Colonel Dunlap's Coup
A fictionalized essay that has been circulating within the Pentagon offers
a blunt warning on several fronts.
by Thomas E. Ricks
It is the year 2012. The American military has carried out a successful
coup d'etat. Jailed and awaiting execution for resistance to the coup, a
retired military officer writes to an old comrade, explaining how the coup
So begins a treatise entered last year in the National Defense
University's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategy Essay
Competition. Titled "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,"
and written by an active-duty Air Force officer, the essay went on to be
selected as one of two winners of the competition. The author, Lieutenant
Colonel Charles Dunlap, was honored by General Colin Powell at the awards
Looking back from a vantage point supposedly twenty years in the future,
Dunlap writes that after years of being handed the tough jobs the rest of
the government seemed incapable of handling, the military simply decided
to step in and run the show. Like all science fiction, Dunlap's essay is
really about the present. His coup entices the reader to his real subject:
the worrisome drift of the U.S. military into civilian affairs.
"Faced with intractable national problems on one hand, and an energetic
and capable military on the other," Dunlap's condemned prisoner warns, "it
can be all too seductive to start viewing the military as a cost-effective
solution. We made a terrible mistake when we allowed the armed forces to
be diverted from its original purpose." The prisoner sees a kind of
inevitability to the coup. Amid rising crime, failing schools, a stagnant
economy, and a gridlocked political system, the can-do U.S. military stood
out in a no-solution society. Having remade themselves in the aftermath of
Vietnam, the armed forces emerged from the Gulf War as "America's
most--and perhaps only--trusted arm of government."
And so it was that the military was given the hard tasks that had defeated
the civilian side of government. By 1991 the Defense Department was
spending $1.2 billion a year on drug intervention; the military was also
becoming heavily involved in education. Abroad, the U.S. military had
jumped into humanitarian missions in Bangladesh, the Philippines, and
northern Iraq. From there, recounts the prisoner, it was only too easy for
the military to begin taking over environmental clean-up jobs, providing
air transport to regions abandoned by bankrupt airlines, and further
expanding its vast medical system into civilian health care.
Dunlap's fictional prisoner describes what happened as a result:
"When Iranian armies started pouring into the lower Gulf states in 2010,
the U.S. armed forces were ready to do anything but fight.
"People in the military no longer considered themselves warriors. Instead,
they perceived themselves as policemen, relief workers, educators,
builders, health care providers, politicians--everything but war-fighters.
When these philanthropists met the Iranian 10th Armed Corps near Daharan
during the Second Gulf War, they were brutally slaughtered by a military
which had not forgotten what militaries were supposed to do or what war is
really all about."
In Dunlap's essay it is America's defeat in this war that helped
precipitate the coup. By then, the military had long become accustomed to
having a significant role in civilian policy-making. And, owing to the
consolidation of the armed forces in the year 2007 into a single unified
service--a move that Pentagon reformers had long promoted as a sensible
and economical alternative to "wasteful" service rivalry-
military power was concentrated in fewer hands than ever before.
Dunlap does what a good essayist should do: he makes his reader see
familiar phenomena in a new light. As my newspaper's Pentagon
correspondent, I pick up the Defense Department's "Early Bird" compendium
of newspaper clippings and, since reading Dunlap, almost every day find
myself taken aback. In the wake of the military relief mission to victims
of Hurricane Andrew, the editors of the Tulsa Tribune, the Anniston
(Alabama) Star, and dozens of other papers across the country urge the
military to take over the government's disaster-relief operations. I read
about the U.S. military's humanitarian mission to Somalia. Over the fax
machine comes news of the Pentagon's plan to nearly double the size of its
Junior ROTC program, to include almost 3,000 high schools. The
announcement quotes President George Bush as saying that Junior ROTC is "a
great program that boosts high school competition, high school completion
rates, reduces drug use, raises self
esteem, and gets these kids firmly on the right track."
Then I think of the warning issued by Dunlap's prisoner: "Even back in
1992 we should have seen this coming."
Is "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012" something to be
taken seriously? Yes, it is, even if one may be skeptical about just how
likely to occur the developments that Dunlap points to really are.
In his book The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of
Civil-Military Relations, the Harvard political scientist Samuel P.
Huntington identifies a strong streak of antimilitarism in American
politics. It has typically manifested itself through one of two impulses:
the impulse to cut military budgets and the impulse to use the military
"to further other socially desirable objectives." That is to say, the
historical tendency in America has been to attempt either to reduce the
military or to transform it. Obscured somewhat by the fifty years of the
Cold War, this pattern is now reasserting itself. Dunlap has read
Huntington and cites The Soldier and the State in his treatise.
As iconoclastic as it may appear for a U.S. military officer to raise the
prospect of a military coup, Dunlap's essay, which has just been published
in the Army War College's journal, Parameters, is actually a conservative
document. Many officers worry with Dunlap that the military's new missions
are placing it on a slippery slope that will degrade its ability to fight.
For years, students at the services' war colleges have had hammered into
them that the lesson of Vietnam is that "we must once again become masters
of the profession of arms," as the retired Army Colonel Harry Summers
wrote in On Strategy, an analysis that has been enormously influential in
the post-Vietnam military. Harry Summers doesn't see a coup in our future,
but he does believe that Dunlap is right to be concerned about loading up
the military with ancillary missions. "I think we've got to constantly be
on guard against any military intrusion into the civil sector," he told me
recently. "We always have to nip these things in the bud."
There are buds aplenty these days. I have mentioned some of them above.
Dunlap's paper is crammed with footnotes citing news reports of other
nonmilitary initiatives already proposed for or undertaken by the U.S.
armed forces. Some senior officers still spooked by Vietnam are eager to
take on popular missions like drug interception and disaster relief. Many
of their subordinates are only too happy to go along. In Florida, Andrew
Baer, an enlisted man from Dumas, Texas, told a Washington Post reporter,
"I'm glad we're here doing something good for Americans in America rather
than off in some God-forsaken place around the world fighting a war for
somebody else that nobody here supports. Everyone appreciates what we're
doing, and it gives you a real good feeling." You can almost hear
Clausewitz roll over and scream.
Congress has happily supported the search for new missions. Indeed, in its
report on its defense bill for 1993, the Senate Armed Services Committee
stated plainly to the Defense Department that the post-Cold War
environment means that the armed forces will have a much greater
opportunity than in the past to assist civilian efforts to address
critical domestic problems." Of course, the biggest reason for mission
expansion these days is pure Willie Suttonism: that is where the money is.
This year's defense budget of $275 billion isn't far below Cold War
levels, and it remains the biggest pot of free-flowing money in a
deficit-frozen government. Dreaming up new ways to justify maintaining
expenditures at Soviet-era levels in the post-Soviet world occupies more
than a few Pentagon planners.
It is unlikely, however, that military spending will remain at anything
like the present level, and this fact is the surest obstacle to a literal
playing-out of Dunlap's scenario. Unwilling to cut defense jobs in the
midst of a near-recession, congressional liberals held their noses last
year and treated the defense budget as a second-rate jobs bill. In any
event, they could not raid the defense budget for their own pet programs,
because the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 prohibits applying to domestic
purposes money saved through cuts in defense spending. However, that
prohibition expires with the 1994 budget. As the nation winds down from
five decades of preparedness for global war, Congress this year can and
will start trading guns for butter. The stronger the economy, the deeper
the defense cuts will be. Absent any new security threat, the defense
budget could slide to $180 billion within a decade. At that level the
generals and admirals will be so nervous about maintaining their
"core-mission" war-fighting abilities that they will turn their backs on
the feel-good missions they now embrace. Training for high-tech war
consumes enormous amounts of time and money, and will take everything the
Indeed, it can be argued that the U.S. military is already withdrawing
from its most significant social mission--that of forming human capital
out of kids who otherwise would be a drag on society. "We're going to be
smaller and better--we're going to pick and choose our people," says Rear
Admiral James Lair, in a typical comment. "I don't have time to be a
rehabilitation society. It used to be jail or the service. Now most of
these kids are high school graduates."
The present situation may closely resemble that during the First World War
era, when the military attempted to become more involved in society, only
to retreat as its budget dwindled. General Leonard Wood, the Army chief of
staff from 1910 to 1914, searched for new missions, from training American
youth to improving sanitation in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
When race riots tore apart Omaha, in 1919, General Wood commanded the
1,000 armed soldiers used to restore order--an interesting parallel to
last year's military deployment to Los Angeles, dubbed Operation Garden
Plot by the Marines. In 1920, backed by the soap-selling savvy and fortune
of William Procter, Wood made a run for the White House, losing the
Republican nomination to Warren G. Harding only on the tenth ballot. His
political career ended there. His military innovations, however, played
out for several more years, with the National Defense Act of 1920
expanding his camps for youths and broadening the Reserve Officers
Training Corps. But as investigations unearthed information about
industrial profiteering during the First World War, and as a series of
treaties made it appear that an era of lasting world peace was at hand,
the military was forcibly slimmed down. The turning point came in 1926,
when the Army pushed for a bigger budget and the President stood in the
way. So ended, Samuel Huntington observes, the military's "abortive
identification with society."
For all its improbabilities, Dunlap's exercise in civic imagination is
likely to be widely discussed within the U.S. military. Besides being
published in Parameters, it will appear in the annual collection of essays
on strategy published by the National Defense University Press. Indeed, I
am told that the university is holding up the colonel's essay as a model
for the kind of unfettered thinking that it wants for a professional
magazine it is now developing.
The essay is one that our officers need to read. Although many of them
perceive at least some of the trends that worry Dunlap, they generally
worry more about the effect that those trends will have on the military's
war-fighting ability than about the possible erosion of distinctions
between the military and civil society. Like other Americans, military
officers don't dwell on the civilian-military relationship--they take it
for granted. The official reading list for Marine officers, for example,
includes Thucydides, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (August 1914), Paul Kennedy
(The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers), and the memoirs of Vietnam's
General Giap, but not Huntington on the role of the military in American
Moreover, few active-duty officers have the nerve, as Dunlap has, to
deviate publicly from current Pentagon dogma that emphasizes "jointness"
among the services above everything. The idea of consolidation, like that
of new missions, has obvious appeal at a time of tight budgets. But it may
be, Dunlap suggests, that maintaining checks and balances among Army,
Navy, Marines, and Air Force isn't so bad if it enables a democracy to
keep a large military establishment in line.
Copyright © 1993 by Thomas E. Ricks. All rights
"Colonel Dunlap's Coup";
The Atlantic Monthly, January, 1993.
Volume 271, Number 1 (pages 23-25).