The Army could easily seize control of a country and the power of the Executive, Judicial and Legislative branches is only in paper.

  1. What are the mechanisms a civilian Government use to control the Military power?
  2. How/When did the rule of the society moved from a military government to a civilian government?
  3. Do Armies have internal protocols to intervene a Government if they consider that Government represent a threat to the country?

Note: This is about the internal military power and not external threats like invaders.

  • 3
    You forget that governments evolved from armies (guy with the biggest stick). Modern armies are highly specialised and act as a branch of a much larger complex socioeconomic system; as such a coup d'état would be less appealing and less effective - the mandarins would still be in power. Ultimately an explicit coup isn't required anyway, the lines simply get blurred to the point that executive branch requires the military to function. Nov 14, 2014 at 11:54
  • Or put another way, nowadays you can't run a playground by threatening to smash all the toys. They might actually give you the rope to hang yourself with anyway. Nov 14, 2014 at 11:56
  • Interestingly, I read an article that observed that the prevalence of military-controlled governments is an artefact of the Cold War as the USA and USSR threw gobs of money at various militaries - which undermined the usual control a civilian government has over the purse strings of its army. Nov 14, 2014 at 13:33
  • 1
    @DVK Ataturk isn't a counter-example as he was from the Army and lived prior to the Cold War; his secularist reforms actually aligned with military revitalisation. Cold War Turkey had at least three military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980. Even one military coup means your level of civilian control was inadequate. Indeed this characteristic is persistent as there was a failed military coup in 2000s (since it failed, the intended 'go' date is unclear). Amusingly your choice of Turkey strengthens the link between coups and Cold War money as Turkey sought precisely that money. Nov 17, 2014 at 21:58
  • 1
    @LateralFractal - nope. It was LITERALLY a checks and balances. Just because US President can veto laws, doesn't mean it's a President-run country.
    – user4012
    Nov 20, 2014 at 5:22

5 Answers 5

  • Oaths of Office. For a simple example, compare two Virginians: General Robert E. Lee, who fought for the Confederacy, and General George H. Thomas, who fought for the Union. The existence of General Lee proves that oaths can be broken, and that military personnel can disregard the Constitution. At the same time, somebody is bound to care about what is on paper, as we see in the case of General Thomas. It's risky to ask military personnel to disregard their oaths; whether you're successful or not, many of them will subsequently disregard you.

  • Resources. Although the President is the Constitutionally delegated Commander in Chief (Article II Section II Clause I), Congress is responsible for the very existence of the U.S. dollar (Article I Section VIII Clause V) as well as its taxation (I.VIII.Clause I). After dissolving the Constitution and the Congress, the military would need a way to pay for itself. Even if it could operate as its own IRS and collect currency from the American people, the U.S. dollar is worthless without the U.S. Congress. (With this in mind, I strongly suspect most coups occur when currencies are nearly worthless, and / or when the military has another source of funding)

  • Division of Power. Military personnel have highly specialized jobs and often work together without knowing anything about who they're working with. Even infantries rely on many other fields for logistical and positional assistance, and can't just put together a squadron to invade Washington DC with no questions asked.

  • People and Culture. Military personnel used to be civilians. They went to school with civilians. They have civilian friends. They (usually) married civilians and/or have civilian children. They signed up to defend civilians. In fact, most military personnel are reservists with civilian jobs or attending school. America's military and civilian culture tend to be fairly close-knit. Few military personnel would embrace the idea of seizing money and power from civilian government and trying to run this nation on their own.

  • The answer is good overall, but I'm a bit unsure about using Lee as an example. If your country is in political cecessionist rebellion, and you choose one of the political sides, you aren't realistically a good example of military obeying/disobeying political office. Lee and the Confederate military were NOT the ones who started the War of Northern Aggression ...errr... Civil War :) - it was the confederate states' politicians.
    – user4012
    Nov 17, 2014 at 15:40
  • 5
    I don't buy this. The first three points are formally true in many countries that did experience military coups and therefore do not explain anything. The second one seems particularly questionable. If (part of) the military is in position to take power, what the constitution says is moot, it can seize whatever resources the government has. Coups usually happen in countries were taxation is not very effective to begin with but suspending a parliament does not make money and institutions evaporate.
    – Relaxed
    Nov 17, 2014 at 18:54
  • 4
    All that leave us with the last point, which seems certainly true of the US and many other countries, but is mostly circular. Why does it work that way in some countries but not others?
    – Relaxed
    Nov 17, 2014 at 18:57
  • 1
    Relaxed - We're not here to answer why it's "theoretically impossible" for the military to instigate a coup - obviously it's happened to other countries, it's been attempted multiple times with ours (Benedict Arnold, Aaron Burr, Jeff Davis, etc), and it CAN happen to the USA. So "circular" is absolutely right. Human psychology is circular. Sociology and history are circular. I am observing the subjective and messy reasons why it's improbable - the difficulties that could be overcome by the military but would be more difficult than a mechanical invasion. Nov 17, 2014 at 23:45
  • 1
    @user3765080 But a good answer would go beyond this circularity and explain why it happens in some places and not in others, what institutions are in place to prevent it, etc. I do happen to know a thing or two about psychology and I can tell you than simply invoking “human psychology” does not count as an “explanation”.
    – Relaxed
    Nov 18, 2014 at 6:59

There is a really simple one that is applicable to all countries.

Despite the question, "the military" is not a single monolithic entity. It is composed of individual soldiers, most of whom are also citizens, and who might well have an interest in making sure a dictator (military or otherwise) does not take over the country.

A general who orders his junior officers to storm the capital has to be very sure they are going to do it, and the chain of command itself isn't enough to ensure that. If enough of their junior officers don't agree with the idea of an illegal coup then they are just as likely to find themselves arrested by their own troops as marching into the presidential palace.


I believe that it was explicitly one of the goals of conscription (beyond providing cheap cannon fodder obviously), e.g. in France. The idea being that soldiers who do not form a separate community but come from the society at large and don't stay in the army too long would put the interests of the nation before those of the army itself and would be less likely to take part in a coup. It's frequently cited as one factor behind the failure of the 1961 Algiers putsch.

In a completely different context, it was the function of political commissars in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a dictatorship but, somewhat unusually compared to many past and present dictatorial regimes in Europe, South America or Africa, power was concentrated in the party, not the military.

Apart from these admittedly limited cases, it's tempting to invoke “culture” which certainly rings true but does not really explain anything.

  • Spain and the Latinoamerican republics had conscription for most of 19th and 20th centuries, but that didn't prevent the military to seize power quite often.
    – Pere
    Apr 29, 2020 at 13:16
  • @Pere Hence the guarded formulation, it's not a guarantee of anything but it was one of the goals. And if you look at which units did or didn't follow the putschists in Algiers, it seemed to have played a role in this particular context.
    – Relaxed
    Apr 29, 2020 at 13:32

I'm going to assume you're talking about the US since you mention the executive, judicial and legislative branches. As a non-US citizen this might be slightly off and most of my knowledge is gained from watching episodes of Stargate, but I think I've gained an understanding of how it works over the years as well. Someone else will probably come along with a better answer, but if they don't, you have this.

Primarily the people are the ones who stop a military coup from happening- the second amendment was put in place for that very reason, so the people could wrest control from the government if the military took over and the people objected. But in practice, I think the military personnel would have a problem with it as well. For ongoing military control, there are civilian oversight committees that report to the people that control the budget, so if they see anything they don't like, either it gets changed or they can't afford to do it anymore.

In the US, the government isn't accountable to the military, it's accountable to the people. They're the ones who can change things if they don't like where they're going. If the government as a whole became so corrupt something drastic had to be done, well, I imagine that as well would be an issue for the people to resolve.

Other countries have their own methods of dealing with this. The UK, where I live, has a monarch that isn't really part of the government as such and controls the military- the government acts with her permission so if they refused to step down she'd use the military to force them down. She has control over the other Commonwealth militaries as well, so she could do the same for Australia, Canada, New Zealand etc.

So in general it's about money/resources, which is generated by the civilians. Their representatives fund the military if they're good, and if they're not, hire someone else and give them the money/resources instead.

  • Do you mean "the second amendment was put in place for that very reason." If not, how does the first amendment help wrest control from the military?
    – lazarusL
    Nov 14, 2014 at 16:14
  • If I was American that would be really embarrassing. Fixed. Nov 14, 2014 at 16:20
  • Note that's but one interpretation of the second amendment.
    – user1530
    Nov 18, 2014 at 1:25

What are the mechanisms a civilian Government use to control the Military power?

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution or its equivalent.

Consistent with the Constitution, US federal code specifies that "The militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied males" of certain ages eligible for conscription, although nothing rightly prohibits any other non-felon citizen from keeping arms "for the security of a free state" as the Amendment declares.

In other words, the people of the nation--its private citizens--are the military.

How/When did the rule of the society moved from a military government to a civilian government?

All you have to do is wait for the next war, and you will see that there can be no such sustainable thing as a pure civilian government with no military. Or you can observe the capitulation of countries historically that lacked sufficient military strength to contend with invaders or internal revolutions. Either will be a sufficient proof of the absurdity of government not defended by a sufficiently strong military.

Do Armies have internal protocols to intervene a Government if they consider that Government represent a threat to the country?

Yes, in the USA at least. The Oath of Citizenship requires each prospective citizen to make and keep the following oath: "I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic". It goes on to mention the bearing of arms and combatant and noncombatant service consistent with this pledge as specific conditions of citizenship. In the US, every citizen is meant to be insurance against a rogue government or military force. In any country that upholds a similar standard with a popular base, expect a similar result.

Military power isn't worth a hill of beans without the economic infrastructure necessary to support it. This is why every country that ever embraced Socialism has collapsed or is now collapsing. It saps the people of their ability to resist tyranny. A monopoly on the economy need not even be obtained from the start, only a controlling influence. Some flavors of Socialism or Communism promise the populace that they can keep the means of production while the government redistributes the product, while others promise private rights to the fruits of labor while subsuming the "means of production". Both are a lie. Economies consist of production-consumption cycles. Control half, and you control the whole thing. Gun confiscation typically follows economic dependence.

The Army could easily seize control of a country and the power of the Executive, Judicial and Legislative branches is only in paper.

As long as the Second Amendment (or its equivalent) is upheld, checks and balances and the separation of powers are backed by the real power of cold steel in the hands of thinking and independent citizens who have made an oath to uphold justice, not just on parchment.

  • The question is not specific to the USA: Mar 2, 2020 at 19:35
  • @ReinstateMonica-M.Schröder Sure. I had included some verbiage that expands the applicability of US examples to other nations having similar documents, oaths and policies, but based on your comment I've added a few edits that make this more clear.
    – pygosceles
    Mar 2, 2020 at 19:42

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