m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

January 1993

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 came about.

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 ceremony.

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 military has.

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 society.

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 reserved.
"Colonel Dunlap's Coup"; The Atlantic Monthly, January, 1993. Volume 271, Number 1 (pages 23-25).

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture