JAPAN MUST EXPEDITIOUSLY NORMALIZE CIVIL-MILITARY RELATIONS
The closer a nation is drawn toward a war, the more important become close civil-military relations that enable its political and military leaders to freely exchange views. Normal relations between the armed forces and the government in Japan have vanished since its defeat in the last war in 1945, with many Japanese reluctant to address virtually anything to do with military matters.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, however, has made an increasing number of Japanese wonder if their nation would be capable of defending itself like the East European nation. Most post-war Japanese have viewed their national security as someone else’s business, wishfully taking it for granted that the US will always come to Japan’s aid. But Japan will not be able to safeguard its security unless its government and people at large alike change this posture altogether. Complacent about the peace Japan has enjoyed, the average Japanese little understands military matters and has been little interested in seriously grappling with these issues. The same thing can be said about our politicians. How can we expect to protect our future with such a mindset?
Imagine what type of tragedy can be brought about when civil-military relations fail to function properly. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a case in point.
What drove Vladimir Putin to his insane war of aggression? An address the Russian dictator delivered at the Munich Security Conference 15 years ago, on 10 February 2007, gives one a clue. Before a crowd of officials and security specialists presenting more than 40 nations, Putin spoke candidly about his strong dissatisfaction with—and his refusal to accept—a world led by the US, and his repulsion of the West for “condescendingly” preaching the merits of democracy. One could sense Putin’s ego as the Russian head of state as he objected to an eastward expansion of NATO and the EU and pledged support for the United Nations, at which his nation has the power of a veto. With a mixture of his ego and pride, Putin referred to the fall of the Berlin Wall:
“…we should not forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall was possible thanks to a historic choice—one that was also made by our people, the people of Russia—a choice in favor of democracy, freedom, openness and a sincere partnership with all the members of the big European family.”
As far as Putin was concerned, the Berlin Wall obviously fell thanks largely to the people of Russia. He simultaneously declared that “the system of international relations is just like mathematics,” expounding:
“There are no personal dimensions (in international relations and security). And, of course, we should react to (military build-up in the West). How? Either…by building a multi-billion dollar anti-missile system or, in view of our present economic and financial possibilities, by developing an asymmetrical answer.” He thus stressed that compromising US missile defense networks in a relatively inexpensive manner was the right path for Russia to take, adding:
“…I will not be afraid of the word—in spite of all our disagreement I consider the President (George W. Bush) of the United States my friend. He is a decent person…But I repeat once again that there are symmetries and asymmetries here, (but) there is nothing personal (when it comes to US-Russia relations). It is simply a calculation.”
I believe Putin was right in declaring that decisions on international relations and security policies should be based strictly on cold calculation. But it was the same Putin who grossly misread the Ukrainian situation this time. What has happened to him? On March 30, Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby told reporters that, based on intelligence, the Defense Department believed Putin “has not had access to an accurate account of his army’s failures in Ukraine at every turn over the last month.”
Markedly Contrasting Cases
Let us remember that Putin isn’t a military man to begin with. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Russian Army to support him fully by providing him accurate intelligence on its own fighting capabilities as well as those of the Ukrainian Army. But Putin has ended up being a powerful dictator unwilling to listen to what his subordinates have to say. As a result, Russia’s civil-military relations have reportedly fallen into serious dysfunction, leading Putin to a gross miscalculation of the situation in Ukraine. Cities have been destroyed and numerous lives have been lost across Ukraine. How large and tragic the price is of a breakdown in civil-military relations. It can easily destroy a nation.
Putin’s case contrasts markedly with the close ties that existed during World War II between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshall Alan Alanbrooke. War Diaries, 1939-1945: Field Marshall Alan Alanbrooke (Orion Publishing Company, London; 2002) reveals the two communicated with each other with amazing closeness during the war.
For instance, Alanbrooke’s entry for June 14, 1942 reads: “A Sunday disturbed by many calls from the PM who was much disturbed at bad turn taken by operations in the Middle East.”
A scene the author depicts vividly on February 26,1942 is intriguing: “During the meeting (with General Frank M. Andrews, commander of all US forces in the European theater of operations) the PM sent for me. By the time I…had reached him in the Annex, he was in his bath! However, he received me as soon as he came out, looking like a Roman Centurion with nothing on except a large bath towel draped around him! He shook me warmly by the hand in this get up and told me to sit down while he dressed.
“A most interesting procedure (followed), first he stepped into a white silk vest, then white silk drawers, and walked up and down the room in this kit, looking rather like ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ with a large body and small thin legs! Then a white shirt which refused to join comfortably round the neck and so was left open with a bow tie to keep it together. Then the hair (what there is of it!) took much attention, a handkerchief was sprayed with scent (which was also) sprayed directly! Finally, trousers, waistcoat and coat…” Alanbrooke and Churchill are known to have spent long hours in the latter’s bedroom during the war, exchanging opinions in the middle of the night with the prime minister lying on his bed.
JSDF Officers Denied Access to Premier’s Office
In their endeavor to ensure closer communication, Churchill and Alanbrooke would often argue fiercely, with the prime minister sometimes pumping his clenched fist as he refuted what his chief of staff had to say about Britain’s military strategies. They hurled their analyses and judgments at each other, criticized and reconsidered them, and eventually arrived at better conclusions. As a result, Britain triumphed, defeating Japan, Germany, and Italy.
The chief of staff must not fail to advise the prime minister accurately under all circumstances. The latter must be able to seek necessary intelligence, analysis, and opinions from the military whenever necessary. It is critical for them to meet and talk as often as they see fit. The anecdotes in Alanbrooke’s diaries show that Britain’s wartime civil-military relations functioned extremely well thanks to the close relationship Churchill and Alanbrooke cultivated.
What about civil-military relations in Japan? I was recently very surprised to hear what Katsutoshi Kawano, former head of the Joint Staff of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) stated at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (JINF), a privately-financed foreign policy and security think tank I head in Tokyo. Kawano revealed that during his four and half years as the JSDF’s Joint Chief of Staff, he never had a one-on-one meeting with a prime minister. Whenever he was summoned to the Office of the Prime Minister, he recalled, several members of the so-called “sebiro” (business suit) team of bureaucrats, seconded to the Defense Ministry from other agencies and ministries, were to accompany him. It is fine for others to participate in such meetings, but it’s a problem if there is an atmosphere preventing JSDF officers from freely offering advice to the prime minister.
In point of fact, the Prime Minister’s Office was once off-limits to JSDF officers. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rectified this bad custom when he first took office in 2006, allowing officers free access to his office. It was unquestionably a positive step forward. The next issue is how to promote a proactive civil-military exchange of security-related opinions.
Japan is faced with an extraordinary threat from China. For our politicians to sufficiently understand military matters, they must have access to accurate intelligence, and nurture their capacity for judgment. I believe Japan can learn a valuable lesson from Putin’s failure and Churchill’s success as regards how our civil-military relations should evolve.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 995 in April 14, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)