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.
Furthermore, the cause animating these rank-and-file soldiers is bolder and broader than that of their commanders: It is to hamstring their commander in chief—to prevent George W. Bush from pursuing a course of action to which he appears unalterably committed. Although sworn to obey, they have undertaken to obstruct.
The appeal is a manifest consequence of a disastrous war. But its deeper roots lie in the transformation of the ethos of the enlisted corps over the past three decades. With the establishment of the all-volunteer force in 1973, those serving in the ranks began to see themselves as full-fledged members of the profession of arms. At the same time, a new American way of war placed a premium on advanced technology, requiring highly skilled and well-educated troops. One result is troops who are opinionated, who expect their opinions to be taken seriously, and who are more likely to ask what the Army can do for them.
The creation of the all-volunteer force had a second consequence. Military service, once viewed (at least nominally) as a civic obligation, has become a matter of choice. As a result, the burden of “defending our freedom” no longer falls evenly across society. Those choosing to serve do not represent a cross section of America, and most are presumably well aware of that fact.
To assuage uneasy consciences, the many who do not serve proclaim their high regard for the few who do. This has vaulted America’s fighting men and women to the top of the nation’s moral hierarchy. The character and charisma long ago associated with the pioneer or the small farmer—or carried in the 1960s by Dr. King and the civil-rights movement—has now come to rest upon the soldier. The signatories of the Appeal for Redress make full use of the prerogatives of this ranking.
Justice alone seemingly demands that they be allowed to do so. The thousands of Americans killed in Iraq include no members of Congress and not a single general. Shouldn’t those who bear the burden of war have some say in determining its future course?
Congressmen Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, John Lewis of Georgia, and James McGovern of Massachusetts (all Democrats) think so: They have embraced the Appeal for Redress. “No one speaks with more moral authority or understanding of the complexity of Iraq than the brave men and women who serve in our armed forces,” Kucinich has said.
In fact, however, empowering groups of soldiers to join in the debate over contentious issues is short-sighted and dangerous. Implicit in the appeal is the suggestion that national-security policies somehow require the consent of those in uniform. Lately, media outlets have reinforced this notion, reporting as newsworthy the results of polls that asked soldiers whether administration plans meet with their approval.
On matters of policy, those who wear the uniform ought to get a vote, but it’s the same one that every other citizen gets—the one exercised on Election Day. To give them more is to sow confusion about the soldier’s proper role, which centers on service and must preclude partisanship. Legitimating soldiers’ lobbies is likely to warp national-security policy and crack open the door to praetorianism.
The Appeal for Redress does not pose an immediate threat to the republic. It’s been signed by only a tiny minority of U.S. soldiers, and the movement could simply peter out, becoming little more than a minor historical curiosity, rather than a harbinger of something larger. Yet in either case, it offers further evidence of advancing constitutional decay.
As the Founders anticipated, a democracy intent on maintaining a great and powerful military establishment confronts acute challenges. Deflecting those challenges today requires renewed attention to hallowed principles of civilian control. In recent decades, these principles have eroded badly. The irresponsible politicking of generals and admirals is one reason. But so, too, is the abdication by Congress of its constitutional duties on matters of peace and war—and the recent exploitation of that abdication by an imperial, irresponsible, and habitually dissembling administration.
In an environment where governing principles have seemingly ceased to govern, it is surely understandable that some members of a more assertive military would be tempted to dip their toes into political waters. What is unforgivable is that elected officials and activists have indulged and nourished that desire, while the problems that are producing an increasingly politicized military establishment continue to be ignored.
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