Militarism and Democracy: More on the McChrystal Affair

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.

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16 thoughts on “Militarism and Democracy: More on the McChrystal Affair

  1. Mike C.

    If Ackerman’s statistics are right, then you could argue that a coup has already happened. Instead of just automatically heaping praises on the military, people should be a lot more careful about thinking of this combo: a badly divided society packed with unresolved anger and contradiction, an economy in freefall, and a pumped up military that always increases its share. You can’t keep that going without facing catastrophic consequences.

    Good job with that video BTW! I digged this.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks very much Mike!

      I would add to that the transformation of political discourse back home, where here in Canada, as you know, we see the application of counterinsurgency rhetoric in daily politics, from Mohawks labeled as terrorists, to the very weak parliamentary opposition calling for an investigation of detainee handling, and getting labeled as Taliban supporters in the process, to the Minister of Heritage recently referring to those who question and challenge the government’s copyright reforms as being “radical extremists.” Not to mention calls for a McCarthyist parliamentary committee to investigate anti-Israeli critics, on the grounds that they are racist and promote hatred. Calling for sanctions against Israel is bigoted, and imposing actual sanctions on Iran is somehow rational, even if in response to a nuclear weapons program that, like Iraq’s WMDs, has not been proven to exist. How the decision-making elites can expect people to go along with the second farce in seven years is beyond me.

      Fear of the people, and hatred of opposition, mixed up with a jingoism that no longer distinguishes between foreign and domestic. That is also part of the blowback. The Taliban are on the other side of the planet. I fear those at home, and closer to home, meaning the 300 million angry, confused, and over armed people down the road, with their weaponized hatred.

  2. Mahendra

    My favorite line – “We will break the ability of free people to live in peace and security in the 21st century. We are gonna break Congress and its leadership” LMAO!

    Funny, but disturbing that the truth of a speech only really comes out in the remixing!

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  4. Major Scarlet

    about those political ratios… consider this…
    there isn’t one wits difference between a Republican or Democrat. Here’s why.. the Republicans have successfully been taken over by the NWO crowd while the Democrats are unambiguously socialist/marxist. Both parties are about controlling our lives. Each will do so using different ends and means but the result will be quite the same.

    how does the regime, in this case the leaders of both parties that are in charge of selecting who advances in their specific spheres of influence, effect the military? by selecting officers for advancement that buy in to the regime message. Our senior military leadership, regardless of political affiliation, will behave in a manner designated by the regime in charge. whether you believe this or not, the vast majority of senior officers in the forces are liberal internationalist. Specifically, Gen’s Petraeus, Casey, McChrystal, and Caldwell all come from that school of thought and all are the top brass of the Army. they get to pick the senior leadership along with the regime. this is why you see very little change in strategy when the civilian leadership changes. a perfect example of that is how President Obama almost completely reneged on most of his military related campaign promises. Go and read President Bush’s National Security Strategy. It’s a vast collection of Wilsonian BS.

    This theory is easily verified by the feedback of officers leaving the military. Any officer that spoke out against our counter-insurgency strategy was marginalized and not promoted. anyone that drank the koolaide advanced. the rare exception to this rule is COL Gentile who, IMO, has come late to the anti-COIN strategy party and i expect it’s because he knows he has advanced as far as he can and now he is speaking out. at any rate, he won’t make his next rank now.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      I am in agreement with your last two paragraphs, and there is not a surprise that liberal internationalism and Wilsonianism is so prominent, nor is it any longer at odds with the Republican mainstream. If anything, Republicans have almost taken over liberal internationalism.

      The point about Democrats being “unambiguously socialist/marxist” — unambiguously? If it is that unambiguous, then surely you can find many examples of Democrats quoting Karl Marx, calling for control of the state by workers, demanding the termination of private ownership in the economy, eliminating the bourgeoisie, killing private banks, and so forth. Instead, you will be hard pressed to find even one example–that is, one single elected Democrat calling for any one of these things, or using one single quote from Marx, Lenin, or any other recognized socialist.

  5. Major Scarlet

    when you frame it as “quoting karl marx” as proof you are hiding the fact that they don’t have to quote karl marx to be marxist. also, while it may be hard to find a quote made in public by an elected official that is word for word from karl marx, it is not hard to find examples of their actions being marxist. personally, i don’t care what comes out of anyones mouth. Machiavelli said language was developed for a higher order of manipulation. i prefer to watch what people do. admittedly, it is harder to prove the marxist connections and fairly easy to prove the socialist agenda. if you need help finding examples of the socialist take over of our economy, given everything that has happened this past year with General Motors, Fannie Mae, healthcare, etc, it would lead me to believe you have your eyes and ears closed.

  6. Major Scarlet

    btw, i got out one of my Marxism books and found this… from “wage labor and capital” Marx pg 83. “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.”-Karl Marx.

    How many times have you heard a Democrat talk about “change”? Yeah, it’s just one word but it is the “essence”, as Marx would say, of Marxism.

    also, Marxism has transmogrified over the years. in the 40s, die hard Marxist correctly analyzed that our Christian culture was preventing Marxism from taking hold. they set about to change that with something called “cultural marxism” created by the Frankfurt School in New York. the goal was to promote feminism, black liberation ideology, gay rights, etc in an effort to tear down our culture. I can give you many examples of this as well.

  7. Maximilian Forte

    Sorry, but all you have “discovered” here, without realizing it, is liberalism. By liberalism I mean the way political scientists and other academics speak of the phenomenon, not the way ordinary Americans speak of it (as a blanket term for anything that is “left” of what is extreme right). Liberalism is a means of absorbing contradictions in society, and plays to both the left and right. So for all of your examples, one can find contrary ones from the same government: bailing out banks, saving General Motors from annihilation so it can go back to full private ownership, doing nothing with its share of GM to fight for workers’ rights and workers’ control, watering down health care reform (key word, not from the Marxist lexicon), doing nothing to ensure gay rights in marriage (leaving it to states), and shoring up the privatized military-industrial complex even further than Bush. And if one had learned anything about the ongoing BP oil spill fiasco, it is the extreme leeway given by this “socialist” government to a transnational capitalist corporation, the many blank cheques issued to it by government “regulators,” and the many cases where they have literally been in bed with one another. You may find the same degree of collusion between the state and transnational oil in actually existing socialist states…but in the U.S. what we have is Animal Farm, without the revolution that led to it.

    “Change” — of which there has been little — is not an indicator of Marxism. Nor is reform. The first thing one needs to learn about Marxist socialism, as opposed to other variants, is its key focus on revolution and overthrowing the class of private owners. Anything that is not that, is not that, but something else. You have hit on the something else, that’s all. That something else is liberal capitalism. Nobody, except perhaps very extreme right wing demagogues, would ever accuse a John Maynard Keynes of being a “socialist.” Obama and the Democrats are barely Keynesian, to the extent that they have used tax payers’ dollars to shore up private interests that then turned around and did little or nothing to benefit tax payers (restricted lending, little new investment).

    The other test for this is one of basic logic. If Obama was so socialist and Marxist, why is he losing the left of his own party? Why can you not find even a single Marxist website that praises Obama’s policies and his vision? And how do socialist leaders around the world react to Obama? Think Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, etc.–warm and friendly relations, are they? Come on.

  8. Major Scarlet

    on the contrary, there is nothing “liberal” about taking over banks or businesses. not at all. that is statism and it has no party affiliation. liberalism, in the classical sense and not the highjacked modern version, would not have “reformed” healthcare rather it would have let free market principles work itself out. keep in mind, since the passage of medicare (a dem program supposedly designed to control cost) costs have skyrocketed. it’s too soon to tell what will happen to GM. gay rights, women’s rights, etc are all part of the “cultural marxist” lexicon. whether it is left to the states to figure out doesn’t make it any less so. the design of the program is to divide america and it’s working. remember, they are pushing gay rights on the military now. it’s a wedge issue.

    as for the BP issue, this is about passage of cap and trade, a democrat program. i believe there is collusion but it is too early to say to what extent.

    change is the essence of Marxism. i even gave you the book and page number so you can see for yourself in Marx’s own words. denying it doesn’t make it any less so. seeing Marxism in a particular phase of it as it exists empirically at a given moment is being deceived by appearances. the distinction between the inner essence and the outward appearance is one which runs throughout Marxian philosophy and Marxian economics. an appearance is not simply a delusion without foundation. it’s real, however incomplete and therefore misleading. i’m not deceived about what i’m witnessing. I’ve read the book. it’s right there for you to see too. simply put, just because they haven’t overthrown the private owners yet, doesn’t mean they aren’t planning to.

    whether other socialist governments have “warm, friendly” relationships with obama is not the point. they agree with him on many issues.

    he is still, however, the President of the Great Satanic capitalist machine.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      But that’s just it! The government has not taken over banks, it has simply fueled their depleted capital with your money. GM is not state controlled either. And yes indeed, the liberal state everywhere has had its own state-owned enterprises, without that being a challenge to overall private ownership of the economy. You are looking for some absolutely pure capitalist regime, which exists nowhere, and declaring everything by default to be “socialist.” It’s too extreme and makes words meaningless.

      “Change,” as I suggested, is too amorphous and flaccid. Marxists want specific kinds of change, specifically revolution.

      You can link to a single Cuban news article, but remember: the U.S. still has an embargo on Cuba, and every government since the early 1960s has agreed to that.

  9. Major Scarlet

    Re: change. revolution was dropped with the development of “cultural marxism”. read saul alinsky to get a feel for the gradual approach he recommends for the eventual transition. cultural marxism is the new plan, plain Marxism is out dated and has been pushed aside.

    i never said they took over banks. i said they took over fannie mae. whether they are taking over banks now isn’t the issue. refer to my paragraph about “change is the essence” to see how you are deluding yourself by looking at the current events and not seeing the big picture. this is a gradual process. i’m not looking for any pure system at all. i’m simply stating facts. i think capitalism works best if the government is the honest broker. as such, there should be some governmental involvement. but not much and certainly not to the extent we are seeing now. as for the government funding of banks, this is income redistribution for political reasons. yes, it isn’t classic rob the rich give to the poor income redistribution. this kind buys political influence from the oligarchs, a must under our system if you want to get your agenda moving. both parties do it for different reasons. the oligarchs that support the Democrats are card carrying members of the “useful fools” group. btw, you keep using the modern version of liberal. classic liberals don’t have state owned enterprises. statis have highjacked the term liberal and turned it on it’s head. there is nothing liberal about only having one government option. just ask the soviets.

    it was a single news article but you can use your own initiative and scan that site for many, many more examples. you can’t find a better resource for the commie propaganda machine than that link. few countries currently comply with the embargo on cuba. you can go to canada and get cuban cigars and flights to cuba. same with most european countries.

    alright, i’m at my comment limit for a thread. take care.

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  11. Jérémy

    Not much to comment on this, but I wanted to say thanks. And I mean not only for the hilarious video (at last an unedited footage !), but also for the rest of the piece, which, without the video, would have been quite a depressing read, but which really focuses on extremely important topics, IMO.
    Since, just as ex-President Obama said in his edifying speech, “we need to remember what this is all about.”

    [p.s : great editing job !]

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