The American Military and Politics in Post-9/11 Times

Hello loyal readers. (All three of you. But you are appreciated. We start serving Thanksgiving dinner at the Luna house around three’ish, and I’ll set a place for you…). I’m trying something different in this interactive blogosphere I find my self suspended in. Below you’ll find a raw (emphasize, RAW) draft of a piece I’m working on regarding military-civilian relations in the post 9/11 age. The title is a play on Amos Perlmutter’s renowned work, The Military and Politics in Modern Times.” I had the privilege of studying under him in graduate school and the core of his analysis has stuck with me ever since. (As has the wise edicts of my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Daugherty, to wit: “Try not to be a numbskull.”

So read and let me know your thoughts about this work in progress. And, reader beware, it is over 6500 words of absolute brilliance/drivel. So get a latte before you start. Or a proxac. Because I’m talking below about what could be the greatest undiscussed threat to this Republic since the Civil War.

(Okay, anything below the ****, this comment not included, would be the aforementioned piece…..)

I was reading a back issue of Vanity Fair the other day (okay, really back issue. April, 2007, to be precise. But I’m too broke/cheap –daughter in graduate school, daughter in college, two more in the pipeline—to pay for my own so I wait for my mother-in-law, bless her (and, yes, I actually like/love my mother-in-law, Duluth-bred-white-fish-and-herring lady that she is) to give me back copies . Which is why I’m often a beat or two behind the current drummer. (By the way, did you all hear about that big vote-count flap in Florida? I’m shocked….).

Anyway, the article was entitled ”Night of the Generals” (a play on the 1967 Peter O’Toole whodunit about which Nazi general killed a Polish prostitute). It was about the gang of six retired US Army and Marine generals who came out against the Bush administration’s Iraq war policy (or lack thereof.) The article brought front a center a major concern I’ve felt over the past decade or so over the increasingly politicization of the American military. And the potential for political mischief/constitutional crisis this change has created.

I do a riff in the American government classes I teach (usually six plus per year, four thousand or so satisfied customers to date) about how significant it is that the American military has never been a serious player in American politics. Go back to the Declaration of Independence. One of Jefferson’s beefs with ol’ George III was that he had rendered “the military independent of, and superior to, the civil powers.” The point I make to my students is, “So what?” When, in the history of the world, to that point, had the military (e.g. the guys with lances, javelins, short swords, broad swords, spears, blunderbusses, muskets, canons, man-o-wars or pointy sticks of very styles) been subordinate to the guys with pocket protectors and briefcases?

As Jefferson himself pointed out in one of his celebrated letters, the history of the world to his time had been the history of wolves amongst sheep. The guys with the sharp teeth—or pointy sticks—had always told everyone else what to do. Who were kings, emperors and sultans, after all, but warlords who took and/or kept their thrones at the point of a sword? Only two nations had gotten it right, putting the common people over the guys with guns, according to Jefferson: Great Britain and the newly created United States. This is one of the most brilliant—and under appreciated—successes of American politics. For two hundred eighteen years and counting, the American military has been subordinate and inferior to the civil powers.

And that ain’t hay.

Through most of history coup d’etats were the political flavor de jour. France had a defacto military coup in 1958—to avoid a genuine military coup during the Algerian Crisis—which put De Gaulle back in charge, ending the Fourth Republic and setting up the Fifth. The French—you gotta love ‘em. It took them five tries to get democracy right, but they keep plucking. Take heart, Russia.)

Greece had a military coup in 1967; Spain had a near coup in 1976, as did Russia in 1991. Latin America spent most of the twentieth century going through cycles of coups, as has post-colonial Africa. Boris Yeltsin survived a botched military coup in 1991 and then pulled a defacto one in 1993. Burma went from the rice bowl of Asia to a basket case thanks to an autarkic military junta whose only claim to success is the motto “Burma: We don’t suck as bad as North Korea!” Pakistan had a coup in 1999 and Thailand just had one last year (albeit a polite coup—no blood shed and free satay distributed to the masses….). Coups, therefore, are nothing unusual in the family human.

But not in America.

There have been three cases where the U.S. could have easily had had a military coup, of course. Start with George “Retreated for six years but won the last battle of the war so I’m a hero” Washington, who, after Yorktown, was offered the crown to a new American monarchy by his officers a biblical thrice—and turned said offer vehemently down each time, thereby earning that obelisk bearing his name. Or Ulysses S. Grant who, with the victorious Army of the Potomac loyal to him and not to newly elevated Andrew Johnson, did absolutely nothing to assert his—or the military’s—power during the chaos following Lincoln’s assassination. Grant could have just as easily marched on Washington and announced a new American pro-consulship to restore order in the critical days following the death of Lincoln and the end of the Civil war.

And what about Douglass MacArthur? When MacArthur was relieved during the Korean War by Truman in 1950 for, essentially, insubordination, he was the most popular General in American history. Truman, meanwhile, was posting approval ratings lower than even our current President. When MacArthur returned to the US—theoretically in disgrace, having been sacked by his commander in chief—he was given a hero’s triumph ticket tape parade in New York and was invited to address a joint session of Congress—a deliberate and provocative slap in the face at an embattle Harry Truman. More than a few members of the public hoped MacArthur would set things right that day, sending the failed haberdasher from Missouri packing and establishing strong American leadership—those being the hottest days of the almost hot Cold War. But MacArthur concluded his address that day by proclaiming “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Thus the “American Caeasar”as historian William Manchester referred to MacArthur in his definitive biography, faded away

Caesar didn’t fade away. Neither did Napoleon. When confronted with the choice of personal power or public liberty, each chose the former, subverting their own republics in the name of glory and power. Yet, to date, no American general has done the same.


Except I’m not sure this historical aberration will last forever. Current trends are disturbing. Go back to Vietnam, when the politicians in Washington hung the blame for losing that war largely around the necks of the military commanders whose hands they kept tied and hams they kept strung all through the conflict. By the end of that foreign policy fiasco public confidence in the military had plummeted into the twenty percent range, an experience one can only imagine today’s military sorely wishes to avoid.

It was out of the Vietnam malaise that the Powell doctrine of American military intervention developed. As Joint Chief of Staff in the early 1990s Powell’s tripartite doctrine was simple: a) only go to war with overwhelming military superiority; b) only go to war with overwhelming public support; and c) only go to war with a clear exit strategy. The Powell Doctrine underscored the central concern of the post-Vietnam military: never get hung out to dry by the guys in suits again.

The Bush Administration’s 2003 strategy for Iraq was, in theory, created in accordance with the Powell Doctrine. American forces were to use “Shock and Awe” to overwhelm the Iraqi military quickly and decisively – which they ultimately did. The public was decidedly in support of the war at its March, 2003, onset. And Vice President Dick Cheney promised a cakewalk, with then Secretary of Defense Donny “I presided over the defeat in Vietnam and now want a redo” Rumsfeld painting images of Iraq’s greeting Americans as liberators in the same manner as the French in WWII. Forget Christmas, the Administration promised. The Troops would be home in time for a patriotic 4th of July.

And then it all fell apart. Shock and awe turned into bogged down and bleeding. American troops were soon being greeted with IEDs and suicide bombers instead of flowers and chocolates. And the American public, seeing the war in Iraq drag on longer than WWII itself, have turned against the war as well. Whom to blame for arguably the greatest foreign policy fiasco of the past generation, if not the entire post-War period?

The Bush Administration has been clear on this point. IT, meaning the politicians in suits, is NOT to blame. That is, the President, the Vice President and their legion of neo-conservative advisors are not to blame. Donny “Go to war with the army you’ve got” Rumsfeld may be gone but is far from repudiated by his former boss. No, the blame for the wreck of Iraq lies not in the Bush Administration, the President will tell you.

It lies with the Iraqis, themselves. And the US Military.

Over the last two years the Administration, pressed by the press and the public to answer the basic question “Iraq: how much longer?” have increasingly pinned the matter on the readiness—or lack thereof—of the Iraqis to step up to the plate and take their turn at bat.

So it wasn’t the fact the Administration disbanded the Iraqi military and police forces and waited over a year to haphazardly and half-heartedly try to rebuild those core institutions of social order that caused the chaos that’s now Iraq. It wasn’t the woefully naïve and incompetent way the American Provisional Authority—chock-a-block full of young twenty-something sons and daughters of Republican cronies of the President getting an extra line for their resumes at the expense of Iraqi economic and social collapse—governed Iraq for two years while totally bungling the rebuilding of Iraq’s economy and infrastructure. It wasn’t even the fact the Administration invaded Iraq in the first place with a quarter the number of troops military commanders had said were necessary to get the job done.

Iraq is a wreck because the dumb, ungrateful, lazy, greedy, cowardly Iraqis aren’t willing to now step up and be grownups responsible for their own democratic futures, twenty years of ruinous war, forty years of brutal dictatorship and centuries of sectarian tensions and violence not withstanding, of course. Dumb Iraqis. Bad Iraqis.

But it’s also the US Military’s fault. At least, so implieth the Bush Administration.

How many times, when questioned on the conduct of the war—how many troops should be on the ground, where should they be focused, what strategies and tactics should they pursue—has the President responded that he’s listening to his generals and doing what they say to do?

So, connect the dots. If things are going to hell in a hand-basket in Iraq, who’s responsible? Not the commander-in-chief. President Bush’s motto on this issue is “The buck stops here? What buck? Not my buck!” He’s just been listening to his military commanders. So if things are going bad, it must be their fault. The buck stops at the five sided building, not the old whitish house.

Now the administration has not come straight out and said as much. But, for those of you who took Logic 101 back in the day, the syllogism is simple:

If the military situation in Iraq is FUBAR
The American President is making all of his decisions in based on the recommendations of his military commanders which has resulted in the situation becoming FUBAR
The military situation in Iraq is FUBAR because of the recommendations of his military commanders.

My only question is will members of the Bush Administration wait until they are out of office writing their “When I was next to the King” books to place the blame for the Iraq wreck on the military – the way Johnson and Nixon administration officials did—or will they crack under the pressure and start blaming the military before the Bush years come to their final, dead, end?

Whichever way the finger pointing begins, I wonder how well our modern military will take it. Today’s Military is not your daddy’s Vietnam era military. Back in those days America still used the old military model where there was a core of career professionals and a broad rank and file of draftees. That’s the model we used as a country for most of our history. As Dwight Eisenhower said in the 1950s, “All Americans, indeed, all free men, remember that in the final choice a soldier’s pack is not so heavy a burden as a prisoner’s chains.” And that. According to Ike (who we once loved) is the duty for all of American citizens: to, from time to time, wear that soldier’s pack.

In the 1970s the American public decided they no longer liked shouldering that burden any longer. Or, at least, that they didn’t like shouldering that burden—or having their sons do so—to fight political wars of choice like Vietnam. So, in what future historians may see as a decisive—and dangerous—turning point in the history of the American Republic, the citizen-draftee military model was replaced by a new model.

This model is universally but erroneously referred to as a “Volunteer” military. This is, of course, a complete misnomer. Volunteers, by definition, are those who take on a task both voluntarily and without compensation. As in volunteer hospital workers or volunteer firemen. Today’s military personnel are compensated in salary and benefits, like any other employee. How many of today’s military “volunteers” would continue to volunteer if they received no pay? Not enough to fill up an unarmored Humvee, one could speculate. Saying that someone was “volunteered” to serve in the military is like saying someone “volunteered” to work as a checker at WalMart. What is really meant by the statement is that today’s military personal serve at their own volition, without compulsion. But they are not volunteers. They are professionals: people who exchange their specialized skills for compensation. And that’s what we have: a professional military. Not a mercenary military, mind you. Our professional military only works for one client: the United States of America. Unless, of course, they opt out and work for Blackwater at five to ten times the pay….

This is not a slur nor attack on the intentions and virtues of today’s military personnel. They have willing chosen to pursue careers in public—rather than private or personal—service, careers in which they willingly lay their lives on the line. This is the stuff of heroes. It is also the stuff of cops, firemen, and all others who earn their daily bread while exposing themselves to personal risk for the public good. But we don’t call cops and firemen “volunteers.” Neither should we the military.

This is not a pedantic distinction. A professional military is a very different beastie than a draftee military. In a draftee military the number one goal of the draftee is to survive as well as possible and serve for as short a time as possible and get back to real, civilian life. The loyalty of a military draftee to the military as an institution is tenuous, at best. The true loyalties of a draftee lie in the people and institutions that make up their civilian life. Draftees tend to see the professional military through skeptical lenses. If you have ever seen an old WWII movie, one of the running themes is the friendly distrust/contempt the draftee soldiers had for the military as an institution and as a whole. Remember all those jokes about military intelligence being an oxymoron? If you had told my father, a WWII combat vet, that the military was the most efficient and effective institution in American society he would have laughed in your face—and then told you a bunch of funny stories about how many really dumb things he saw being done in the military during the war. The running joke in American popular culture during the war and post war years was that, if you wanted to screw something up, give it to the government. But if you really wanted to screw it up, have the government give it to the military. Thus the WWII generation regarded the American military with appreciation and respect but also with a healthy understanding of the fundamental limits of the military as an institution. Public polls in the 1950s reflected this understanding. While majorities of the American public consistently held the military in high regard as a trustworthy and effective institution, the three civilian branches of government—president, congress and courts—were consistently held in higher regard. In short, Americans trusted their military, but trusted their civilian government even more.

That has fundamentally changed. Since the 1970s and Watergate, with and all its subsequent revelations of corruption and venality at the highest levels of American government but, also, more importantly, with the ending of the post-war economic boom and the post-seventies slowing of Middle Class prosperity, public attitudes towards our military and civilian government have reversed. In recent polls, only 33% or less of the public express great approval of or trust in the Presidency and only 19% express such approval or trust of Congress. Even the Supreme Court is favorably seen by less than 50% of the public. As Justice David Souter warned in his 2000 dissent in Bush v. Gore, by sticking its nose into a fundamentally political issue, the court was guaranteed to lose the hearts and minds of the half of the population that voted for the other guy. And so it came to pass.

Meanwhile the American institution with the highest approval rating – ahead of churches, schools and corporations—is the US Military, with 70% and more of Americans routinely expressing high approval and trust of our martial forces. And it’s been this way for over a decade. At some point you have to wonder when the American people will reach a logical consensus based on this pattern: if you trust the Military more than anyone else, maybe it’s the Military that should be calling the shots.

This is, of course, anathema to the American military tradition of subordination to the Civil Authority. But the willingness of our uniformed military to challenge the authority of their civilian masters has increased over the last two decades. The Clinton years were the clear tipping point. During the Clinton administration two trends in our Military/Civilian relations converged. First, the results of two decades of the military being a self-selecting institution fundamentally changed its social, geographical and political demographics. The professional core of our draftee military has always, historically, been socially and politically more conservative than the nation as a whole and has been disproportionately drawn from rural – especially Southern rural – America. But, at least during times of war, this factor was diluted out by the masses of draftees representing a broader cross section of American experience, opinions and values.

Over the last two decades, however, self-selection of the military ranks has meant that the military as an institution has become much less diverse socially, politically and geographically. This has resulted in a serious skewing of the political attitudes of our uniformed military personnel, especially amongst the officer class. In the 1960s military officers with Republican-leaning sentiments outnumbered those that leaned Democrat by around two to one. Today that figure is closer to eight or nine to one. A generation ago military personnel adhered to a basic code that one didn’t wear their political affiliations on their sleeve—they wore their rank on their sleeve. To be too overtly political was to risk seeing one’s military career stalled or cut short. My father-in-law, a Marine Corp colonel who rose from the enlisted ranks, rigidly adhered to this doctrine up until he wrote an article that was critical of the Nixon Administration’s Vietnam policy. He was passed over for promotion the next year and out of uniform the year after that. A common sentiment held by many officers was that they were not entitled to the privilege of expressing a political view—even by secret ballot—as they had to be able to swear full loyalty and allegiance to whomever occupied the Oval Office, regardless of party.

Bill Clinton’s election as President in 1992 in many ways marked the ultimate confrontation of the baby boom culture wars that had been dividing the nation for a generation. That Clinton, the womanizing, pot-smoking draft dodging leftie, could defeat George H. W. Bush, the straight arrow family man WWII combat pilot hero was seen as the last straw by many on the cultural right. Some of whom then spent the eight years of Clinton’s administration trying to destroy him and his presidency, respect for the institution and office not withstanding. Clinton was subjected to the sustained systematic personal attacks on his policies and character that made even the treatment of Richard Nixon pale in comparison. His eight years in office were a constant drumbeat of blistering conservative op eds, the unending fishing expeditions (finally catching a big Lewinsky) masquerading as investigations, the constant barrage of bashing blather from the blustering blowhards of AM radio and endless campaigns of accusation, rumor and innuendo (oh, the idyllic days of the Vince Foster “the President is a murderer” conspiracy theories).

It’s little wonder that this “anything goes” attitude towards presidential character assassination would have percolated down to the military ranks. I had one student in the mid-nineties, an officer completing his bachelor’s degree, complain to me in my office one day just how totally politicized the military environment was becoming. His wardroom, he said, was constantly full of flyers, pamphlets and publications hawking a partisan conservative viewpoint. Cartoons demeaning the commander in chief—the more demeaning the better—routinely filled the bulletin boards. And any officer expressing stances contrary to this conservative world-view, he reported, was quickly ostracized. To express loyalty to the commander in chief had become the new career-ender.

So there should have been—and was–little surprise when crew members on an U.S. aircraft carrier–in the elegant tongue learned by all sailors of the sea—expressed their own disdain of their president to members of the media below decks while their Commander in Chief posed for a photo op on the flight deck. Back in the 1960s Lyndon Johnson flew into San Diego’s North Island naval base to have his own photo op on an aircraft carrier—the CinC at the helm in times of war, and all that. But there was a snafu between LBJ’s advance people and the base command: the carrier had been dispatched off shore for a training exercise. Informed of this, Johnson, in his usual calm, understated manner, told his aides to tell the base commander that that carrier was HIS boat. And he wanted a picture on HIS boat. Needless to say, the boat was promptly recalled and LBJ got his photo op. And if even one sailor on that boat had murmured the slightest criticism of the boss to the press, the carrier captain, the fleet admiral and the base commander would all have probably seen their careers come to a screeching end.

But not with Clinton.

The greatest disservice Bill Clinton did to this Republic was not having a tryst with an intern. It wasn’t even caving in on just about any aspect of his progressive agenda following the defeat of his health care proposal and the Republican 1994 revenge. His greatest failure was to systematically defer to the military, refusing to ever challenge the deragatory treatment both he and his policies received from the uniformed ranks. Feeling weak on matters of national security, still feeling the sting from all those draft-dodger attacks during the 1992 campaign, Clinton apparently never felt confident and secure enough to tell his uniformed subordinates that enough was enough: at the end of the day it was going to be his way or the highway.

Clinton’s folding on his plan to lift the ban on openly homosexuals from serving in the armed forces only underscored this weakness. Many see Colin Powell, even post-Iraq, as a man of solid integrity and ability, even something of a hero-figure. Back in 1996 there was that short-lived movement to run him for president on a bi-partisan, independent ticket. I wish I could share that sentiment but I can’t. I think Powell disqualified himself as a candidate for the Oval Office by one single act.

(Much as I think Rudi Guiliani disqualified himself from presidential consideration, for his response after the 9/11 attack. As you may recall, Giuliani blithely suggested that the New York City constitutional process be suspended due to the state of emergency that consequently existed and that he be allowed to stay in office, despite his term soon coming to an end, until the emergency was resolved. Anyone who believes that an “state of emergency” allows for the suspension of the rule of law by definition is not fit to be President of our Republic.)

For me, Powell’s unforgivable transgression was to go behind his Commander in Chief’s back–a Commander in Chief whom had issued him an order—to rally an insurrection in Congress to force the President to withdraw said order. Powell’s action were of a level of insubordination that would have earned him a fast sack under a Johnson—or a Truman—but carried no negative consequences under Clinton. On the issue of gays in the Military the Military told the President “No!”—and got away with it! Thus the misnamed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise Clinton reached with his generals. Powell’s actions basically announced the US Military as a formal, powerful, player at the national political table, a roll it had never been accorded before. In so doing Powell established a new—and dangerous—precedent. Henceforth, if the military disagreed with the President, the military is now empowered and entitled to actively fight back.

Which brings us to the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. On the surface, the relationship between the White House and the Pentagon appears to have been far rosier during the Bush years than it was under Bill Clinton. That assessment, of course, is completely erroneous. Yes, Republican George W. was the choice in 2000—and again in 2004—of a large majority of uniformed military personnel. Yes, Bush reversed the slide in military spending and forces that had occurred in the 1990s as Clinton claimed the post-Cold War “peace dividend” and diverted spending from guns to butter. Yes, Bush could claim the mantle of having worn the uniform and inherit the pro-military bona-fides his father’s own service and Republican reputation in general granted him.

In the 1990s, however, even as the Military actively expressed its distaste for Bill Clinton, uniformed Military leaders understood that Clinton’s hesitance to challenge them on almost any issue meant they enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy than for decades past. Thus the military command was left free to pursue their vision of what the military of the 21st century should look like. Which was, essentially, the big-ticket mega-expensive weapons systems military that had developed during the Cold War – only with even newer, bigger and more expensive stuff. The Clinton-era Pentagon set itself busily to work maintaining a military force structure perfect for fighting the Cold War all over again, though not for dealing with the new, irregular warfare that has marked principle combat environments from Somalia to Iraq.

Enter Bush II and new-vision military architect in chief, Donald Rumsfeld, who started ruffling feathers at the Pentagon from the start of his re-residency at the Pentagon. Pre-9/11 the Rumsfeld tenure was marked by a constant, civilian-driven program of overruling the views and advice of the uniformed military in a rush to cancel high priced Cold War era programs like the Crusader program, and transforming the post-Cold War military into a lighter, more mobile and versatile force of high tech shock and awe. A model which also, as history has showed, proven to be less than efficacious in dealing with the new, irregular warfare.

In the run up to the invasion Iraq, the weight of the heavy-handedness of Rumsfeld and his fellow civilian ideologues settled even heavier upon the brass covered shoulders of Pentagon commanders. The whole-sale rejection by the Rumsfeld civilians of the advice and recommendations of the professional military commanders regarding the preparation for the Iraqi war has been well documented. So has the straightforward policy of the Bush Administration to replace competent military commanders, whose opinions on the war run contrary to the President’s or Secretary of Defense’s, with officers whose opinions more closely conformed to the Administration’s, even if that meant elevating less competent, proven officers as compared to those branded a dissident. Even if that meant elevating, like Tommy Franks over XXXXXX, generals more willing to follow the Administration’s dictum “believe what we believe and not what your eyes tell you.”

The demoralization of numerous Pentagon officers in the lead up to and wake of the Iraqi fiasco has also been well documented. And who can blame our professional warriors. After seeing some of the best and brightest of this generation’s military leadership quietly shoved out of the ranks, seeing their own expertise and advice disregarded by draft-deferring, politically appointed ideologues, seeing the price of the resulting policy fiasco paid in the blood of their own and–seeing the hand-writing on the wall—bracing for the “when all else fails, blame the guys in uniform” strategy about to come down from a Bush administration in retirement members, is it any wonder that record numbers of senior and line officers are bailing on their service?

Which begs the question that has not been well examined nor documented: what will those who stay in the uniform do next? Will a professional military, hamstrung in a second-straight war by bungling civilian politicians, sit idly by and watch their approval ratings plummet, their cultivated cachet of the warriors of democracy tarnished and, most importantly, their ability to conduct their mission—to protect this country from all enemies—eroded? Will today’s professional military be willing to return to the wilderness days of the 1970s?

Of course, the idea of the American professional military crossing the line from being simply being politically active to taking over politics in its entirety is unthinkable. This is not the fantasy military world of General Jack Ripper who, in How I learned to stop Worrying and Love the Bomb turned Clemenceau on his head by arguing that war (and peace) had now come to be too important to leave to the civilians? Nor the world of Burt Lancaster as a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs attempting a coup’d’etat against a President he believed committed treason by signing a nuclear disarmament pact with the Ruskies in Seven Days in May. This isn’t the paranoid days of the militarized Cold War, after all.

But it is the paranoid days of the militarized post-9/11, America-versus-the-world in which the president claims everything has change and that long established constitutional checks and balances and guarantees of due process have become quaint anachronims. This is the world where Vice President’s used the specter of non-existing nuclear weapons to conjur up the image of mushroom clouds over American cities and harvest frightened votes on election day. Where everyone supports our troops and where not to do so is to be in bed with the enemy and where exercising even the slightest amount of critical judgment in the scrutiny of the actions of our military or its Commander in Chief is tantamount to wearing a “I hope Al Qaeda sends you all straight to hell, Infidel” tee-shirt.

And, in this environment, one might be tempted to ask the question: might they? Might the American military, which has faithfully upheld its commitment to protect and defend the constitution of these United States and the civilians who are empowered by it for nigh on these last two hundred eighteen years finally reach its Rubicon and decide that preserving democracy is too important to leave to the politicians? Or the people. As stated above, it would hardly be the first time in history this has occurred. From Rome to Burma this has, in actuality, been the natural order of things. But surely, no-one could seriously ask such a question in these United States.

Except, of course, the U.S. Army itself.

Back in 1992 Parameters, the journal of the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, published a provocative but little remarked on—outside of military and academic analytical circles—piece of fiction entitled “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.” Written by then Lieutenant Colonel Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., USAF, the story is about an American officer who is writing a letter to a former classmate as the officer sits in a cell on the eve of his scheduled execution for having opposed a successful military coup against the US government. Dunlap argues “that the coup was the outgrowth of trends visible as far back as 1992. These trends were the massive diversion of military forces to civilian uses, the monolithic unification of the armed forces, and the insularity of the military community.”

When the US Army War College publishes a work about a fictional coup d’etat by the Army, it is as clear a signal the military can send to politicians and the public that, as an institution, the military is not content with its current lot in life. Disturbingly, no-one has taken notice of this discontent, preferring, instead, to plaster yellow ribbons and “Support our Troops” bumper stickers on our SUVs rather than confront the problems confronting those troops. More disturbingly, the trends Dunlap identified in 1992 that could lead to a military coup in twenty years have only intensified, while the Military’s fears and concerns have been left to fester for a decade and a half. The US Military is now stretched to the breaking point trying to deal with all the missions it has been assigned beyond its primary one, which was supposed to be to protect the American people from attack by foreign states. Today’s military must maintain peace in the Balkans, provide humanitarian aide for domestic hurricanes and international earthquakes, interdict drug runners and illegal immigrants on our borders (the Posse Comitatus Act be damned), hunt terrorists from the Himalayas to the snows of Kilimanjaro and fight a counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan while taking primary responsibility or the rebuilding (and, in the short run, the running) of those countries.

So distracted is the military by its non-military missions that, in Iraq and around the world, it doesn’t have the manpower to even accomplish basic functions like providing security to its own forces, its legions of civilian contractors (their existence itself a testament to the draw down in US military personnel) and to US government officials abroad. Once upon a time the US State Department had a dedicated security force to protect its embassies and personnel. You might have heard of them. They were called the United States Marines. Now the Marines are busy acting as policemen and politicians, trying to rebuild Iraq. As a result, private, mercenary forces such as Blackwater provide basic security to US government operations in Iraq, with all the resulting problems of unaccountability that have been witnessed. Oh, and for ten to twenty times the cost of putting a US Soldier into that job.

But that would involve having enough soldiers available. And, short of a draft, there is no way to field

As for nation-building, as the Military has been asked to do from the Balkans to Somalia to the Middle East, do we really want the military to become both adept at, and comfortable in the role of, governing? Is it wise for our Republic for uniformed officers to get used to being in positions of authority telling the people in suits what to do? Yes, our military was put in a similar role back after WWII (henceforth known as the second big war narrated by Ken Burns) rebuilding Japan and Germany. My father spent 1946 as part of MacArthur’s occupation force creating the new and better land of the rising sun. But my father then left and become part of the “GI Joe goes home, starts the baby boom and enjoys the greatest economic boom in human history greatest generation.” And, a few years latter MacArthur got sacked for meglomania by the most unpopular president in modern history.

Will the same happen to the men and generals serving in Iraq today? Will the people we have asked to sweat and bleed in Iraq and Afghanistan and, prior to that, Somalia, Kuwait and the Balkans, go gently back into the post-Vietnam night of xxxxx? Or will they do what military’s historically have done: when the going gets tough, the military gets tougher?

Surely (and please, none of those “Please don’t call me Shirley” jokes), the sane, sensitive and safe reader will say, no-one in America would support a military ursupation of power (so much pleasanter a phrase than “coup d’etat”, with its third world connotations.) But, in this era of “support our troops or be a traitor,” or sane reader, might there be those who might actually welcome a more militaristic approach to municipal governance. Like the radical right of AM talk radio whom extol the virtues of our men in uniform to levels beyond anything that ever leaped from a WWII morale-building poser. Take Sean Hannity. Please. (Forgive the unrestrainable pun.) Hannity (never wore a uniform, of course) says the best future for the United States lays in having the biggest, meanest, toughest ilitary on the planet. He means this, of course, in terms of dealing with other nations. But would the Hannity’’s of the right see outright military governance as being as bad as, say, a Hillary Clinton Administration? Substitute every other word from a Hannnity or Limbaugh rant and might one not interpret that military dicatorship is better than democracy if the best democracy can produce is left-wing, godless socialist communists (as the Democrats are routinely referred to on the amplitude modulated airwaves) ?

Yes, Sean Hannity never wore a uniform. But does it stretch the reader’s imagination to see him posing in front of a full length mirror, wearing his new, crisp, black Reichsmarshall of Public Communications Uniform in some future, safer, less godless, more authoritative age? Rush bemedalled (as Republican politicians all but made him following the 1994 midterm elections) as the future of the Republic?

Maybe. Maybe not. But, with the exception of the proposed coup against Roosevelt in the 1930s (by ultra conservative Rep…..) and the other three cases of Washington, Grant and MacArthur referenced above, I can not think of a time in this Republics history (long by our standards, short by history’s) that the role of the military vis’a’vis the Republic has been so called into question.

Yet no-one is talking about it.

Which begs the question: For what does it gain a nation to try and bring Republican government to the world, yet to lose it at home? It is said those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. Break out your history books, Americans (they’re over there in the corner under the latest People magazine with Britany/Nicole/Paris/Jennifer/Brad/Angelina/OJ/ on the cover…should you care) . And, in the words of the great political philosopher, Bette Davis, fasten your civic seatbelts.

Over the next decade, you may be in for a bumpy civic ride.


6 Responses to “The American Military and Politics in Post-9/11 Times”

  1. mlaiuppa Says:

    Might they? No, I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean we won’t become a Fascist state. We are so far in that direction some might say we’re already there.

    But no, I don’t think we have the military to fear in that way. We are lucky to have too many soldiers, even professional ones, that can think for themselves. They know the constitution and fearlessly defend it.

    I do think we have everything to fear from our political leadership. The military are really good at taking orders and following the law. So when laws are changed and orders are given, the military carries them out.

    I think we have less to fear of a right wing military refusing to take orders from a liberal President and much more to fear of a right wing extremist President using the military against the nation.

    This is why the right to bear arms issue is moot. The civilian population of this country will never be able to stage a revolt if our leadership steps too far and we truly become a Fascist State. Because the State will have the military and our military will follow orders. And no civilian group, no matter how well armed or how well organized will be able to defeat our military. Too many of them. Too few or us.

    So yes, we should be afraid. We should be very afraid.

    But we need to identify the source of our fears. And it isn’t our military. It is much more subtle and insidious. And some of us voted for them.

  2. Will Weckel Says:

    The unknown Soldier
    by W.H. Weckel c 2007
    To the unkown soldier, that fought and died
    his unbourn child, his widowed bride
    for the untold masses, he did defend
    one mans order, one mans end
    intrepid warriour, twas not in vain
    piercing steel of hate, disdain
    from all who loved you, especially me
    are world is troubled and always will be
    I grieve because, I dislike war
    and gluttonous pigs, that close the door
    to peace and love, brotherhood
    they start a war, they claim is good
    a promise made, vaporised
    a Nation torn by lies and more lies
    who can stop, this mechanical tyrade
    a pointing finger, of his plans, his way
    does anyone ever win, will this cease
    clearly the majority shout, P E A C E
    the unkown soldier, in the hand of those
    not wanting compromise, his case unjustly closed
    its time all citisens, our message staid
    to be one voice and not to betray
    the unkown soldier, who is not here
    lamenting families, so much grief to bear
    harmony, serenity, peace be still
    none of us will have it, nor the dead rest until
    we rise one Nation, to lend a hand
    unite as one people and take a stand

  3. Strelnikov Says:

    I don’t think a completely sucessful military coup is possible in US even though the military is at the breaking point; the country is too large for the coup to reach every unit and port, and there are too many officers and enlisted personnel who believe in the rule of law (I hope.) No, a coup would place us on the level of Nationalist China, with the “legitimate” government fighting the “rebels” in the Midwest, with the possibility of our foreign garrisons defecting to other countries or returning en masse to fight in the Second Civil War. In other words, it would be a hellacious mess, and we would emerge from it divided or a banana republic. I think we’ll see a draft under the Clinton/Obama government before we see Buck Turgidson or Jack D. Ripper emerge to be our new leadership.

  4. Jeffrey Davis Says:

    Great piece. I think you’ve connected a number of important threads.

    I want to add a comment about the military draft. It seems to me that the end of the draft was in many ways welcomed by the hawkish wing of government as much as it was by weary civilians, because it gave the government considerably more latitude in it’s use of the military. A professional military is there to do the job, whatever it is.

    A draftee military will follow orders, of course. But as Vietnam showed, draftees also feel more latitude to question the mission and dissent. And the public for their part have more at stake, and are more guarded about its employment. Finally, the alliance between the draftee military and domestic prudence is more natural and harder to drive a wedge between, particularly from the military’s side.

    There is a paradox here, and a bit of a vicious cycle. A professional military has fewer ties to the civic order, more ‘independence’, and yet is also used, and abused, more freely by the government.

    But while the professional military gives the government a lower barrier viz public support, its smaller size also limits some policy choices. In Iraq, the burden of proof for military engagement remained at professional levels (see Grenada, Panama). But that also precluded a ground force adequate to carry out security. From the foreign policy side, there’s a catch.

    Anyway, thanks. I think you’re right that a “military usurpation of power” is a possibility, and it sure as hell deserves discussion. I’d add a little more emphasis on the role of the draft — something else under discussed and helpful in understanding our situation.

  5. Fred Williams Says:


    Great article. Clean up the typos, and get it published already!

    Don’t remember if it was Plutarch or Plato who had the revolving government thesis, (going from strong-man, to aristrocracy, to oligarchy, to democracy, back to strong-man), but it might be worth mentioning in your penultimate paragraph…don’t just disparage us, give us something to follow up with. Good ole’ Julius Cesar, along with Pompei (an even better example of military usurper?), might also be cited…

    I honestly haven’t seen this issue discussed anywhere. But after reading your article draft, I think you’re on to something that should be more widely thought about. Curious how few ever “expect” a coup, and how very frequently they have been successful. If the next President continues to fail in our various overseas military ventures, undoubtedly a fickle and short-sighted public could quickly entertain ideas (promoted by some media outlets) that the best way out is to put the men in uniform in charge…scary.

    Again, finish it up and get it out there for more people to read.


  6. How to Get Six Pack Fast Says:

    This is quite a up-to-date information. I think I’ll share it on Facebook.

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