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.