Saturday, August 18, 2012

US Military as a New Praetorian Guard

At World Politics Review (subscription), Andrew Exum (who posts there weekly under the moniker Abu Muqawama) posts an extremely thoughtful, cogent essay about the disturbing state of civil-military relations in the US.  In brief, he bemoans how hero-worshiping American citizens have established the US soldier as a kind of uber-citizen upon whom some politicians would now see fit to heap extra portions of legal and economic benefits even as "ordinary" citizens are forced to deal with increasing economic austerity.

On the one hand, it is good and right that a society lifts up those who put themselves in harm’s way to serve a greater good. But when it comes to the U.S. and its military, things have truly gotten out of hand. Able-bodied U.S. soldiers in prime physical condition now board airplanes in the United States before mothers with small children. Perhaps even worse, it seems that only veterans notice how ridiculous this is. The new G.I. Bill, passed by the Congress in 2009, makes the U.S. taxpayer responsible for the education of the sons and daughters of highly paid general officers, yet most citizens living in a new age of austerity do not ask why. And a member of the U.S. House of Representatives has even gone so far as to argue that military servicemen might deserve the right to vote more than the average citizen. 


This is obscene. And the absurdity of it all is thrown into stark relief when we compare things with the way we treat other public servants. Consider, for a moment, Ragaei Abdelfattah, an Egyptian emigrant to the United States who was killed last week in Afghanistan while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Abdelfattah will not be remembered in the way we remember fallen uniformed servicemen, and his family will likely struggle to receive even a fraction of the benefits that would be given to the family of a fallen soldier. 


All too often, in fact, USAID workers in Afghanistan are left to buy their own life insurance and worry about whether or not they are killed on “duty hours” so that their family receives it. The families of these fallen civilians will not have veterans service organizations fighting on their behalf on Capitol Hill to secure their benefits.


Contrary to popular perceptions, diplomats, aid workers and civilian contractors on the battlefield arguably expose themselves to more danger on a daily basis than most members of the military serving in combat support assignments. But they receive none of the credit and few of the benefits that the latter do.


Exum concludes:

If veterans of a professional all-volunteer force have simply provided services to the public in exchange for compensation, then we veterans deserve the same benefits provided to other public servants -- no more, no less. If the military, by contrast, is a truly selfless service, than veterans should be among the first in these times of austerity to lead by example and accept fewer public benefits. At the very least, we should be helping that mother with kids onto the airplane ahead of us.


Rather than choose between these two visions of military service, however, we Americans have opted for a middle option whereby we have a professional military in which men and women provide a public service -- like police officers or emergency medical technicians -- but are elevated to the highest echelons of publicly bestowed honor. This ambiguity hinders our ability to make even basic reforms to the military pay and benefits that will soon cripple the defense budget. And it contributes to the creation of a praetorian guard that threatens rather than protects the fabric of our society. 

For those of you unaware, during the Roman empire the praetorian guard began as an elite imperial bodyguard who eventually morphed into emperor-makers and -breakers themselves, to the point of overthrowing and executing Caesars and replacing them with someone of their own choice.

Never in America, you say?  Well, in the early 1960s a highly popular novel, Seven Days in May, (soon made into a gripping movie  - I've seen it several times; it never fails to set me thinking) described an attempted overthrow of the US president by a plot led by well-organized generals.  As the Wikipedia entry notes, 

The story is said to have been influenced by the right-wing anti-Communist political activities of General Edwin A. Walker after he resigned from the military. An additional inspiration was provided by the 1961 interview by [the novel's author, Fletcher] Knebel, who was also a political journalist and columnist, conducted with the newly-appointed Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay, an advocate of preventive first-strike nuclear option. [Lemay - now there was a piece of work.]

President John F. Kennedy had read the novel and believed the scenario as described could actually occur in the United States. According to Frankenheimer in his director's commentary, production of the film received encouragement and assistance from Kennedy through White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, who conveyed to Frankenheimer Kennedy's wish that the film be produced and that, although the Pentagon did not want the film made, the President would conveniently arrange to visit Hyannis Port for a weekend when the film needed to shoot outside the White House.

The US military today rides a wave of adulation that began to swell with the Desert Storm "war" of 1991 and crested in 2003, perhaps with W's infamous "Mission Accomplished" moment on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.  Today we can't hold a major athletic event in this country without some over-the-top celebration of American military might, be it an All-Forces color guard, a USAF fly-bay over a stadium, or - now, and despicably - a "reality" TV show that challenges fading actors desperate for camera time celebrities to boot-camp drills.

Combine that with a Congress controlled by the powerful lobbies of weapons makers like General Dynamics, Boeing, and Northrop.  Those corporations ensure the predominance of America's "heroes" (and Israel's as well; let's not go there just now). They can pour millions into the campaign coffers of political candidates, as well as brandish the carrot/stick of new plants (= jobs).

Combine that with the increasing militarization of US intelligence services and special-operations (including drone strikes).  Don't forget that the current US Secretary of Defense is a long-time political hack (whose 2009 appointment as CIA head was highly criticized), whereas the current director of the CIA is the 4-star general military "hero" to whom (in John McCain's eyes, at least) we owe our "victory" in Iraq.

Can you see where this is headed?

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