Perceiving the Subtext and the Context
First, let’s begin with the video that the Pentagon might have wanted to make this past Wednesday, 23 June, 2010, regarding President Barack Obama replacing General Stanley McChrystal after the comments the latter made to Rolling Stone. This video reflects the preferred order of events among militarists, and among those who–not so quietly anymore–wish for a transfer of political power to the military. It is also a blunter statement of the nature of U.S. power around the world.
Militarism and Democracy: Implications?
The following consists of commentaries produced by more critical minds, reflecting on the implications for democratic politics that result from deep investment in continuing war, wars that the Pentagon is interested in prolonging, and the effects of militarism.
In “An increasingly politicized military,” in the Los Angeles Times (22 June 2010), law and political science professor Bruce Ackerman argues that “Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s criticism of Obama administration officials symbolizes an accelerated partisanship of the officer corps.” He provides some striking statistics that show how the military is dominated by Republican preferences: “With the political rise of Ronald Reagan, the top rank of the officer corps moved from 33% Republican in 1976 to 53% in 1984. By 1996, 67% of the senior officer corps were Republicans, and only 7% were Democrats — the basic pattern continued through 2004.” He points out that “if we look to the service academies, the future promises more politicization”: “A West Point survey taken in the run-up to the 2004 election indicates that 61% of the cadets who responded were Republicans, 12% were Democrats and the rest were independent. Almost half of the cadets said that ‘there was pressure to identify with a particular party as a West Point cadet’.” The politicization of the military goes beyond Republican partisanship, to a more total view of the military’s role in civilian political life:
Studies over the last dozen years suggest that “a majority of active-duty officers believe that senior officers should ‘insist’ on making civilian officers accept their viewpoints“; and 65% of senior officers think it is OK to go public and advocate military policies they believe “are in the best interests of the United States.” In contrast, only 29% believe that high-ranking civilians, rather than their military counterparts, “should have the final say on what type of military force to use.“
Ackerman argues that “viewed against this background, it is hardly enough for President Obama to insist on McChrystal’s resignation.” Indeed,
“he should take steps to invite the officer corps to rethink constitutional fundamentals. By all accounts, the curricula of the service academies and the war colleges give remarkably little attention to the central importance of civilian control. They do not systematically expose up-and-coming officers to intensive case studies and simulations designed to give them a sense of the principle’s real-world implications.”
It would be ironic blowback if the U.S., whose military schools have trained Latin American soldiers who would become military dictators, who would subvert democracies across the southern continent, were to reap the fruits of its own orchard.
Robert Mackey, writing in The Lede blog of the New York Times on 23 June 23 2010 — “Is a Culture War Between American Soldiers and Civilians Inevitable?” — says that “in light of the disparaging remarks a Rolling Stone journalist heard Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his aides make recently about the civilians overseeing the military’s conduct of the war in Afghanistan, it seems fair to ask how much respect American soldiers feel for citizens who choose not to fight its wars.” Meanwhile, “across party lines, America’s civilian leaders spend a lot of time and energy showing their respect for the country’s all-volunteer military.” This is a serious problem, in fact, a set of problems.
One has to do with an all-volunteer army. This is “opening up a potentially problematic cultural divide between soldiers and civilians.” Charles Moskos, a sociologist who studied the military, looked at the rise of hazing, as symptomatic of the growing divide between the military and civilian society:
“the latent function of hazing is that it differentiates and separates one from, and at the same time makes one feel superior to, whatever mainstream you’re defining yourself against….I think it’s significant that there was little if any hazing in the armed forces in World War II. It seems like a post-Vietnam-era phenomenon, as the military got separated from the mainstream of society.”
Mr. Moskos felt that if “this sort of cultural separation would be allowed to grow unchecked for generations,” it could reach “the point where the officers who command the military might no longer have enough respect for the nation’s civilian political leaders to continue obeying their orders.”
In The Guardian, Simon Tisdall writes on 23 June 2010, in “General McChrystal and the militarisation of US politics“: “America has settled into being a nation perpetually at war. In this climate it’s no surprise generals sometimes get out of control.” He notes that the “disrespectful behaviour of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan and his aides was symptomatic of a more deeply rooted, potentially dangerous malaise.” At present, at least among American conservatives “of all stripes,” in a society that is increasingly polarized, there is a tendency “to buy into the ‘wimps in the White House’ narrative peddled by General McChrystal’s army staffers. It echoed rightwing criticism that Obama, who has never served, is personally unfit to lead.” Some of this has to do with “the continuing impact of the post-9/11 legacy.” George Bush,
“defined the US as a nation perpetually at war. The Pentagon produced a theory to suit: the Long War doctrine postulating unending conflict against ill-defined but ubiquitous enemies. Unquestioning patriotism became an official ideology to which all were expected to subscribe.”
Tisdall appropriately cites Andrew Bacevich, in noting that “America’s armed forces wield growing political and social influence in an increasingly militarised society.” Defence spending is at least a trillion dollars per year, if one factors in the Pentagon budget, plus the direct and indirect costs of the wars. Public figures, such as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs, “carry enormous clout on Capitol Hill” and General David Petraeus, “an Iraq war hero who heads the Orwellian sounding Central Command, is tipped as a future Republican presidential nominee.” We should not be shocked if the “tea party” movement tries to snatch up deposed General McChrystal as one of its candidates for 2012.
Tisdall refers to Bacevich’s The New American Militarism, to look at how “Americans have increasingly found themselves in thrall to military power and the idea of global military supremacy.” In the context of what Bacevich called the “normalization of war“, he argued that unchallenged, expanding American military superiority encouraged the use of force, accustomed “the collective mindset of the officer corps” to ideas of dominance, glorified both warfare and the warrior, and advanced the concept of “the moral superiority of the soldier” over the civilian.
Jonathan Alter, writing in Newseek on 21 June 2010 — “Why Military Code Demands McChrystal’s Resignation” –– stated that the “most important issue at hand in the furor over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s acerbic comments in Rolling Stone is the central one in a democracy: civilian control over the military.” He noted McChrystal’s ease in making insubordinate remarks in public, well before Rolling Stone ran over him: “Last fall, McChrystal gave a speech in London and afterward was asked if he could support the Biden Plan: fewer troops for Afghanistan, with a stepped-up use of Predator drones. He said ‘no.’ In other words, the commanding general in the region was saying that if the president sided with the vice president, he couldn’t support the policy. Many in the White House last year viewed this as insubordination.”
In “Militarism and democracy: the implications of the McChrystal affair” (24 June 201), Patrick Martin writes, in an excellent piece of critical analysis, of “the emergence in the United States of a distinct military caste, virulently hostile to democracy, civilian control and any form of popular opposition to American imperialism.” Obama may be misleading citizens as to the real nature of the problem here: “McChrystal’s only crime—his ‘error in judgment,’ in Obama’s parlance [and in his own]—was to express in too blunt and unguarded a fashion the sentiments of broad sections of the US officer corps.”
Finally, others have balked at the incredibly unreflective hypocrisy of Stanley McChrystal’s complaints. He got everything he wanted, and his plan is failing. As Martin indicates, the context in which McChrystal was fired is one in which,
“the death toll for US and NATO troops rose to 76 in June, making this the worst month for the foreign occupation forces since the US first invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Among the Afghan people, President Hamid Karzai is widely reviled as a corrupt American puppet. Antiwar sentiment is mounting in all the European countries with military contingents in Afghanistan, as well as in the United States, where a majority in opinion polls now say the war is not worth fighting. A report issued Monday by a congressional committee found that the supply chain for US troops in Afghanistan funnels hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers of corrupt local warlords, many of whom in turn pay Taliban insurgents not to attack their trucks. The Pentagon is thus indirectly financing the insurgency, to the tune of $2 million a week according to one estimate cited in the report.”
In a 22 June 2010 post, “It’s his war,” in The Economist‘s blog, Democracy in America, the writer is rightly baffled by McChrystal’s complaints, accusations, and insults. He speaks of McChrystal’s “failure to take responsibility for his own military strategy”:
“Mr McChrystal does not appear to be achieving his own targets in Afghanistan. The strategy he is pursuing is his own. He has been given the resources he asked for. They are, frankly, pretty astounding resources. The comments cited in the article by Mr McChrystal and his staff give the impression that he blames the disappointments of the past year in Afghanistan on the failure of others to display sufficient will. The disdain evinced towards Joe Biden is particularly misplaced at a time when events on the ground are making Mr Biden’s preference for a more limited war look more and more clear-headed, and Mr McChrystal’s promises look more and more optimistic.”
McChrystal appears to be shifting blame for a failed strategy, that of counterinsurgency (COIN). Michael Cohen at the conservative Democracy Arsenal, writes on 22 June 2010 in “The Four Reasons Why Obama HAS to Fire Stan McChrystal,” that what he “found striking about this interlude – and tracking General McChrystal’s other public statements – is that he seems oblivious to obvious signs that his COIN strategy is not working and that it is a terrible fit for a war like Afghanistan.” Indeed,
“He has seemingly so evangelized COIN that even when presented with evidence from his own troops that it’s not working on the ground; or analysis from the Ambassador in Kabul that Karzai cannot be trusted as a partner, it’s ignored or shunted aside for what he derisively calls the ‘philosophical part.’ What’s worse, you have a senior military official in Kabul floating the possibility that ‘we could ask for another surge of US forces next summer if we see success here.’ It really makes you wonder if that whole 18-month timeline for commencing withdrawals, which the President declared at West Point, has penetrated the military chain of command. Apparently not.”
Obama was clearly correct in replacing McChrystal. He may not have done enough, in accepting a “resignation” from McChrystal that showed a remarkable lack of understanding for the gravity of his insubordination. He should have been fired and then tried for insubordination. And Obama ought not to have given a speech that I found too easy to remix as one of undying, tender loving care for the 8 trillion ton behemoth in the room.