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American Coup D’Etat

Mil­i­tary thinkers dis­cuss the unthink­able

Eter­nal vig­i­lance being the price of lib­er­ty, Americans—who spent decades war-gam­ing a Sovi­et inva­sion and have tak­en more recent­ly to day­dream­ing about “tick­ing bomb” scenarios—should cast at least an occa­sion­al thought toward the only tru­ly exis­ten­tial threat that Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy might face today. We now live in a unipo­lar world, after all, in which con­quest of the Unit­ed States by an out­side pow­er is near­ly incon­ceiv­able. Even the best-equipped ter­ror­ists, for their part, could dis­patch at most a city or two; and armed rev­o­lu­tion is a futile prospect, so fear­some­ly is our home­land secured by police and mil­i­tary forces. To sub­due Amer­i­ca entire­ly, the only route remain­ing would be to seize the machin­ery of state itself, to steer it toward malign ends—to car­ry out, that is, a coup d’état.

Giv­en that the linch­pin of any coup d’état is the par­tic­i­pa­tion, or at least the sup­port, of a nation’s mil­i­tary offi­cers, Harper’s Mag­a­zine assem­bled a pan­el of experts to dis­cuss the state of our own military—its cul­ture, its rela­tion­ship with the wider soci­ety, and the stead­fast­ness of its loy­al­ty to the ideals of democ­ra­cy and to the Unit­ed States Con­sti­tu­tion.

The fol­low­ing forum is based on a dis­cus­sion that took place in Jan­u­ary at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Arling­ton, Vir­ginia. Bill Wasik served as mod­er­a­tor.

ANDREW J. BACEVICH is a pro­fes­sor of inter­na­tion­al rela­tions at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty and the author, most recent­ly, of The New Amer­i­can Mil­i­tarism. He served as an offi­cer in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1992.

BRIG. GEN. CHARLES J. DUNLAP JR. is a staff judge advo­cate at Lan­g­ley Air Force Base in Vir­ginia. In 1992 he pub­lished an essay enti­tled “The Ori­gins of the Amer­i­can Mil­i­tary Coup of 2012.” [1] (His views here are per­son­al and do not reflect those of the U.S. Depart­ment of Defense.)

RICHARD H. KOHN is the chair of the cur­ricu­lum in Peace, War, and Defense at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na at Chapel Hill and edi­tor of the book The Unit­ed States Mil­i­tary Under the Con­sti­tu­tion of the Unit­ed States, 1789‒1989, among oth­ers.

EDWARD N. LUTTWAK is a senior advis­er at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies and the author of many books, includ­ing Coup D’Etat: A Prac­ti­cal Hand­book.

BILL WASIK is a senior edi­tor of Harper’s Mag­a­zine.

I.

BILL WASIK: Let us begin with the most straight­for­ward approach. Would it be pos­si­ble for a rene­gade group of mil­i­tary offi­cers, or the offi­cer corps as a whole, to sim­ply plot and car­ry out a coup d’état in the Unit­ed States?

EDWARD LUTTWAK: If some­body asked me to plan such a coup, I wouldn’t take on the assign­ment.

CHARLES DUNLAP: I wouldn’t either. [Laughs]

LUTTWAK: I’ve done it for oth­er coun­tries. But it just wouldn’t work here. You could go down the list and take over these head­quar­ters, that head­quar­ters, the White House, the Defense Depart­ment, the tele­vi­sion, the radio, and so on. You could arrest all the lead­ers, detain or kill off their fam­i­lies. And you would have accom­plished noth­ing.

ANDREW BACEVICH: That’s right. What are you going to seize that, hav­ing seized it, gives you con­trol of the coun­try?

LUTTWAK: You would sit in the office of the Sec­re­tary of Defense, and the first place where you wouldn’t be obeyed would be inside your office. If they did fol­low orders inside the office, then peo­ple in the rest of the Pen­ta­gon wouldn’t. If every­body in the Pen­ta­gon fol­lowed orders, peo­ple out in the mil­i­tary bases wouldn’t. If they did, as well, Amer­i­can cit­i­zens would still not accept your legit­i­ma­cy.

RICHARD KOHN: It’s a prob­lem of pub­lic opin­ion. All of the organs of opin­ion in this coun­try would rise up with one voice: the courts, the media, busi­ness lead­ers, edu­ca­tion lead­ers, the cler­gy.

LUTTWAK: You could shut down the media—

KOHN: You can’t shut it down. It’s too dis­persed.

LUTTWAK: No, you could shut down the media, but even if you did shut down the media, you still wouldn’t be able to rule. Because, remem­ber, in order to actu­al­ly rule, you have to have accep­tance. Think of Sad­dam Hus­sein: he was not a very, you know, pop­u­lar leader, but he did have to be obeyed at the very min­i­mum by his secu­ri­ty forces, his Repub­li­can Guards. So there is a min­i­mum group that one needs in order to con­trol any coun­try. But in this coun­try, you could nev­er con­trol such a min­i­mum group.

KOHN: I’ve raised this point before with mil­i­tary audi­ences: Do you real­ly think you can con­trol New York City with­out the coop­er­a­tion of 40,000 New York police offi­cers? And what about Ida­ho, with all those mili­tia groups? Do you think you can con­trol Ida­ho? I’m not even going to talk about Texas.

BACEVICH: And this comes back to the fed­er­al sys­tem. As Edward point­ed out, even if you seized Wash­ing­ton, Amer­i­cans are will­ing to acknowl­edge that Wash­ing­ton is the seat of polit­i­cal author­i­ty only to a lim­it­ed extent. The coup plot­ters could sit in the Capi­tol, but up in Boston we’re going to ask, “What’s this got to do with us?”

DUNLAP: It’s also impos­si­ble giv­en the cul­ture of the mil­i­tary. The notion of a cabal of U.S. mil­i­tary offi­cers col­lud­ing to over­throw the gov­ern­ment is almost unthink­able. Civil­ian con­trol of the mil­i­tary is too deeply ingrained in the armed forces.

BACEVICH: The pro­fes­sion­al eth­ic with­in the mil­i­tary is firm­ly com­mit­ted to the prin­ci­ple that they don’t rule.

WASIK: So we can agree, then, that the blunt approach won’t work. Was there ever a time in our his­to­ry when the Unit­ed States was in dan­ger of an out­right mil­i­tary takeover?

KOHN: The clos­est, I would say, was a fac­tion in the mil­i­tary at New­burgh, New York, in March of 1783. The army felt like it was about to be aban­doned in the oncom­ing peace; offi­cers were con­cerned about their rein­te­gra­tion into Amer­i­can soci­ety, that they wouldn’t get the pay that had been promised them. They got caught up in a very com­plex plot, in which they were used by a fac­tion in the Con­gress that was try­ing to change the Arti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion to give the cen­tral gov­ern­ment the pow­er to tax. Nation­al­ist lead­ers in Con­gress basi­cal­ly pro­voked a coup attempt and then dou­ble-crossed the offi­cers that they induced to do it by tip­ping off George Wash­ing­ton. All this led to a famous meet­ing of the offi­cers when it was pro­posed that they see to their own inter­ests, and either march on the Con­gress or, if the war con­tin­ued, retire to the West and aban­don the coun­try. Wash­ing­ton faced down the con­spir­a­tors in an emo­tion­al moment at New­burgh on March 15, 1783.

DUNLAP: He was read­ing a let­ter from a con­gress­man, as I recall, and then at one point he said, “Gen­tle­men, you will per­mit me to put on my spec­ta­cles. For I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the ser­vice of my coun­try.”

KOHN: And this caused a kind of emo­tion­al break at the meet­ing, accord­ing to the peo­ple who were there.

DUNLAP: Because they real­ized how much he had sac­ri­ficed. And it humil­i­at­ed them.

LUTTWAK: So the point here is to make sure your army has excel­lent retire­ment ben­e­fits. This was an indus­tri­al action. It was about get­ting paid.

KOHN: The pay rep­re­sent­ed a lot more than just the mon­ey, though. There was deep polit­i­cal intrigue involved, and per­son­al ani­mos­i­ty.

LUTTWAK: In oth­er words, the repub­lic was in great dan­ger in 1783. Which doesn’t cause imme­di­ate alarm th
ese days in the streets of Man­hat­tan.

BACEVICH: But this does bring up anoth­er cru­cial rea­son there could nev­er be a mil­i­tary coup in the Unit­ed States: the mil­i­tary has learned to play pol­i­tics. It doesn’t need to have a coup in order to get what it wants most of the time. Espe­cial­ly since World War II, the ser­vices have become very skill­ful at exploit­ing the media and at manip­u­lat­ing the Congress—particularly on the defense bud­get, which is esti­mat­ed now to be equal to that of the entire rest of the world com­bined.

DUNLAP: I agree, though I wouldn’t char­ac­ter­ize it neg­a­tive­ly. The mil­i­tary works with­in the sys­tem to achieve its needs.

LUTTWAK: A few years back, the pres­i­dent of Argenti­na told the country’s air force that its bud­get for the next year would be $80 mil­lion. Now, Argenti­na has a fair­ly large air force; $80 mil­lion was enough for one base, basi­cal­ly. But the air force had no recourse, no back chan­nels to Con­gress, no talk shows to go on. That could nev­er hap­pen in the Unit­ed States.

BACEVICH: Right. Our mil­i­tary doesn’t need to over­throw the gov­ern­ment, because it has learned how to play pol­i­tics in order to achieve its inter­ests.

II.

WASIK: Are there any unfore­seen cir­cum­stances in which a coup might become pos­si­ble in the Unit­ed States?

KOHN: One could con­ceive of sit­u­a­tions in which the mil­i­tary would be invit­ed to exer­cise extra­con­sti­tu­tion­al author­i­ty. Imag­ine rolling bio­log­i­cal attacks, with the need to quar­an­tine whole cities or regions. A mil­i­tary takeover might arise, indeed, from a politi­cian want­i­ng to sim­ply retain order in the coun­try. It might be sup­port­ed by the Amer­i­can people—and Con­gress and the courts might go along.

LUTTWAK: Such a sce­nario would prob­a­bly play out through a mul­ti-stage trans­for­ma­tion. After all, take any group of nice peo­ple on a trip; if five bad things hap­pen to them in a row, they will end up as can­ni­bals. How many adverse events are need­ed before a polit­i­cal sys­tem, arguably the most firm­ly root­ed con­sti­tu­tion­al sys­tem in the his­to­ry of the world, becomes uproot­ed? How many Sep­tem­ber 11ths, on what scale? How much pan­ic, what kind of lead­er­ship? All of us can say that it is fool­ish to talk of a coup in the Unit­ed States, but any of us could design a sce­nario by which a coup becomes pos­si­ble.

DUNLAP: If there were a mas­sive attack by a nuclear weapon, or by some oth­er weapon of mass destruc­tion, the imme­di­ate cri­sis might require the use of the armed forces. But obvi­ous­ly there are plans for those sce­nar­ios, and if they’re exe­cut­ed, then con­trol would be main­tained under the Con­sti­tu­tion.

BACEVICH: But these are sce­nar­ios in which the mil­i­tary would be invit­ed to over­step its role.

KOHN: Yes. I can­not con­ceive that in such a sit­u­a­tion the mil­i­tary would aggran­dize its posi­tion on its own.

WASIK: So a weapon of mass destruc­tion might cause the mil­i­tary to assume greater pow­er. What about a pure­ly polit­i­cal cri­sis? Could the mil­i­tary step in if, say, the Con­sti­tu­tion were unclear on a course of action?

DUNLAP: One inter­est­ing sce­nario would be a cri­sis between the branch­es of gov­ern­ment that are expect­ed to con­trol the mil­i­tary. I.e., if the armed forces were caught between the orders of the pres­i­dent, the Con­gress, or even the courts, and there were no con­sti­tu­tion­al path to resolve the dis­agree­ment.

KOHN: Wouldn’t the armed forces sim­ply freeze? They’d be par­a­lyzed.

LUTTWAK: It’s a very inter­est­ing line of inquiry. Let’s say a pres­i­dent, exer­cis­ing his prop­er and legit­i­mate pres­i­den­tial author­i­ty, ini­ti­ates a mil­i­tary action. Then Con­gress wakes up and says, “Wait a minute, this pres­i­dent is berserk; he’s start­ing a war, and we’re against it.” But in the mean­time, the mil­i­tary force has already been put in a very com­pro­mised sit­u­a­tion. If things were mov­ing very fast, the mil­i­tary might well take an uncon­sti­tu­tion­al action.

KOHN: Some­thing sim­i­lar actu­al­ly hap­pened dur­ing Recon­struc­tion: there were con­flict­ing orders from the Con­gress and the pres­i­dent.

LUTTWAK: What were the details?

KOHN: It was 1867, when Grant was the com­mand­ing gen­er­al.

BACEVICH: The pres­i­dent, Andrew John­son, was in favor of a rapid rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and min­i­mal polit­i­cal change. The Con­gress, under the con­trol of rad­i­cal Repub­li­cans, want­ed to impose change on the South, and also there­by con­sol­i­date Repub­li­can con­trol of the region. This dis­pute came to a head when Con­gress passed laws that essen­tial­ly stripped John­son of his con­trol over the army: as far as Recon­struc­tion was con­cerned, Grant and Edwin Stan­ton, who was sec­re­tary of war, were to take their march­ing orders from Con­gress. When John­son fired Stan­ton, Grant found him­self both the com­mand­ing gen­er­al of the army and the act­ing sec­re­tary of war. But he struck an obe­di­ent, apo­lit­i­cal pose, and he con­tin­ued to do the bid­ding of Con­gress.

LUTTWAK: What about a sit­u­a­tion in which the mil­i­tary was ordered to start a war that it did not believe could be won? Imag­ine that Pres­i­dent Bush orders the Amer­i­can armed forces to effect a land­ing in Fujian province and march up to Bei­jing. The army would say, “Of course, Mr. Pres­i­dent, we’re will­ing to obey orders. But we have to have a uni­ver­sal mil­i­tary con­scrip­tion, we have to bring our forces up to four mil­lion and a half.” And imag­ine that Bush refus­es.

BACEVICH: The mil­i­tary would leak it to the Wash­ing­ton Post, and the war would nev­er hap­pen. It’s the Bosnia case: when Pres­i­dent Clin­ton want­ed to inter­vene in Bosnia, Gen­er­al Bar­ry McCaf­frey tes­ti­fied to Con­gress and gave a wild­ly inflat­ed pro­jec­tion of the num­ber of occu­pa­tion troops that would be required. By over­stat­ing the cost of the oper­a­tion, the gen­er­als changed the polit­i­cal dynam­ic and Clin­ton found his hands tied, at least for a peri­od of time.

WASIK: Let’s get back, though, to the sub­ject of crises, whether real or con­trived. It seems as though the Amer­i­can pub­lic wants to see the mil­i­tary step in dur­ing these sit­u­a­tions. A poll tak­en just after Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na found that 69 per­cent of peo­ple want­ed to see the mil­i­tary serve as the pri­ma­ry respon­der to nat­ur­al dis­as­ters.

DUNLAP: Peo­ple don’t ful­ly appre­ci­ate what the mil­i­tary is. By design it is author­i­tar­i­an, social­is­tic, unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic. Those qual­i­ties help the armed forces to serve their very unique pur­pose in our soci­ety: name­ly, exter­nal defense against for­eign ene­mies. In the mil­i­tary we look to destroy threats, not appre­hend them for pro­cess­ing through a sys­tem that pre­sumes them inno­cent until proven guilty. And I should add that if you do try to imprint sol­diers with the restraint that a police force needs, then you dis­ad­van­tage them against the ruth­less adver­saries that real war involves.

WASIK: Then why do so many Amer­i­cans say they want to see the mil­i­tary get involved in law enforce­ment, “peace­keep­ing,” etc.?

DUNLAP: Amer­i­cans today have an incred­i­ble trust in the mil­i­tary. In poll after poll they have much more con­fi­dence in the armed forces than they do in oth­er insti­tu­tions. The most recent poll, just this past spring, had trust in the mil­i­tary at 74 per­cent, while Con­gress was at 22 per­cent and the pres­i­den­cy was at 44 per­cent. In oth­er words, the armed forces are much more trust­ed than the civil­ian insti­tu­tions that are sup­posed to con­trol them.

III.

BACEVICH: The ques­tion that aris­es is whether, in fact, we’re not already expe­ri­enc­ing what is in essence a creep­ing coup d’état. But it’s not peo­ple in uni­form who are seiz­ing pow­er. It’s mil­i­ta­rized civil­ians, who con­ceive of the world as such a dan­ger­ous place that mil­i­tary pow­er has to pre­dom­i­nate, that con­sti­tu­tion­al con­straints on the mil­i­tary need to be loos­ened. The ide­ol­o­gy of nation­al secu­ri­ty has become ever more woven
into our pol­i­tics. It has been espe­cial­ly appar­ent since 9/11, but more broad­ly it’s been going on since the begin­ning of the Cold War.

KOHN: The Con­sti­tu­tion is being warped.

BACEVICH: Here we don’t need to con­jure up hypo­thet­i­cal sce­nar­ios of the pres­i­dent deploy­ing troops, etc. We have a pres­i­dent who cre­at­ed a pro­gram that directs the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency, which is part of the mil­i­tary, to engage in domes­tic eaves­drop­ping.

LUTTWAK: I don’t know if this would be called a coup.

KOHN: Because it’s so incre­men­tal?

LUTTWAK: It’s more like an ero­sion. The pres­i­dent is usurp­ing addi­tion­al pow­ers. Although what’s inter­est­ing is that the president’s usurpa­tion of this par­tic­u­lar pow­er was entire­ly unnec­es­sary. The For­eign Intel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act court, which approves ter­ror­ism-relat­ed requests for wire­taps, can be sum­moned over the tele­phone in a mat­ter of min­utes. In its entire his­to­ry, it has said no to a request for sur­veil­lance only a hand­ful of times, and those were cas­es where there was a mis­take in the request. Real­ly, even a small-town sher­iff can get any inter­cep­tion he wants, so long as after the fact he can show a judge that there was rea­son­able cause.

BACEVICH: Bush’s move was unnec­es­sary if the object of the exer­cise was to engage in sur­veil­lance. It was very use­ful indeed if the object is to expand exec­u­tive pow­er.

KOHN: Which is exact­ly what has been the agen­da since the begin­ning of this admin­is­tra­tion.

LUTTWAK: Now you’re attribut­ing motives.

BACEVICH: Yes, I am! If you read John Yoo, he sug­gests that one con­scious aim of the project was to elim­i­nate con­straints on the chief exec­u­tive when it comes to mat­ters of nation­al secu­ri­ty.

DUNLAP: I will say that even if it was a com­plete­ly legal project, there is a ques­tion of how appro­pri­ate it is for the armed forces to be involved in that kind of activ­i­ty. Since, as I not­ed before, the Amer­i­can peo­ple have much less con­fi­dence in those insti­tu­tions of civil­ian con­trol than they do in the armed forces, we need to be very care­ful about what we ask the mil­i­tary to do, even assum­ing it’s legal.

WASIK: If we are talk­ing about a “creep­ing coup” that is already under way, in what direc­tion is it creep­ing?

BACEVICH: The creep­ing coup deflects atten­tion away from domes­tic pri­or­i­ties and toward nation­al-secu­ri­ty mat­ters, so that is where all our resources get deployed. “Lead­er­ship” today is what is demon­strat­ed in the nation­al-secu­ri­ty realm. The cur­rent pres­i­den­cy is inter­est­ing in that regard. What has Bush accom­plished apart from pos­tur­ing in the role of com­man­der in chief? He declares wars, he pros­e­cutes wars, he insists we must con­tin­ue to pros­e­cute wars.

KOHN: By fram­ing the ter­ror­ist threat itself as a war, we tend to look upon our nation­al secu­ri­ty from a much more mil­i­tary per­spec­tive.

BACEVICH: We don’t get Social Secu­ri­ty reform, we don’t get immi­gra­tion reform. The role of the pres­i­dent increas­ing­ly comes to be defined by his mil­i­tary func­tion.

KOHN: And so our for­eign pol­i­cy becomes mil­i­ta­rized. We neglect our diplo­ma­cy, de-empha­size allies.

DUNLAP: Well, with­out com­ment­ing on this par­tic­u­lar sub­ject—

KOHN: You shouldn’t. [Laughs]

DUNLAP: —is this not some­thing that is decid­ed at the bal­lot box? I mean, aren’t these the kinds of issues that the Amer­i­can peo­ple decide when they elect a pres­i­dent?

KOHN: But you imply by that state­ment, Char­lie, that the bal­lot box exists as a kind of pris­tine, uncon­tex­tu­al­ized Athen­ian gath­er­ing at the square to vote. In fact, the bal­lot box in this coun­try is the prod­uct of how things are framed by the polit­i­cal par­ties, by the polit­i­cal lead­ers. Also, very few of our con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts now are real­ly con­test­ed, after ger­ry­man­der­ing. Very few of our Sen­ate seats are real con­tests.

LUTTWAK: It becomes about per­son­al­i­ties: you ask an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen to choose between Lau­ra Bush and Tere­sa Heinz Ker­ry, and they choose Lau­ra Bush. But it doesn’t mean that they favor the mis­use of the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary to try and change the polit­i­cal cul­ture of Afghanistan. This is madness—and it is bipar­ti­san mad­ness.

BACEVICH: That’s a key point.

LUTTWAK: Bipar­ti­san mad­ness. This is not even mil­i­tarism. Mil­i­tarism had to do with emi­nent pro­fes­sors of Greek des­per­ate to become reserve offi­cers so they could be invit­ed to the mil­i­tary ball. That’s mil­i­tarism. This is an intox­i­ca­tion about what the actu­al capa­bil­i­ties of any mil­i­tary force could be.

DUNLAP: This intox­i­ca­tion with the military’s capa­bil­i­ties cer­tain­ly isn’t com­ing from the uni­formed mil­i­tary offi­cers.

BACEVICH: Except inso­far as they are involved in the play­ing of pol­i­tics, in con­stant­ly press­ing for more resources. Mean­while, we’ve under­fund­ed the State Depart­ment for twen­ty-five years.

LUTTWAK: I once was privy to a peace nego­ti­a­tion con­duct­ed in the cor­ri­dors of the State Depart­ment. The State Depart­ment lit­er­al­ly had no funds to give lunch to the par­tic­i­pants, a fact that both sides com­plained bit­ter­ly about.

DUNLAP: Well, I don’t think it’s any­thing new that the State Depart­ment is under­fund­ed. The State Depart­ment has no bases in any state, so it does not have a con­stituen­cy. But in terms of the expen­di­ture of resources in the Depart­ment of Defense, that is very much con­trolled by civil­ians and not mil­i­tary com­man­ders.

LUTTWAK: But it is still the mil­i­tary that has the resources.

BACEVICH: And so over time—because this has hap­pened over time—you cre­ate a bias for mil­i­tary action. Which agency of gov­ern­ment has the capac­i­ty to act? Well, the Depart­ment of Defense does. And that bias gets con­tin­u­al­ly rein­forced, and helps to cre­ate a cir­cum­stance in which any pres­i­dent who wants to appear effec­tive, and there­fore to win reelec­tion, sees that the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do so is by act­ing in the mil­i­tary sphere.

IV.

WASIK: I want to address the ques­tion of par­ti­san­ship in the mil­i­tary. Inso­far as there is a “cul­ture war” in Amer­i­ca, every­one seems to agree that the armed forces fight on the Repub­li­can side. And this is borne out in polls: self-described Repub­li­cans out­num­ber Democ­rats in the mil­i­tary by more than four to one, and only 7 per­cent of sol­diers describe them­selves as “lib­er­al.”

KOHN: It has become part of the infor­mal cul­ture of the mil­i­tary to be Repub­li­can. You see this at the mil­i­tary acad­e­mies. They pick it up in the cul­ture, in the train­ing estab­lish­ments.

DUNLAP: The mil­i­tary is an inher­ent­ly con­ser­v­a­tive orga­ni­za­tion, and this is true of all mil­i­taries around the world. Also the demo­graph­ics have changed: peo­ple in the South who were Demo­c­ra­t­ic twen­ty years ago have become Repub­li­can today.

BACEVICH: Yes, all mil­i­taries are con­ser­v­a­tive. But since 1980 our mil­i­tary has become con­ser­v­a­tive in a more explic­it­ly ide­o­log­i­cal sense. And that alle­giance has been returned in spades by the con­ser­v­a­tive side in the cul­ture war, which sees sol­diers as vir­tu­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tives of how the coun­try ought to be.

KOHN: And mean­while there is a streak of anti-mil­i­tarism on the left.

BACEVICH: It’s not that peo­ple on the left dis­dain the mil­i­tary but rather that they are just agnos­tic about it. They don’t iden­ti­fy with sol­diers or sol­dier­ing.

LUTTWAK: And their chil­dren have less of a propen­si­ty to serve in the mil­i­tary. Par­ents who describe them­selves as lib­er­al are less like­ly to make pos­i­tive nois­es to their chil­dren about the armed forces.

DUNLAP: Which brings up a cru­cial point. Let’s accept as a fact that the U.S. mil­i­tary has become more overt­ly ide­o­log­i­cal since 1980. What has hap­pened since 1980? Rough­ly, that was the begin­ning of the all-vol­un­teer force. What we are see­ing right now is the result of twen­ty-five years
of an all-vol­un­teer force, in which peo­ple have self-select­ed into the orga­ni­za­tion.

BACEVICH: But the mil­i­tary is also recruit­ed. And it doesn’t seem to me that the mil­i­tary has much inter­est in whether or not the force is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Amer­i­can soci­ety.

KOHN: I don’t think that’s true.

BACEVICH: Where do you think recruit­ing com­mand is focused right now? It’s focused on those evan­gel­i­cals, it’s on the rur­al South. We are rein­forc­ing the lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tive­ness in the mil­i­tary because of the con­cen­trat­ed recruit­ing efforts among groups pre­dis­posed to serve.

DUNLAP: They are so focused on get­ting qual­i­fied peo­ple. The mil­i­tary is going to the Supreme Court so that it can recruit on cam­pus­es where cur­rent­ly we’re not able to.

KOHN: That’s just law schools.

DUNLAP: But it has impli­ca­tions across the armed forces.

BACEVICH: The recruiters go for the rich turf, which is where the evan­gel­i­cals are. You have to work a hell of a lot hard­er to recruit peo­ple from New­ton and Welles­ley, Mass­a­chu­setts.

KOHN: Or any­where in the well-to-do or even mid­dle-class sub­urbs.

BACEVICH: In an eco­nom­ic sense, the ser­vices are behav­ing quite ratio­nal­ly. But in doing so they per­pet­u­ate the fact that we have a mil­i­tary that in no way “looks like” Amer­i­can soci­ety.

DUNLAP: The oth­er part of the prob­lem is the behav­ior of the politi­cians. They real­ize the affec­tion that Amer­i­can peo­ple have for peo­ple in uni­form.

BACEVICH: And so they land on air­craft car­ri­ers to prance around in the flight suit of a fight­er jock. Both par­ties now see the mil­i­tary vote as being a part of pol­i­tics, as a con­stituen­cy. It’s a con­stituen­cy that the Repub­li­cans think they own and intend to con­tin­ue to own. It’s a con­stituen­cy that the Democ­rats want to pry away.

KOHN: And par­ti­san­ship in the mil­i­tary over­all, i.e., the per­cent­age of the mil­i­tary that iden­ti­fies with a par­ty as opposed to being “inde­pen­dent” or non-affil­i­at­ed, is much greater over­all. Not only are mil­i­tary offi­cers more par­ti­san than the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion; they’re more par­ti­san than, say, busi­ness lead­ers and oth­er elite groups. I’ve tracked the num­bers of retired four-star gen­er­als and admi­rals endors­ing a can­di­date in pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, and it’s vast­ly up in the last two elec­tions.

BACEVICH: Remem­ber at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, where Gen­er­al Clau­dia Kennedy intro­duced Gen­er­al John Sha­likashvili to address the del­e­gates? Why were they up there? There was only one rea­son: to try to match the parade of retired senior offi­cers that the Repub­li­cans have long been trot­ting out on polit­i­cal occa­sions.

KOHN: But is that to get mil­i­tary votes? Or just to con­nect with the Amer­i­can peo­ple on nation­al secu­ri­ty and patri­o­tism?

BACEVICH: It’s both. In 2000, the Repub­li­can Nation­al Com­mit­tee put ads in the Army Times and oth­er ser­vice mag­a­zines attack­ing the Clinton/Gore record. To me that was, quite frankly, con­temptible.

WASIK: It seems as if the two are relat­ed: if it’s report­ed that you have the sup­port of the military—as was the case before the 2004 elec­tion, when news­pa­pers not­ed that Ker­ry had less than 20 per­cent sup­port with­in the military—then you get a halo effect among the rest of the vot­ers. Does the par­ti­san­ship of our mil­i­tary present a dan­ger to the nation?

KOHN: One of the great pil­lars in our his­to­ry that has pre­vent­ed mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in pol­i­tics has been the military’s non­par­ti­san atti­tude. That’s why Gen­er­al George Marshall’s gen­er­a­tion of offi­cers essen­tial­ly declined to vote at all, as did gen­er­a­tions before them. In fact, for the first time in over a cen­tu­ry we now have an offi­cer corps that does iden­ti­fy over­whelm­ing­ly with one polit­i­cal par­ty. And that is cor­ro­sive.

V.

KOHN: Con­sid­er this glar­ing exam­ple of polit­i­cal manip­u­la­tion by the mil­i­tary: After every oth­er Amer­i­can war before the Cold War, the coun­try demo­bi­lized its wartime mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment. Even dur­ing the Cold War, when we kept a large stand­ing mil­i­tary, we expand­ed and con­tract­ed it for shoot­ing wars. But in 1990 and 1991, the military—through Gen­er­al Col­in Pow­ell, who was head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time—intervened and effec­tive­ly pre­vent­ed a demo­bi­liza­tion.

BACEVICH: More accu­rate­ly, I’d say that he pre­vent­ed any dis­cus­sion of a demo­bi­liza­tion.

KOHN: That’s right.

DUNLAP: We did have a reduc­tion in the size of the mil­i­tary. There were cuts of around 9 per­cent, in both dol­lars and man­pow­er.

KOHN: But it was noth­ing com­pared to the end of great Amer­i­can wars pri­or to that.

BACEVICH: Pow­ell is explic­it on this in his mem­oirs. “I was deter­mined to have the Joint Chiefs dri­ve the mil­i­tary strat­e­gy train,” he wrote. He was not going to have “mil­i­tary reor­ga­ni­za­tion schemes shoved down our throat.”

KOHN: This was not a coup, but it was very clear­ly a cir­cum­ven­tion of civil­ian polit­i­cal author­i­ty.

BACEVICH: Let us also con­sid­er the clas­sic case of gays in the mil­i­tary. Bill Clin­ton ran for the pres­i­den­cy say­ing he would issue an exec­u­tive order that did for gays what Har­ry Tru­man did for African Amer­i­cans. He wins the elec­tion. When he tries to do pre­cise­ly what he said he would do, it trig­gers a firestorm of oppo­si­tion in the mil­i­tary. This was not the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff mere­ly say­ing, in pri­vate, “Mr. Pres­i­dent, I would like to give you my pro­fes­sion­al opin­ion.”

KOHN: It was the most open revolt the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary as a whole has ever engaged in.

LUTTWAK: Ever?

KOHN: Open revolt, yes.

BACEVICH: Now, Clinton’s actions were ill-advised, to put it mild­ly. But what we got was some­thing like rebel­lion. Two Marines pub­lished an op-ed in the Wash­ing­ton Post, warn­ing the Joint Chiefs that if they failed to stop this pol­i­cy from being imple­ment­ed, they were like­ly to lose the loy­al­ty of junior offi­cers. I mean, holy smokes.

DUNLAP: Which brings up the issue: How trans­par­ent should the uni­formed side of the armed forces be about their opin­ions? I will tell you, it is very dif­fi­cult for serv­ing offi­cers to fig­ure out exact­ly where the line is. There are points where they feel that their mil­i­tary val­ues require them to speak out.

KOHN: I’m not sym­pa­thet­ic. As pro­fes­sion­al mil­i­tary offi­cers, they are called upon to make far more dif­fi­cult deci­sions in far more ambigu­ous and dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. The civ­il-mil­i­tary rela­tion­ship is one of the most impor­tant parts of their pro­fes­sion, and if they are not edu­cat­ed and pre­pared enough to make the prop­er judg­ments, then they don’t belong in high-rank­ing posi­tions.

LUTTWAK: It seems as though we should take into account the views of the armed forces in regard to mil­i­tary ques­tions and noth­ing more. The mil­i­tary is like a sur­geon. If you go to a hospital—even if you own the hospital—you will defer to the sur­geon if he tells you that you need your appen­dix out rather than your leg cut off. But if the sur­geon starts talk­ing about reli­gion or pol­i­tics or homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, you wouldn’t defer to him at all.

KOHN: But with gays in the mil­i­tary, the offi­cers framed it in mil­i­tary terms. They said that revok­ing the ban would destroy the good order and dis­ci­pline of the armed forces.

LUTTWAK: In the show­ers.

KOHN: Exact­ly. In ret­ro­spect, it was a fool­ish argument—but that was how they framed it, in mil­i­tary terms.

LUTTWAK: So how should it have been done dif­fer­ent­ly? Pres­i­dent Clin­ton comes in and wants to allow homo­sex­u­als to serve in the mil­i­tary. Do sol­diers have the right to express them­selves on this?

KOHN: Not pub­licly.

DUNLAP: By law, you can con­tact your
con­gress­man.

LUTTWAK: Right.

DUNLAP: That may be the answer. The answer may be you can just do it on an indi­vid­ual basis.

KOHN: On a pri­vate basis.

LUTTWAK: But let’s con­sid­er a more recent exam­ple. One day Gen­er­al Eric Shin­se­ki, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, hap­pened to be tes­ti­fy­ing on Capi­tol Hill. Some­body asked him about a pos­si­ble inva­sion of Iraq, and Gen­er­al Shinseki—reflecting what, as I under­stand it, was the view of any­one who had ever looked at that coun­try and count­ed its population—said that it would take sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand troops to con­trol Iraq. Where­upon Shin­se­ki was pub­licly con­tra­dict­ed by his civil­ian supe­ri­ors, who ridiculed his pro­fes­sion­al opin­ion.

DUNLAP: Right. Dick, do you con­sid­er that to have been appro­pri­ate feed­back for him?

KOHN: No, Shin­se­ki behaved appro­pri­ate­ly. In con­tra­dict­ing and dis­parag­ing him, the civil­ians sig­nalled to the mil­i­tary that they did not want can­dor even when it is required, which is in front of Con­gress.

DUNLAP: There are two oth­er inter­est­ing exam­ples with Gen­er­al Pace, our cur­rent chair­man. One was when he dif­fered with Defense Sec­re­tary Rums­feld about what a mil­i­tary per­son should do if he or she is present when there’s an abuse dur­ing an inter­ro­ga­tion process. Pace insist­ed that the mil­i­tary had the oblig­a­tion to intervene—which I think is the right answer.

KOHN: But after­ward he fudged it and claimed that there was no dis­agree­ment with the sec­re­tary.

DUNLAP: Be that as it may, I think it was the right answer. The sec­ond and, I think, more dif­fi­cult sce­nario was when Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jack Murtha said that he wouldn’t join the armed forces today, nor would he expect oth­ers to do so. Gen­er­al Pace pub­licly crit­i­cized Murtha’s remarks. Here was anoth­er instance in which the senior rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the uni­formed mil­i­tary spoke out in what was arguably a polit­i­cal con­text against civil­ian lead­er­ship. But in this case again, I thought it was appro­pri­ate.

WASIK: So it seems clear that whether we like it or not, the mil­i­tary has learned how to use the polit­i­cal sys­tem to pro­tect its inter­ests and also to uphold what it sees as its val­ues. Think­ing over the long term, are there any dan­gers inher­ent in this?

KOHN: Well, at this point the mil­i­tary has a long tra­di­tion of get­ting what it wants. If we ever attempt­ed to tru­ly demobilize—i.e., if the mil­i­tary were sud­den­ly, rad­i­cal­ly cut back—it could lead if not to a coup then to very severe civ­il-mil­i­tary ten­sion.

BACEVICH: Because the polit­i­cal game would no longer be prej­u­diced in the military’s favor.

KOHN: That’s right.

BACEVICH: But there is a more sub­tle dan­ger too. The civil­ian lead­er­ship knows that in deal­ing with the mil­i­tary, they are deal­ing with an insti­tu­tion whose behav­ior is not pure­ly defined by adher­ence to the mil­i­tary pro­fes­sion­al eth­ic, dis­in­ter­est­ed ser­vice, civil­ian sub­or­di­na­tion. Instead, the politi­cians know that they’re deal­ing with an insti­tu­tion that to some degree has its own agen­da. And if you’re deal­ing with some­body who has his own agen­da, well, you can bar­gain, you can trade. That cre­ates a small opening—again, not to a coup but to the mil­i­tary mak­ing deals with politi­cians whose pur­pos­es may not be con­sis­tent with the Con­sti­tu­tion.