But in Iraq and Afghanistan, those combat troops spent a great deal of their time engaged in activities far removed from combat. They engaged the enemy when needed (the high casualty rates for troops in combat-related military occupational specialties make this painfully clear), but also found themselves doing everything from building schools to encouraging women's participation in economic activity.
The stated rationale for such seemingly not-very-militaryish activities was clear: to "win" in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States needed to win the hearts and minds of the population. As Lieutenant General William Caldwell put it in a 2008 Military Review article, "The future is not one of major battles and engagements fought by armies on battlefields devoid of population... victory will be measured in far different terms than the wars of our past. The allegiance, trust, and confidence of populations will be the final arbiters of success."
Counterinsurgency -- all the rage just a few years ago -- seems to have officially fallen out of fashion today, but there's no reason to think that our combat troops won't continue to engage in non-traditional multi-tasking in the decades to come. The military will always need the capacity to shoot people and blow stuff up. But in a world in which critical threats to U.S. national security may come from airline passengers armed only with boxcutters, from cyberspace or from a virus deliberately transmitted, it's inevitable -- and necessary -- that our troops will spend more and more time on activities that don't much resemble traditional forms of combat. They'll control drones from hundreds or thousands of miles away; they'll engage in "offensive actions in cyberspace"; they'll engage in covert and clandestine activities more traditionally viewed as the sphere of intelligence agencies.
Complicating matters even more, the decline in the military's tooth-to-tail ratio has been paralleled by a rise in civilian organizations (public and private) engaging in what look suspiciously like traditional military activities. The CIA has gone kinetic, for instance, with paramilitary forces that engage in direct action, often working hand in hand with military special operations forces. And for-profit private military companies increasingly place civilian contractors in jobs that resemble combat positions in all but name.
All this leads me to echo McGrath's question: When is a military deployment not a military deployment? Or: when does a military stop being a military? Is there some minimum quantum of traditional "combat" that makes a military "military," as opposed to something else, something we have yet to imagine or define?
There aren't just academic questions. Whether (and how much) the civilian-military gap matters depends greatly on how we categorize what the military is doing. In fact, much of what we think we know about how to run our military -- how to sustain it and constrain it, how to divvy up roles and missions, funding and authorities between the military and other entities -- depends on our ability to know what it is that we mean when use the term "the military."
If "the military" increasingly performs civilian functions, for instance, then maybe it doesn't matter that much if the State Department has fewer resources -- maybe our focus should just be on ensuring that the military performs those formerly civilian functions well. Conversely, if civilian entities such as the CIA perform "military" functions, then maybe we need to rethink how we hold the CIA accountable for its activities, which are far less transparent than those of the military. More generally, how do we make sense of civil-military relations -- and civilian control of the military -- when the boundaries between the "civilian" and "military" categories are grow ever more blurry?
In a recent guest post on Tom Ricks' blog, Mackubin Thomas Owens wrote, "The line between military and civilian is not impermeable. Success in national security requires that civilians have an ongoing say in military affairs," while "the military has to be at the policy and strategy table" as well.
That's wise advice. But if we can't define "military affairs" with any clarity, or reliably distinguish it from "policy" or "strategy," can we act on it?