National Defense: Asleep At The Nuclear Switch


ivilian control of the United States military is a core principle of our constitutional order. Over the decades, that foundational precept has insulated our nation from many of the trials and travails that have rocked other countries whose civilian leadership is always one bad decision or budget cut away from a complete coup by the generals. However that system only works if the civilians are actually on the job. When Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his top staff failed to inform the White House or the Deputy Secretary of Defense about his hospitalization for several days in an intensive care unit last week, it did more than just evidence bad communication among top leaders. It was an oversight which threatened the very foundation of operation for our national government.

The principle of civilian control means that when the president issues an order, it does not go directly to an admiral or general serving somewhere overseas. It goes to the Secretary of Defense, who then distributes it to the appropriate commander. That order may be something as simple as moving an aircraft carrier into a troubled hotspot in some far-flung region of the world. Or it may be as incredibly serious as the decision to launch a nuclear weapon as one arcs its way toward New York City from Iran or North Korea. The protocols for these decisions, in which the fate of the world rests in the hands of only a few, run from the President to the Secretary of Defense.

However, what happens when secretary goes AWOL? A uniformed soldier who declined to show up for four days without informing his superior and his back-up would be a crime under the uniform code of military justice. And it would be a crime for a reason: because being absent without leave in the military threatens the health and safety of your unit. When you’re the Secretary of Defense, going AWOL can threaten the safety and security of our entire nation.

Secretary Austin was hospitalized for several days without informing the national security advisor. He also transferred his responsibilities to the Deputy Secretary, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico and was not told until days later these responsibilities had been transferred (responsibilities like holding the nuclear launch codes—those kinds of responsibilities). Such a failure in itself is a scandal.

But this also could evidence a much larger dysfunction within the Biden national security apparatus. In a healthy White House, the national security advisor, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of State meet every single week to compare notes, work through issues, and talk about their travel plans. Even when there are deep institutional dynamics, if not tension, if not rivalry between the various agencies, the principals themselves have to stay above the fray and focus on what’s best for the country.

Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas have a classic study of Cold War politics entitled The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. The study illustrates the powerful effect exercised by six men in different positions of power who had close working relationships aligned around shared worldviews and supported by genuine friendship: They literally shaped the landscape of human history in the immediate aftermath of World War II. If the National Security Council principals aren’t sharing information about an upcoming surgery because they fear appearing weak in front of their competitors for influence, that is not only disappointing but dangerous.

Romans 13 reminds us that the job of civil authorities is to wield the sword, to hold back the darkness in our broken world. This is why soldiering is a noble vocation, as Martin Luther reminds us in his wonderful essay, “On Whether Soldiers Too Can be Saved.” America’s uniformed and civilian military leaders play a critical role as the watchmen on the wall not just for our country but really for the safety and peace of the whole world. Hopefully next time the watchmen will do a better job communicating when one needs to take a brief break. The chain of command matters, and those at the top have no excuse for neglecting their duty.

Has the United States just experienced a national defense crisis? ✪