Interviews: "The Activist Soldier" (April 3, 2007)
Andrew J. Bacevich, author of "Warrior Politics," talks about the increased politicization of the American military and its troubling potential consequences.
On January 16, 2007, Sergeant Liam Madden, an Iraq War veteran and still an active U.S. marine, paid a visit to Capitol Hill. The date marked the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Madden had chosen it consciously: He was hoping to start a political movement of his own. Acting on behalf of hundreds of his fellow soldiers, he presented members of Congress with an “Appeal for Redress From the War in Iraq.”
The text of the appeal, to which more than 1,700 members of the armed forces have now affixed their names, is nothing if not straightforward. In its entirety, it reads:
As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.
The Appeal for Redress is unlikely to alter U.S. policy in Iraq. But the movement behind it (www.appealforredress.org) may prove more consequential. It heralds the appearance of something new to the American political landscape: a soldiers’ lobby. In formulating their appeal, men and women in America’s fighting forces claim a new prerogative: to engage in collective political action for the explicit purpose of influencing national-security policy.
To be sure, our ostensibly apolitical officer corps has been playing politics for decades. With the rise of the national-security state after World War II, the Joint Chiefs of Staff emerged as big-league political operators. On issues ranging from desegregating the armed forces in the 1940s to the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, the brass has stalled, dissembled, or liberally reinterpreted directives to suit uniformed interests. To subvert administration initiatives at odds with service predilections, “senior military officials,” always anonymous, have mastered the art of the well-timed leak.
Through it all, however, military politics remained the exclusive purview of top-ranking generals and admirals, and typically occurred behind closed doors. Last year’s “Generals’ Revolt,” with just-retired senior officers launching angry salvos at Donald Rumsfeld, attracted attention in part because it was so unusual. Yet even for these embittered generals, challenging the authority of the commander in chief—as Douglas MacArthur had done a half century ago in Korea, with disastrous results—remained beyond the pale. Attack an especially abrasive and dogmatic secretary of defense? Perhaps. Openly question the president? Never.
Superficially, the Generals’ Revolt and the Appeal for Redress have much in common: They are both signals of military discontent, and of military experimentation with public politicking. But the type of politicking implied by the appeal differs. For starters, it was the brainchild of enlisted personnel—of Madden and Jonathan Hutto, a young seaman stationed at Norfolk, Virginia. Although the appeal’s signers today include several hundred junior officers, the majority are sergeants, petty officers, and ordinary GI’s. In an arena where things typically start at the top, here the impetus comes from below.