Last week, the head of the French armed forces angrily resigned after disagreements with his new president, Emmanuel Macron, over the defense budget.
This was the first resignation of its kind in France in six decades, but it was enough to remind me how much Americans take healthy civil-military relations for granted. Unlike the French, for example, who have had some terrible episodes between their civilian and military leaders over the years, Americans have never had to disband a parachute infantry regiment because it literally threatened to drop onto the nation’s capital and depose the elected government.
That’s not to say we haven’t had our issues, but aside from Douglas MacArthur’s repeated (and successful) attempts to embarrass himself and his profession, Americans have rarely had to worry about the U.S. military and its leadership as a threat to the Republic.
Current and former U.S. military officers take great pride, in fact, in the way in which the active-duty officer corps is seen as being above politics.
It has to be.
Given the enormous responsibility Americans grant to young men and women in uniform, citizens have to trust that military officers will never use their arms to achieve a political end here in the United States in the same way they do abroad.
Contemporary military officers, as Samuel Huntington famously observed, belong to a profession. They are professional managers of violence. We arm, train, and equip uniformed military officers to do frankly horrific things—killing, maiming, and intimidating people with force—in order to achieve favorable political outcomes.
For that reason, former U.S. military officers were particularly appalled when the current president of the United States, in a speech commissioning the U.S. military’s latest and most powerful war machine, encouraged his uniformed audience to call their representatives to lobby for the president’s policies—including his budget increasing defense spending at the expense of other domestic priorities.
“I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it,” he said. “And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get health care.”
We could fill volumes already with the ways in which this president has upended Washington norms, but I’m not sure this breach of civil-military norms can be blamed on him alone. If anything, this president has been conditioned to speak the way he speaks by a military officer corps that has been steadily politicized over the past several decades, and most Americans are to blame.
The U.S. public, feeling guilty about the way it treated the men and women who fought a very unpopular war in southeast Asia, replied by heaping effusive praise on the men and women who kicked Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait.
And the praise kept coming.
Despite uneven performances in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. public never stopped hailing its heroes in uniform. Soldiers and sailors tossing out the first pitches at baseball games are greeted like Medal of Honor recipients, and healthy teenage kids right out of basic training board planes at airports before mothers struggling with infants and toddlers. Both political parties line up presidential endorsements from retired generals and admirals—whose opinion is meant to count for more than that of the civilian—every four years in a kind of quadrennial political arms race.
All of this Americans have grown to consider normal, and all of it reinforces the idea that the U.S. military is a special, privileged class of men and women within our society.
Here’s the danger in that, and in the president’s words this past weekend: If you keep treating the U.S. military like a privileged class—a class of men and women above the citizens it swore to defend—it will start acting like it. America has already taken on some characteristics of a banana republic of late, with long-standing ethical rules ignored (with the tacit blessing of the Congress) and the president’s relatives given positions of power within the government. So a next logical step would be a military like that of Egypt, or Turkey, or Pakistan, where the military officer corps is a political-economic actor that operates not only out of service to the citizenry but also to protect its own craven political and economic interests.
That’s what the president was encouraging last Saturday, even if it was done with little understanding of how such a political actor, once animated, might act against him as well.
Thankfully, the U.S. military officer corps itself—which is increasingly filled with the sons and daughters of other officers, for whom military service has grown into a family tradition—is a bulwark against its own politicization.
The best thing the U.S. military teaches its young officers—the thing I am most grateful for, looking back on my own military service—is servant-leadership. Most of the men and women who rise to the most senior ranks of the uniformed officer corps grew up with the understanding that the highest form of leadership was to serve—to be the last in the unit to eat, the first out of the door on a night parachute drop, or the one who worked the longest hours over the weekend.
But even the strongest organizational cultures are susceptible to corruption, and it is incumbent on all Americans to keep our uniformed servants humble.
Perhaps appropriately, the people most effective at doing this are often veterans. No one who has ever served in the military can ever take it entirely seriously. Those of us who make the same pilgrimage, every Memorial Day, to place flowers at the graves of our friends are also among those most likely to roll our eyes at the latest Navy SEAL fitness video.
I thought it completely unsurprising that my friend Jason Dempsey found Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Stan McChrystal so great, not because it was accurate—in contrast to the buffoonish Pitt character, McChrystal in real life has one of the more subtle, subversive minds I’ve encountered—but because it had the courage to mock the U.S. military in a way he, as a veteran, found refreshing.
No one has chopped generals and admirals down to size more effectively and for as long as the ailing senior senator from Arizona, John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. When he passes from the public stage, we need to count on the newest crop of veterans—and many are running in 2018 congressional races—to take up the torch with which he has burned down the reputations of many self-important officers.
All Americans, though, can do their part by denouncing attempts to mobilize the military as a political actor. The military must be preserved as an instrument of political power, not as a political end itself. And if the military is brought down a peg or two in the public imagination as a result, that’s okay.
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