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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 261


Review:  Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957.


The Soldier and the State is both a theoretical study of civil-military relations and an analysis of these relations throughout American history, beginning with the Constitution.  Samuel Huntington's main interest, as a political scientist, is in developing a theory of military professionalism which he can then use to critique American civil-military relations.  He starts by defining the characteristics of a professional officer corps and proposing a theoretical framework to examine civil-military relations.  He posits the "ideal" civil-military relationship to be what he calls "objective civilian control."  He sees this as desirable because it maximizes military professionalism, which he equates with military competence, while keeping the political and military affairs of a state completely separate.

The Soldier and the State is not without its strong points.  Huntington presents a plausible definition of the modern professional military, and his examination of the "military mind" is useful.  His treatment of the American military from a political science perspective is also valuable.  He locates a major turning point in the period between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, when the military began to develop a professional character as a result of its isolation from the rest of American society.

Huntington's entire definition of professionalism in the military is based on the Prussian model, beginning with the reforms of 1806.  This is undoubtedly correct, but somewhere he makes the leap that this is the ideal form of military professionalism.  What he calls "the concrete, permanent, and universal" military ethic (p. 89) would be more accurately described as the Prussian military ethic.  As he shows, this was the basis for all modern Western military ethics, so in some sense it has become universal.  But he never attempts to explain how what is becomes what should be.  He contents himself to showing how from 1870-1914, the German officers came close to his ideal professional: not surprisingly, the Prussians were very Prussian.

In addition, Huntington's understanding of Clausewitz is seriously flawed.  He praises Wilhelmine civil-military relations because, following Clausewitz's concept of the dual nature of war, "the scope of military authority was strictly limited to military affairs." (p. 101)  Clausewitz said exactly the opposite: politics and war are inextricably linked, and it is foolhardy to try to distinguish one from the other.  It would be hard to find a better example of this than the Schlieffen Plan, set to roll against France no matter who Germany's grievance was with.  The German generals' great failure was their refusal to recognize the political implications of "strictly military" plans.

Huntington clearly revels in his self-appointed role as the lonely conservative voice of reason in the "unchanging, monotonous, and all-embracing" sea of American liberalism (p. 145).  He makes the astonishingly unhistorical assertion that American political ideology from 1789 to 1915 "was essentially the same." (p. 145)  To suppose that Thomas Jefferson's and Woodrow Wilson's views of the role of government were identical is simply absurd.  Here, as he often does throughout the book, Huntington takes a small kernel of truth--that American politics has generally been based on the liberal tradition without a significant rival ideology--and expands it into a fundamental principle.

Like Walter Millis's Arms and Men, The Soldier and the State was written in the apocalyptic mind-set of the 1950s.  Both Millis and Huntington saw the Soviet Union as an unprecedented threat to the United States.  But Huntington advocates as a solution what Millis feared as the greatest danger: the adoption by society of military values.  Huntington believed that the present state of American civil-military relations was undermining the ability of the armed forces to protect the United States, by preventing "objective" civilian control which would allow the military to reach the highest level of professionalization.  In a sense then, The Soldier and the State can be treated as a "period piece," similar to Arms and Men.

But where only the final two chapters of Arms and Men are really bound up in Millis's fears for the future, Huntington's profound contempt for liberal American society taints his entire book.  Huntington describes how American officers became estranged from society after becoming professionalized during the late nineteenth century: "The years of isolation . . . had interjected steel into his soul which was missing from that of the community." (p. 230)  He closes with an unfavorable comparison of a typical American town to the "ordered serenity" of West Point, arguing that Americans "may eventually find redemption and security in making [the military standard] their own."(p. 466)

Huntington's ideological viewpoint would not be a problem, except that his argument seems to based solely on ideological grounds.  It is certainly not based on historical evidence.  He never even attempts to make a case that the Wilhelmine model of civil-military relations was something to be emulated, by showing how much better it protected German national security than other forms.  He simply asserts that the Prussian model is the ideal, and goes from there to different nations either approach it (which is good) or deviate from it (which is bad).  As a work of political science, The Soldier and State may be acceptable, even valuable.  As a work of history, it is neither.

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