Thursday, April 12, 2007

Soldiers and politics

Former Blue Voice-er Neil, who is still a frequent and welcome commenter, just called my attention to a pair of articles from the Atlantic Monthly: "Warrior Politics" by Andrew Bacevich (May 2007 print edition) and The Activist Soldier Atlantic Online 03/28/07, an interview with Bacevich.

Both pieces have to do with active duty soldiers participating in some way in politics. The starting point of reference is the
Appeal for Redress From the War in Iraq, which is being endorsed and promoted by activist soldiers still in the service.

Bacevich has been a strong and vocal critic of the Iraq War since before the invasion. And with his writing and speaking, and in his 2005 book, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, he has been warning about the problems in civil-military relations, in which an increasingly common lack of first-hand experience with military service helps reinforce an uncritical attitudes toward military leaders, military budgets and military intervention. In the new Atlantic articles, he criticizes the idea of a group of active-duty enlistees forming what he calls "a soldiers' lobby". Even though in this particular case he agrees with them that the United States needs to withdraw speedily from the Iraq War. As he puts it:

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.
Bacevich is certainly not pretending that this is some radical new innovation of soldiers trying to influence political decisions. In the interview, he gives several specific examples of some of the more concerning instances of this:

In 1993, the Joint Chiefs of Staff vehemently opposed President Clinton’s announcement that he wanted by executive order to permit gays to serve openly in the military. The Army, Marine Corps, and Navy particularly opposed Truman’s 1948 executive order to desegregate the armed forces. In 1950, at the outset of the Korean War, the great majority of troops were still segregated, and when generals finally did desegregate their troops, they did so in order to facilitate ongoing operations—not because of any principled rejection of racial segregation. And [Air Force General] Curtis LeMay was very famous for cutting budget deals with Congress around Eisenhower’s back, thereby building up the strategic air command on a scale that far exceeded the president’s intentions.
Bacevich expressed some of the same concerns last year when a group of former generals made highly-publicized criticisms of the Iraq War and the war it has been handled. He talks more about that in the print article:

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.
Let me say at this point that Bacevich has not convinced me that the Appeal for Redress represents a potentially dangerous display of the military intervening in politics. But, as he often does, he's raising some serious issues that deserve serious consideration.

Here's the state of my rethinking of this issue as of right now. On the one hand, I'm very aware of the many efforts during the Vietnam War to ensure that soldiers' free speech rights were protected and that soldiers had access to accurate information about the criticisms from the antiwar movement of the Vietnam War. Antiwar groups did things like establish coffeehouses near military bases. This was before Starbuck's took over the world, so coffeehouses in those days tended to be places where performances of some kind took place, like the Beatnik hangouts you might see in a black-and-white Perry Mason rerun. "Coffee shops", even into the early 1990s, were more like greasy-spoon diners, though they weren't a bad place to hang out and read a magazine.

Anyway, the antiwar coffeehouses were controversial, because the brass weren't eager to have their "boys" hanging out with dirty antiwar hippies. Speaking of which, it's important to remember that many officers in those days actively promoted the idea to soldiers that those antiwar types out there were actually hostile to soldiers. That has now become such a firmly-established piece of the rightwing faith it's hard to believe that the notion will ever fade away, though it's factual basis is, to put it generously, very slim.

And despite the best efforts of generals and politicians to guard the purity of innocent soldiers from those scary antiwar hippies, a considerable amount of interaction took place. And those contacts were an important offset to efforts to make soldiers hostile to war critics.

Plus, having been active in different ways in the labor movement in earlier years, a soldiers' union seems like a darn good idea to me. And so my sense that soldiers need to have a voice representing their interests make my skeptical of efforts to try to hush the enlisted corps from public expression of political opinions.

But then there's the other side of me that worries when active-duty soldiers get publicly involved in expressing opposition to current administration policies, it will leave the door wide open for bad operators to creat Potemkin soldiers movements to promote the current administration - or Republican Party - line of the moment in the name of the "ordinary soldier".

For instance, check out this from the American Forces Press Service:
Troops embark on 'Why We Serve' public outreach mission by Gerry Gilmore 04/02/07. This press release says:

Eight servicemembers with duty experience in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa, who have been selected to tell the military's story to the American public, met with Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England here March 30.

It's important and it's vital, particularly now," Secretary England told the group of their mission to relate their experiences to the American public. "This is the time to be out with the message of the importance of what you do every day, and all those who serve."

The eight enlisted and commissioned Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps members are participating in the Defense Department's "Why We Serve" public outreach program.
And let's be clear at whom this program is aimed: at the American voters.

Participants are attached to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs for periods of about 90 days. They travel to communities across the nation to tell their personal stories of military service. Speaking engagements range from veterans organizations to grade schools to business groups.

But first, the servicemembers undergo three days of training consisting of standards of conduct, public speaking, policy and ethics, interview skills, speech preparation and more, she said.

"We know that the American public is hungry to hear about what these young men and women have been doing," Major Biggers said. "It's important for our speakers, as well, because they are out there serving their country, and they want to be able to tell their stories."
Now, since it's against the law and unethical and undesirable in I don't know how many ways for the military to directly make political propaganda to the American public, these servicepeople will naturally be free to make statements of their personal judgments while appearing before the public, right? Sure:

The servicemembers have unique experiences they'd like to share with the American public.

Sergeant Jubie, a military carpenter who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, recalled helping Afghans to rebuild their homes during his stint with a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan. He also cited the death of two of his fellow servicemembers in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Sept. 8, 2006.

"That really drove home to me to a great desire to continue the mission," said Sergeant Jubie, an Arlington, Wash., native. "Unfortunately, their lives were ended short, but their legacy lives on through the PRTs [provisional reconstruction teams]."

Captain Frasco, who hails from Albuquerque, N.M., volunteered to be a supply convoy commanderduring a tour in Afghanistan in 2006, a task normally done by an Army officer. He also served as a trainer for the Afghan National Army.

Captain Frasco remembers once working 30 consecutive 16-hour days during his tour in Afghanistan. However, he said, it was worth it to help the Afghans get back onto their feet after enduring years of brutal rule under the Taliban.

However, "despite all the long hours, despite all the hardships that we'd gone through and despite all the difficult things that we'd faced during our deployment, servicemembers are ready to go back" to assist the Afghans to make them stronger, Captain Frasco said.

Servicemembers perform dangerous duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and other far-flung places to preserve America's security and freedoms and to protect loved ones and other Americans back home, he said.
Yes, they have independent opinions. And it's pure coincidence that their independent judgment based on their own personal experiences just happens to agree with the Republican Party line of the moment. And this personal touch fits in with the idolatry of soldiers that is the result of several factors, one of which is kind of a psychological trade-off between the military and the civilian public around the all-volunteer service. As Bacevich puts it in the print article:

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.
So, it's still an open question in my mind whether more public activism by the enlisted corps will encourage even more shameless political propaganda on the part of the Pentagon like what that "Why We Serve" program sounds to be.

Here's the core of Bacevich's concern with this idolotry of the soldiers on the part of a public that's just happy not to have a draft that requires the sons and daughters of the more affluent to serve, from the print article:

In fact, however, empowering groups of soldiers to join in thedebate 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. (my emphasis)
Which sounds right in principle. The catch is, that the Pentagon, that is to say, the senior officer corps, has a tremendous advertising budget, and a wide variety of means to promote the services and often particular policies at the same time. For instance, even in San Francisco, despite its image among the bottom-feeders, the annual Blue Angels performances are very popular. Although I must admit that since the 9/11 attacks, those sudden sounds of jets whooshing through downtown on business days when the Blue Angels come around does give me the heebie-jeebies when I first hear them.

But who's going to gripe about the Blue Angels? Still, those performances are a form of generic advertising, aimed at making people think, "wow, what a cool thing our Air Force is". Given the bejillions of dollars the military wastes on useless weapons systems, I'm inclined to look at the Blue Angels performances like, "Well, at least we're getting some entertainment out of all those megabucks the taxpayers are spending on the military."

The rank-and-file soldiers have nothing comparable at their disposal. And getting back to the union concept, we make a common distinction between corporate management and employees who are eligible to be union members. Managers except for first-level supervisors are normally not allowed to be part of the union, otherwise it would just be a company union, a complete sham.

Consequently, it would make perfect sense to me to place restrictions on public political activity and enforce them consistently on more senior officers, certainly at the level of colonel and higher, that are significantly more restrictive than those placed on the enlisted corps. And, as Bacevich explicitly recognizes that the Appeal for Redress type action acts as a counterbalance to the kind of backdoor politicking that senior officers commonly do. In the print article, he writes:

Superficially, the Generals’ Revolt [of 2006 criticizing the Iraq War] 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.
He might have added that such activities also partly offset the capabilities of the senior officers to mobilize the Pentagon's huge advertising, publicity and information-warfare capabilities in support of administration policies, and to set up Potemkin groups of "ordinary soldiers" like the one described above to progagandize on their behalf. (The Generals Revolt example compares a group of retired generals to a group of enlisted servicepeople but both taking a critical position on the same issue.)

In the interview, Bacevich also makes some additional valuable points. For instance:

[B]oth citizens and politicians should recognize that civil-military relations in the country are in many respects dysfunctional. This is a problem that deserves attention. And in my judgment, it’s a problem that has largely been ignored for decades. More specifically, I think that members of Congress ought to be more sensitive to the limits of permissible action on the part of senior military officers. Members of Congress ought to try to ensure that senior military officers respect the law. People who stray beyond the bounds of the prerogatives of the military profession should be slapped down and penalized. But I also think that the military profession itself has a real obligation here. We should ensure that part of the process of educating, developing, and selecting officers for positions of high responsibility includes inculcating an awareness of the limits of proper professional behavior. The sort of politicking I just described — working around the administration, manipulating directives, disregarding orders — all of that really works in the long run to the detriment of the military itself. (my emphasis)
I agree with that. And I would note as he does that this has been going on for decades - with little or no offsetting activities on the part of the enlisted ranks.

His view of the famous case of General Shinseki also sounds right to me:

General Shinseki was invited to testify before a congressional committee and was asked his views by members of Congress as to the prospects for the Iraq war. He stated quite candidly that he believed that the most difficult phase of the operation was likely to be the occupation of Iraq and that in his judgment the occupation of Iraq could take up to several hundred thousand soldiers. That action was completely appropriate; he was speaking candidly, he was offering his professional judgment when asked for it by members of Congress. What was dismaying was the retaliation directed against him by senior civilians in the office of the Secretary of Defense who publicly chastised him and very quickly terminated his influence and career.
He also recognizes that, as horrible a manager and as awful a human being as Rummy is, he did try to reassert better civilian control over the military:

To place the retaliation in a larger context, one could see it as an expression of a Republican determination to rein in generals who had exceeded their writ during the Clinton years. According to their own lights, officials like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were trying to restore the principle of civilian control that they believed had been weakened during the 1990s. I wouldn’t want to cite General Shinseki specifically, but in a broader sense the Joint Chiefs of Staff brought this on themselves in part because in the 1990s they had indeed been playing fast and loose with their responsibilities. For example, they had defied President Clinton over gays in the military. When the Republicans came to power in 2001 they were adamantly committed to the proposition that they were going to restore unambiguous control.
Control is something in which the Cheney-Bush crew has always been interested. Their excesses and misdeeds in exerting civilian control on military affairs will no doubt be used by the generals to try to swing control back the other way.


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