The Warlords

from the book

The Power Elite

by C.Wright Mills

Oxford Press, 1956


During the eighteenth century, observers of the historic scene began to notice a remarkable trend in the division of power at the top of modern society: Civilians, coming into authority, were able to control men of military violence, whose power, being hedged in and neutralized, declined. At various times and places, of course, military men had been the servants of civilian decision, but this trend-which reached its climax in the nineteenth century and lasted until World War I-seemed then, and still seems, remarkable simply because it had never before happened on such a scale or never before seemed so firmly grounded.

In the twentieth century, among the industrialized nations of the world, the great, brief, precarious fact of civilian dominance began to falter and now - after the long peace from the Napoleonic era to World War I - the old march of world history once more asserts itself. All over the world, the warlord is returning. All over the world, reality is defined in his terms. And in America, too, into the political vacuum the warlords have marched. Alongside the corporate executives and the politicians, the generals and admirals-those uneasy cousins within the American elite- have gained and have been given increased power to make and to influence decisions of the gravest consequence.


The military world selects and forms those who become a professional part of it. The harsh initiation at The Point or The Academy-and on lower levels of the military service, in basic training-reveals the attempt to break up early civilian values and sensibilities in order the more easily to implant a character structure as totally new as possible.

It is this attempt to break up the earlier acquired sensibilities that lies back of the 'breaking' of the recruit and the assignment to him of very low status in the military world. He must be made to lose much of his old identity in order that he can then become aware of his very self in the terms of his military role. He must be isolated from his old civilian life in order that he will come eagerly to place the highest value on successful conformity with military reality, on deep acceptance of the military outlook, and on proud realization of success within its hierarchy and in its terms. His very self-esteem becomes quite thoroughly dependent upon the appraisals he receives from his peers and his superiors in the chain of command. His military role, and the world of which it is a part, is presented to him as one of the higher circles of the nation. There is a strong emphasis upon the whole range of social etiquette, and, in various formal and informal ways, he is encouraged to date girls of higher rather than of lower status. He is made to feel that he is entering upon an important sector of the higher circles of the nation, and, accordingly, his conception of himself as a self-confident man becomes based upon his conception of himself as a loyal member of an ascendant organization. The only 'educational' routine in America that compares with the military is that of the metropolitan 400's private schools, and they do not altogether measure up to the military way.

West Point and Annapolis are the beginning points of the warlords, and, although many other sources of recruitment and ways of training have had to be used in the emergencies of expansion, they are still the training grounds of the elite of the armed forces. Most of the top generals and all of the admirals of today are of West Point or of The Academy, and they definitely feel it. In fact, if no such caste feeling existed among them, these character-selecting and character-forming institutions would have to be called failures.

The caste feeling of the military is an essential feature of the truly professional officer corps which, since the Spanish-American War, has replaced the old decentralized, and somewhat locally political, militia system. 'The objective is the fleet,' naval Captain L. M. Nulton has written, 'the doctrine is responsibility, and the problem is the formation of military character.' Of the period when most present-day admirals were at Annapolis, it was asserted by Commander Earle: 'The discipline of the Naval Academy well illustrates the principle that in every community discipline means simply organized living. It is the condition of living right because without right living, civilization cannot exist. Persons who will not live right must be compelled to do so, and upon such misguided individuals there must be placed restraints. To these alone is discipline ever harsh or a form of punishment. Surely this is just as it should be. The world would be better if such individuals were made to feel the tyrannical, unyielding, and hard-nailed fist in order to drive them from an organization to which they have not right to belong.'

The military world bears decisively upon its inhabitants because it selects its recruits carefully and breaks up their previously acquired values; it isolates them from civilian society and it standardizes their career and deportment throughout their lives. Within this career, a rotation of assignment makes for similarity of skills and sensibilities. And, within the military world, a higher position is not merely a job or even the climax of a career; it is clearly a total way of life which is developed under an all-encompassing system of discipline. Absorbed by the bureaucratic hierarchies in which he lives, and from which he derives his very character and image of self, the military man is often submerged in it, or as a possible civilian, even sunk by it. As a social creature, he has until quite recently been generally isolated from other areas of American life; and as an intellectual product of a closed educational system, with his experience itself controlled by a code and a sequence of jobs, he has been shaped into a highly uniform type.

More than any other creatures of the higher circles, modern warlords, on or above the two-star rank, resemble one another, internally and externally. Externally, as John P. Marquand has observed, their uniforms often seem to include their facial mask, and certainly its typical expressions. There is the resolute mouth and usually the steady eye, and always the tendency to expressionlessness; there is the erect posture, the square shoulders, and the regulated cadence of the walk. They do not amble; they stride. Internally, to the extent that the whole system of life-training has been successful, they are also reliably similar in reaction and in outlook. They have, it is said, 'the military mind,' which is no idle phrase: it points to the product of a specialized bureaucratic training; it points to the results of a system of formal selection and common experiences and friendships and activities -all enclosed within similar routines. It also points to the fact of discipline-which means instant and stereotyped obedience within the chain of command. The military mind also indicates the sharing of a common outlook the basis of which is the metaphysical definition of reality as essentially military reality. Even within the military realm, this mind distrusts 'theorists,' if only because they tend to be different: bureaucratic thinking is orderly and concrete thinking.

The fact that they have succeeded in climbing the military hierarchy, which they honor more than any other, lends self-assurance to the successful warlords. The protections that surround their top positions make them even more assured and confident. If they should lose confidence in themselves what else would there be for them to lose? Within a limited area of life, they are often quite competent, but to them, in their disciplined loyalty, this area is often the only area of life that is truly worthwhile. They are inside an apparatus of prerogative and graded privilege in which they have been economically secure and unworried. Although not usually rich, they have never faced the perils of earning a living in the same way that lower and middle-class persons have. The orderly ranks of their chain of command, as we have seen, are carried over into their social life: such striving for status as they have known has been within an unambiguous and well-organized hierarchy of status, in which each knows his place and remains within it.

In this military world, debate is no more at a premium than persuasion: one obeys and one commands, and matters, even unimportant matters, are not to be decided by voting. Life in the military world accordingly influences the military mind's outlook on other institutions as well as on its own. The warlord often sees economic institutions as means for military production and the huge corporation as a sort of ill-run military establishment. In his world, wages are fixed, unions impossible to conceive. He sees political institutions as often corrupt and usually inefficient obstacles, full of undisciplined and cantankerous creatures. And is he very unhappy to hear of civilians and politicians making fools of themselves?

It is men with minds and outlooks formed by such conditions who in postwar America have come to occupy positions of great decision. It cannot be said that they have necessarily sought these new positions; much of their increased stature has come to them by virtue of a default on the part of civilian political men. But perhaps it can be said, as C. S. Forester has remarked in a similar connection, that men without lively imagination are needed to execute policies without imagination devised by an elite without imagination.

Power Elite