Legitimate secrets hiding under the secrecy blanket are often joined under there by not so legitimate secrets such as inefficiencies, errors, and downright cases of dishonesty and corruption. Accountability is difficult to come by insofar as secrecy is a way of life for many military people. Third, there is the problem of getting caught. When corruption or whatever other illegitimately kept secret finally sees the light of day, the society not only punishes the wrong doer but, more importantly, develops a sense of distrust of the military. That distrust translates into punishment by way of budget cuts. The result is that the military cannot do its best to serve the society it is pledged to serve.

The third objection to the proposal for more openness and societal consent with respect to military matters is concerned with emasculation. The objection goes something like this. The military has a host of missions to perform. If decisions about these missions are made by non-military people, that is, if the military is emasculated, the likelihood of misunderstandings concerning these missions multiplies. The military will thus be asked by the non-military to engage in activities that do not make military sense.

Like the other two objections, this one also has a core of truth to it. We are all familiar with the problems the military faced when President Johnson tried to micromanage the Viet Nam War from the White House--a location a bit remote from the battlefield. But arguing for consent of the people in matters military is not one that entails non-military micromanagement. What it entails is management in general terms. Perhaps it is better to say it entails regulation or oversight. It is not easy to draw a line here but, still, a rough one can be drawn. On the one side, the policy of public consent gives the non-military the power to decide when a nation goes to war, what the general parameters of that war are both with respect to what nations constitute the enemy and how morally "clean" the war will be fought, the kinds of money available to the military, the kinds of equipment to be purchased, and the sorts of social policies the military is to follow (e.g., whether women should be in the front lines in battle). On the other side this policy gives the military the power to make decisions about how the war is to be fought, what the training procedures will be like, how personnel will be assigned and the like. Again the rough line drawn here separating non-military from military functions is such that there will be a considerable amount of responsibility overlap. Responsibility for a war's strategic plans will be shared, for example, by both the non-military and military. The details will be worked out by the military, who have the know-how for doing these things; but the plan itself will be subject to the approval of the non-military. Overall, however, there is enough responsibility left for the military so that the charge of emasculation can be deflected.

There is another aspect to the problem concerning the relationship between the military and the non-military that further deflects the emasculation charge. Modern wars do not just have battlefield effects. That is, the repercussions of war do not just affect military personnel and their equipment. Whole cities and countries, the people and their institutions in them, as well the environment, are affected by how modern wars are fought. Given these social and political facts, it is important for at least some high military officials to be trained in understanding these repercussions. This means that at least a few of these high officials need to be what some writers have called soldier-statesmen.13 Their voices need to be heard above the noise of battle. They need to play roles in government beyond the strictly military ones of commanding troops in battle. Whether these roles are merely advisory or are ones that have a place in the non-military chain of decision making will vary both with the circumstances and the preferences of the nation's non-military leadership. But either way, we see that just as the non-military intrude into the military sphere in making decisions, so some in the military intrude into the non-military sphere. If this is emasculation, it is mutual emasculation. There was in the past, there is now, and there should be in the future a large amount of interaction between the military and the non-military when it comes to decision making.



Having dealt with three objections to the proposal for what has been presented as the ideal relationship between the military and government, I will summarize what has been said and then take a brief look to see if the results apply to some of the other institutions in the society. It was said that the military is a service institution. Almost everyone admits this. Further, it appears that service institutions do their job most effectively when they seriously take account of the preferences of those they serve. Historically the military has received criticism for being too isolated, too secretive, and too paternalistic. The recommendation has been that it should become at least somewhat less isolated, less secretive, and less paternalistic. Moral and prudential arguments for making these changes were presented.

However, what applies to the military in relation to the government applies as well to the military's relations to the society's other institutions. Consider the various mass media. They are not easy to deal with. Their concern is often with the sensational. And the heavy attention they give to mistakes made by individuals and groups has been compared to a feeding frenzy of sharks. As a result, only the bravest commanders seem able to admit up front that they or those under their command have made serious mistakes. No one likes to be chewed upon by a school of sharks.

But as perverse as it sounds, the recommendation is that the military should submit to shark attacks. Whatever their weaknesses may be, the various media are our main vehicles for disseminating information to the people to help them make sound decisions. They speak not only to the people at large, but also to those who run the government. It is important, therefore, that in a liberal-democratic society like ours that the military should be open in dealing with the media in much the same way they should be open with legislators, with those in the executive branch who deal with the military and even with members of the judicial branch of government. We have to keep in mind that the mass media's frenzy most resembles shark attacks not when someone is exposed as having made a serious mistake, but for hiding the mistake made. Often survival is possible when the concern is just with a mistake. Rarely is survival possible when caught in an attempt to pull off a cover up.

There is another reason for openness with the media. The media after all are a part of the society. If the society as a whole deserves to know in order to be well served by the military, the media also deserve to know. The same point applies to education as an institution. It too is part of society and deserves to know. In addition, like the media, it has a special role to play in studying the military. In its own more quiet way, when compared to the media, academia can help the military in understanding itself by both praising and criticizing what it does. As part of doing these jobs, academia profits from having military personnel receive advanced degrees and from encouraging academics to teach and work within the military. Interaction not only encourages more openness and mutual understanding between the military and academia, but also between the military and the rest of society.14

Much the same is true in the military's relations with religious institutions. These institutions can and do serve the society by helping to measure the good and bad of the military. Of course historically there has always been a close relationship between the military and religion, what with many religious professionals joining the military as chaplains, and with a better than average "church" attendance record by military personnel. But beyond these points of contact between these two institutions, the need is for religious institutions to play a kind of watchdog function--perhaps to a greater degree than they have done in the past.

Articulating the proper relationship between business and the military is more complex. The reason for this has to do mainly with the nature of business. Business serves the community by producing products and providing know-how, but it does so in a highly competitive setting. Competition of course has its advantages. It keeps people on their toes and prices down. But it also keeps business from being a service institution in the same way the military is. Whereas the military's role is to keep those it serves ahead of its own interests, it is the other way around for business. The thrust of business is the bottom line, not the line of duty. This is not to criticize business for what it is. It is only to note the different motivating force of those in business as compared to those in the military--and for that matter in religion, education, medicine, and law.

In spite of these differences, the proper relationship between the military and business has to be the same basically as it is with the other institutions. Business should be served by the military just the same as are the other institutions and as is the society as a whole. So if a policy of more openness by the military is recommended for the everyone else, it has to also be the recommendation for dealing with business. Because, however, business itself may not be so open in its dealings with the military and the society, the military has an extra duty to monitor business so as to, putting it bluntly, test its honesty. Officers in charge of military procurement and testing of, let us say, the F-22 fighter plane, thus have a duty to report honestly whether that plane meets the standards set for it in the contract signed with Lockheed, but they have the additional duty of watching over Lockheed to make certain that "bottom line" mentality does not overly affect the quality and the cost of the product this company is being asked to produce.



In no more than outline form, this paper has suggested that a partial shift in thinking is necessary in trying to answer the question 'What should the relationship be between the military and the rest of the society it serves?' The shift is toward more openness so as to enable the society to be better informed about how it can be better served by the military. Combined with this shift are recommendations that side more comfortably with the fusionists as against the separatists. Fusionists argue that the military should work within the political sphere to help explain and form policies pertaining to military activities.15 Separatists argue that those in the military have no special skills for dealing with political matters and, further, need to focus all of their attention upon training for war. For separatists, dabbling in politics is a distraction.16 This paper has argued against this separatist position in large part because it is important to the society to understand better what the military can and cannot accomplish by way of serving it. Among the several reasons given favoring fusionism, one more needs to be added. If the military maintains a distinct code of ethics and life style, as it almost must in performing its special functions of preventing and, when that fails, fighting wars, fusionism helps more than separatism to explain these codes and styles to the rest of society. To be isolated politically and as well socially from the rest of a democratic-liberal society risks alienation. That society will increase its suspicion of this costly and dangerous institution within its midst if that institution becomes too secretive. It is better then to be more open and explain yourself. Either that, or others will explain you in ways that harm you and, in turn, harm the society--because you can no longer serve it as well as you might otherwise.



1. Huntington, Samuel P. "Civil-Military Relations II," (1982) in American Defense Policy, Fifth Edition, edited by John F. Reichart and Steven R. Sturm, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London. p. 740.

 2. President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical Research (1989) "Informed Consent as Active, Shared Decision Making," reprinted in Contemporary Issues in Bioethics, Third Edition, edited by Tom L. Beauchamp and Le Roy Walters, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA., pp. 390-394 (originally published in Making Health Care Decisions Vol. 1, Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1992).

 3. "Canterbury vs Spence," No. 22099 (1972) Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, May 19, 464 Federal Reporter, 2nd Series 772.

 4. Budiansky, Stephen, etc. (1994) "The Cold War Experiments," U.S. News and World Report January 24, pp. 32-36, 38.

 5. Bilton, Michael and Sim, Kevin (1992) Four Hours at My Lai, New York Viking Penguin,. See especially Chapters 6-12.

 6. Stone, Andrea (1994) "Court: Tailhook Cover Up Tried," USA Today, Feb. 9. Sec. A, p.8; Borkowski, Monica (1994) "Chronology of a Scandal that Tarnished the Navy," New York Times, Feb. 9, Sec. B, p. 7.

7. Kozak, David C. (1990) "The Defense Policy Process in Congress: Roles, Players and Setting, Trends and Evaluations," in American Defense Policy, Sixth Edition, edited by Schuyler Forester and Edward N. Wright, Baltimore and London, pp. 467-489,The Johns Hopkins University Press,.

8. S weetman, Bill (1992) "Hypersonic Aurora: a Secret Dawning," Jane's Defence Weekly, December 12, pp. 14-16.

9. Aftergood, Steven (1994) "The Soft-Kill Fallacy," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October, p. 43.

10. Rosenberg, Barbara Hatch (1994) "'Non-lethal' Weapons May Violate Treaties," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October, pp. 44-45.

11. Aftergood, p. 43.

12. Jane's Defence Weekly (1994) "The Currency of Co-operation," Jane's Defence Weekly, September 3, pp. 54, 56.

13. Slater, Jerome (1982) "Military Officers and Politics I," in American Defense Policy, Fifth Edition, edited by John F. Reichart and Steven R. Sturm, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, p. 749.

14. Ibid., p. 754.

15. Reichart, John F. and Sturm, Steven R. (1982) "Introductory Essay," in American Defense Policy, Fifth Edition, edited by John F. Reichart and Steven R. Sturm, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, p. 724.

16. Ibid., pp. 723-4.