Should military officers serve in high-ranking civilian jobs in the White House? The propriety of such an arrangement is one of the broader issues that will be probed by panels investigating the Iran-contra affair, when they get down to business early this year.
Investigators say at issue is not the militarization of foreign policy. They say that the involvement of former National Security Council head Vice-Adm. John Poindexter and NSC aide Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North raises these questions:
Should active-duty officers take jobs normally filled by political supporters of the President?
Does the military culture produce people ill-suited for sensitive civilian positions?
Though both Vice-Admiral Poindexter and Colonel North are gone from the council, many officers remain on the NSC staff, points out a congressional aide.
Reportedly 17 of the 50 authorized NSC staff positions are now filled by active duty members of the armed forces, about double the number assigned there six years ago.
But professional officers serving in high civilian capacities is far from a phenomenon of the Reagan administration.
Among presidents, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower were all career soldiers who parlayed war exploits into the nation's top job. (The most battle-scarred president was a noncareerist, Rutherford B. Hayes, who was wounded four times in the Civil War.)
When Gen. George C. Marshall was nominated to be secretary of state by Harry Truman in 1947, the appointment was so noncontroversial that the Senate approved it unanimously the same day. President Gerald Ford's national-security adviser was a military man, Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft.
But none of these officers was on active duty when he took the civilian post. All were retired, or they retired upon acceding to their jobs.
In contrast, when Vice-Admiral Poindexter took over the National Security Council, he remained an active Navy officer.
Reagan administration critics say that at issue here is not so much the militarization of politics but the politicization of the military.
The NSC chief is the sort of high appointive office one can assume is filled only by political allies of a president.
Yet the US armed forces are supposed to be non-political, their job one of executing decisions reached by elected officials, say Reagan critics. If their top officers in essence declare loyalty to a particular political party, a schism in the forces could be the result, according to this view.
``If we start having Republican generals and Democratic generals, we'll have reached a dangerous state,'' says Clifford Alexander Jr., secretary of the army under President Carter.
Others with knowledge of how the military hierarchy works say this fear is overdrawn. There are many military jobs that are filled by appointments from civilian leaders, from service secretary aide to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some political vetting is a requirement for all of them.
Thus Poindexter's appointment to the NSC did not strike many in the military as unusually political. ``I don't think there's anything wrong with this system,'' says a recently retired high-ranking officer.
Another issue brought to the fore by the Iran-contra affair is what sort of people officers are. In one view, the military's strict discipline breeds a ``yes sir, can do'' attitude that is unsuitable for sensitive civilian posts. Steeped in such a culture, officers are admirably hard workers who are resourceful in executing orders.
But their training also means they forge ahead without questioning the why and wherefore of what they are doing, under this view. Their experience has been senior officers telling them, ``Get this done tomorrow, don't bother me about the details.'' In a civilian job, where officers are free from the checks inherent in the military's strict chain of command, critics say this could lead to problems, such as diverting money to the contras without the President knowing.
An officer in the NSC might be ``like a kid brought up in a strict household who then goes to college and goes off the deep end,'' says Adam Yarmolinsky, an assistant defense secretary in the Kennedy administration.
Sources in the armed forces grumble that the attention following the Iran-contra affair is the sort of ``military-bashing'' that surfaces from time to time in American political life. It is true, say officers, that their experience teaches them to weave among rules and regulations to get things done. But high officers throughout their careers have had a first-hand education in the US government and the role of foreign affairs, say these sources.