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Armies for Democracy — Past, Present, and Future

Has a grand tradition of "military liberalism" come to a dead end in Iraq?

By 6.2.07

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This essay is the tenth in a series being published in successive issues of The American Spectator under the general title, "The Pursuit of Liberty: Can the Ideals That Made America Great Provide a Model for the World?"

(Also in The American Spectator's Pursuit of Liberty series: Daniel Johnson's "The Storks Are Landing," Fouad Ajami's "Liberty for Strangers," Natan Sharansky and Rod Dermer's "The Case for Freedom," and Michael Novak's "The Ebb and Flow of Global Liberty." To read the first five essays in the series, please click here.)

Has a grand tradition of "military liberalism" come to a dead end in Iraq?

I. Distrusting the Military
THE COMPLEX AND SOMEWHAT ill-defined relationship between the military establishment and constitutional government is a subject that has made many Americans uncomfortable, especially in the modern era when the United States has assumed a leadership role in world affairs. American Cold War era culture, after all, cautioned us about the intrinsic anti-democratic nature of top-ranking military officers, whether in cinematic portrayals like Seven Days in May or Doctor Strangelove or the very real inflammatory politicking of retired generals like Douglas MacArthur, Curtis LeMay, or Edwin Walker.

In reaction to these Cold War and Vietnam-era fears, scholars such as Samuel P. Huntington (The Soldier and the State) and, more recently, Eliot Cohen (Supreme Command) have written insightfully about the proper relationship between civilian and military authorities in a constitutional democracy like ours. These scholars generally agree that the delicate balance was sometimes upset in our past wars when politicians did not have much knowledge about military affairs. Sometimes, out of insecurity, they blustered and bullied officers, or at other times, in recognition of their own ignorance, civilian leaders ceded too much control to the Pentagon.

Under the Clinton administration it was felt that an increasingly alienated military exercised too much autonomy, whether in lecturing civilian authorities that gays simply would not work as fully accepted members of the armed forces or in voicing strong initial opposition to the prospect of humanitarian intervention in the Balkans. Militaries for their part understand that during "peace-keeping" exercises the rules of engagement change, the cameras intrude, and they are asked to assume civilian roles where their target profile increases, while their ability to fight back without restrictions is checked.

During the current Bush presidency, by contrast, the charge was often just the opposite: a compliant Pentagon had been bullied by its civilian overseers into keeping quiet about doubts over the feasibility of neoconservative nation-building. In fact, in 2006 we witnessed a "revolt of the generals" against civilian leadership of the Pentagon. Top brass came forward out of recent retirement to lambaste Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over the entire civilian conduct of the war in Iraq. They complained that there had been too much micromanagement of the war, too many policy demands placed on a military that was stretched too thin to carry such burdens, and too much utopian ideology guiding the conduct of the war at the expense of realistic judgments of what in fact was possible.

This insurrection of top retired officers was not quite unprecedented, except in the left's sudden muted silence in response to this rare emergence of like-minded critics of the policy in Iraq. Instead, it was more reminiscent of an earlier "revolt of the admirals" in 1949-50. At that time, in the early years of the Cold War, threatened postwar cutbacks in naval operations led to a similar expression of public outrage by admirals against their civilian overseers. The controversy brought down Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and led to firings and resignations of top military officers.

Why do democratic societies perennially worry about their own military's periodic objections to civilian oversight and larger liberal values? Why, often in response, do military leaders conclude that they are either misunderstood or manipulated by civilian authorities whom they regard as naive or ignorant about military affairs?

IT IS A FACT WORTH REMEMBERING that the armed forces are inherently hierarchical organizations based on rank and the chain of command. There is no opportunity in military units for decision by majority vote when war begins. Once bullets fly, soldiers can ill afford to debate the wisdom of assaulting the next hill. They cannot worry about the "fairness" of a brilliant glib private having no influence in the decisions taken by an obtuse or blockheaded commanding officer.

Impatience, resolve, audacity -- these necessary military traits are not necessarily those that democratic legislators and bureaucrats prize. Most politicians loathe a loud-mouthed George S. Patton in peacetime as much as they hunt out his swashbuckling style in time of war.

Sometimes the voting public suspects that professional soldiers like violence and killing, or at least far more than civilians do. And supposed sheep always worry about giving orders to hungry wolves. One needs only to read the sad letters of poor Cicero to see how in his arrogance he fatally misjudged entirely the military minds of an Augustus or Antony. Civilian overseers in France and later in Germany sought to solve emerging problems by dispatching Napoleon to Egypt or by throwing Hitler in jail but found that in the end these steps were but the beginning and not the end of their troubles. They had fatally misjudged these "troublemakers."

Then there is the ever-present fear of militarism -- that is, the fear of the cult of arms that transcends the battlefield and becomes an ideology that celebrates power, rigid discipline, fanatical devotion to a cause. Indeed, this exaggerated dimension of military life often draws the most zealous and dangerous of characters into its orbit. These can be truly scary folks, these Spartan krypteia, the Praetorian guards, or Hitler's SS. Such groups in the past have often interfered with or intervened in politics under the posture of being models of rigorous asceticism for the nation.

Anti-constitutional military coups, and not the idealistic promotion of democracy and liberal values, thus seem the more logical vice of military figures when they intrude into politics. History in some sense is the record of supposedly sober soldiers intervening in times of perceived social chaos to bring society a needed dose of their own order and obedience.

That was the rationale in 44 B.C. when Caesar crossed the Rubicon and put a formal end to the Roman Republic, Napoleon dismissed the Directorate, Hitler ended the Weimar Republic, and the 20th-century Latin America caudillos, Greek colonels, and Middle Eastern Baathist and Nasserite officers staged their various coups. Communist dictators in the Soviet Union and China inserted their own commissars into their militaries to ensure that they were perpetual advocates for Communist ideology and indoctrination, at home and abroad.

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