This was written 28 years ago. I wonder what LTC Dunlap thinks of the present situation?
By CHARLES J. DUNLAP, JR.
The letter that follows takes us on a darkly imagined excursion into the future. A military coup has taken place in the United States–the year is 2012–and General Thomas E. T. Brutus, Commander-in-Chief of the Unified Armed Forces of the United States, now occupies the White House as permanent Military Plenipotentiary. His position has been ratified by a national referendum, though scattered disorders still prevail and arrests for acts of sedition are underway. A senior retired officer of the Unified Armed Forces, known here simply as Prisoner 222305759, is one of those arrested, having been convicted by court-martial for opposing the coup. Prior to his execution, he is able to smuggle out of prison a letter to an old War College classmate discussing the “Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.” In it, he argues that the coup was the outgrowth of trends visible as far back as 1992. These trends were the massive diversion of military forces to civilian uses, the monolithic unification of the armed forces, and the insularity of the military community. His letter survives and is here presented verbatim.
It goes without saying (I hope) that the coup scenario above is purely a literary device intended to dramatize my concern over certain contemporary developments affecting the armed forces, and is emphatically not a prediction. — The Author
Dear Old Friend,
It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since we graduated from the War College! Remember the great discussions, the trips, the parties, the people? Those were the days!!! I’m not having quite as much fun anymore. You’ve heard about the Sedition Trials? Yeah, I was one of those arrested–convicted of “disloyal statements,” and “using contemptuous language towards officials.” Disloyal? No. Contemptuous? You bet! With General Brutus in charge it’s not hard to be contemptuous.
I’ve got to hand it to Brutus, he’s ingenious. After the President died he somehow “persuaded” the Vice President not to take the oath of office. Did we then have a President or not? A real “Constitutional Conundrum” the papers called it. Brutus created just enough ambiguity to convince everyone that as the senior military officer, he could–and should–declare himself Commander-in-Chief of the Unified Armed Forces. Remember what he said? “Had to fill the power vacuum.” And Brutus showed he really knew how to use power: he declared martial law, “postponed” the elections, got the Vice President to “retire,” and even moved into the White House! “More efficient to work from there,” he said. Remember that?
When Congress convened that last time and managed to pass the Referendum Act, I really got my hopes up. But when the Referendum approved Brutus’s takeover, I knew we were in serious trouble. I caused a ruckus, you know, trying to organize a protest. Then the Security Forces picked me up. My quickie “trial” was a joke. The sentence? Well, let’s just say you won’t have to save any beer for me at next year’s reunion. Since it doesn’t look like I’ll be seeing you again, I thought I’d write everything down and try to get it to you.
I am calling my paper the “Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.” I think it’s important to get the truth recorded before they rewrite history. If we’re ever going to get our freedom back, we’ve got to understand how we got into this mess. People need to understand that the armed forces exist to support and defend government, not to be the government. Faced with intractable national problems on one hand, and an energetic and capable military on the other, 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 their original purpose.
I found a box of my notes and clippings from our War College days–told my keepers I needed them to write the confession they want. It’s amazing; looking through these old papers makes me realize that even back in 1992 we should have seen this coming. The seeds of this outrage were all there; we just didn’t realize how they would grow. But isn’t that always the way with things like this? Somebody once said that “the true watersheds in human affairs are seldom spotted amid the tumult of headlines broadcast on the hour.” And we had a lot of headlines back in the ’90s to distract us: The economy was in the dumps, crime was rising, schools were deteriorating, drug use was rampant, the environment was in trouble, and political scandals were occurring almost daily. Still, there was some good news: the end of the Cold War as well as America’s recent victory over Iraq.
All of this and more contributed to the situation in which we find ourselves today: a military that controls government and one that, ironically, can’t fight. It wasn’t any single cause that led us to this point. Instead, it was a combination of several different developments, the beginnings of which were evident in 1992. Here’s what I think happened:
Americans became exasperated with democracy. We were disillusioned with the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation’s dilemmas. We were looking for someone or something that could produce workable answers. The one institution of government in which the people retained faith was the military. Buoyed by the military’s obvious competence in the First Gulf War, the public increasingly turned to it for solutions to the country’s problems. Americans called for an acceleration of trends begun in the 1980s: tasking the military with a variety of new, nontraditional missions, and vastly escalating its commitment to formerly ancillary duties.
Though not obvious at the time, the cumulative effect of these new responsibilities was to incorporate the military into the political process to an unprecedented degree. These additional assignments also had the perverse effect of diverting focus and resources from the military’s central mission of combat training and warfighting. Finally, organizational, political, and societal changes served to alter the American military’s culture. Today’s military is not the one we knew when we graduated from the War College.
Let me explain how I came to these conclusions. In 1992 not very many people would’ve thought a military coup d’etat could ever happen here. Sure, there were eccentric conspiracy theorists who saw the Pentagon’s hand in the assassination of President Kennedy, President Nixon’s downfall, and similar events. But even the most avid believers had to admit that no outright military takeover had ever occurred before now. Heeding Washington’s admonitions in his Farewell address about the dangers of overgrown military establishments, Americans generally viewed their armed forces with a judicious mixture of respect and wariness. For over two centuries that vigilance was rewarded, and most Americans came to consider the very notion of a military coup preposterous. Historian Andrew Janos captured the conventional view of the latter half of the 20th century in this clipping I saved:
A coup d’etat in the United States would be too fantastic to contemplate, not only because few would actually entertain the idea, but also because the bulk of the people are strongly attached to the prevailing political system and would rise in defense of a political leader even though they might not like him. The environment most hospitable to coups d’etat is one in which political apathy prevails as the dominant style.
However, when Janos wrote that back in 1964, 61.9 percent of the electorate voted. Since then voter participation has steadily declined. By 1988 only 50.1 percent of the eligible voters cast a ballot. Simple extrapolation of those numbers to last spring’s Referendum would have predicted almost exactly the turnout. It was precisely reversed from that of 1964: 61.9 percent of the electorate did not vote.
America’s societal malaise was readily apparent in 1992. Seventy-eight percent of Americans believed the country was on the “wrong track.” One researcher declared that social indicators were at their lowest level in 20 years and insisted “something [was] coming loose in the social infrastructure.” The nation was frustrated and angry about its problems.
America wanted solutions and democratically elected government wasn’t providing them. The country suffered from a “deep pessimism about politicians and government after years of broken promises.” David Finkle observed in The Washington Post Magazine that for most Americans “the perception of government is that it has evolved from something that provides democracy’s framework into something that provides obstacles, from something to celebrate into something to ignore.” Likewise, politicians and their proposals seemed stale and repetitive. Millions of voters gave up hope of finding answers. The “environment of apathy” Janos characterized as a precursor to a coup had arrived.
Unlike the rest of government the military enjoyed a remarkably steady climb in popularity throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. And indeed it had earned the admiration of the public. Debilitated by the Vietnam War, the US military set about reinventing itself. As early as 1988 U.S. News & World Report heralded the result: “In contrast to the dispirited, drug-ravaged, do-your-own-thing armed services of the ’70s and early ’80s, the US military has been transformed into a fighting force of gung-ho attitude, spit-shined discipline, and ten-hut morale.” After the US military dealt Iraq a crushing defeat in the First Gulf War, the ignominy of Vietnam evaporated.
When we graduated from the War College in 1992, the armed forces were the smartest, best educated, and best disciplined force in history. While polls showed that the public invariably gave Congress low marks, a February 1991 survey disclosed that “public confidence in the military soar[ed] to 85 percent, far surpassing every other institution in our society.” The armed forces had become America’s most–and perhaps only–trusted arm of government.
Assumptions about the role of the military in society also began to change. Twenty years before we graduated, the Supreme Court confidently declared in Laird v. Tatum that Americans had a “traditional and strong resistance to any military intrusion into civilian affairs.” But Americans were now rethinking the desirability and necessity of that resistance. They compared the military’s principled competence with the chicanery and ineptitude of many elected officials, and found the latter wanting.
Commentator James Fallows expressed the new thinking in an August 1991 article in Atlantic magazine. Musing on the contributions of the military to American society, Fallows wrote: “I am beginning to think that the only way the national government can do anything worthwhile is to invent a security threat and turn the job over to the military.” He elaborated on his reasoning:
According to our economic and political theories, most agencies of the government have no special standing to speak about the general national welfare. Each represents a certain constituency; the interest groups fight it out. The military, strangely, is the one government institution that has been assigned legitimacy to act on its notion of the collective good. “National defense” can make us do things–train engineers, build highways–that long-term good of the nation or common sense cannot.
About a decade before Fallows’ article appeared, Congress initiated the use of “national defense” as a rationale to boost military participation in an activity historically the exclusive domain of civilian government: law enforcement. Congress concluded that the “rising tide of drugs being smuggled into the United States . . . present[ed] a grave threat to all Americans.” Finding the performance of civilian law enforcement agencies in counteracting that threat unsatisfactory, Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act of 1981. In doing so Congress specifically intended to force reluctant military commanders to actively collaborate in police work.
This was a historic change of policy. Since the passage of the Posse Comitatus Act in 1878, the military had distanced itself from law enforcement activities. While the 1981 law did retain certain limits on the legal authority of military personnel, its net effect was to dramatically expand military participation in anti-drug efforts. By 1991 the Department of Defense was spending $1.2 billion on counternarcotics crusades. Air Force surveillance aircraft were sent to track airborne smugglers; Navy ships patrolled the Caribbean looking for drug-laden vessels; and National Guardsmen were searching for marijuana caches near the borders. By 1992 “combatting” drug trafficking was formally declared a “high national security mission.”
It wasn’t too long before 21st-century legislators were calling for more military involvement in police work. Crime seemed out of control. Most disturbing, the incidence of violent crime continued to climb. Americans were horrified and desperate: a third even believed vigilantism could be justified. Rising lawlessness was seen as but another example of the civilian political leadership’s inability to fulfill government’s most basic duty to ensure public safety. People once again wanted the military to help.
Hints of an expanded police function were starting to surface while we were still at the War College. For example, District of Columbia National Guardsmen established a regular military presence in high-crime areas. Eventually, people became acclimated to seeing uniformed military personnel patrolling their neighborhood. Now troops are an adjunct to almost all police forces in the country. In many of the areas where much of our burgeoning population of elderly Americans live–Brutus calls them “National Security Zones”–the military is often the only law enforcement agency. Consequently, the military was ideally positioned in thousands of communities to support the coup.
Concern about crime was a major reason why General Brutus’s actions were approved in the Referendum. Although voter participation by the general public was low, older Americans voted at a much higher rate. Furthermore, with the aging of the baby boom generation, the block of American voters over 45 grew to almost 53 percent of the voters by 2010. This wealthy, older electorate welcomed an organization which could ensure their physical security. When it counted, they backed Brutus in the Referendum–probably the last votes they’ll ever cast.
The military’s constituency was larger than just the aged. Poor Americans of all ages became dependent upon the military not only for protection against crime, but also for medical care. Again we saw the roots of this back in 1992. First it was the barely defeated proposal to use veterans’ hospitals to provide care for the non-veteran poor. Next were calls to deploy military medical assets to relieve hard-pressed urban hospitals. As the number of uninsured and underinsured grew, the pressure to provide care became inexorable. Now military hospitals serve millions of new, non-military patients. Similarly, a proposal to use so-called “underutilized” military bases as drug rehabilitation centers was implemented on a massive scale.
Even the youngest citizens were co-opted. During the 1990s the public became aware that military officers had the math and science backgrounds desperately needed to revitalize US education. In fact, programs involving military personnel were already underway while we were at the War College. We now have an entire generation of young people who have grown up comfortable with the sight of military personnel patrolling their streets and teaching in their classrooms.
As you know, it wasn’t just crises in public safety, medical care, and education that the military was tasked to mend. The military was also called upon to manage the cleanup of the nation’s environmental hazards. By 1992 the armed services were deeply involved in this arena, and that involvement mushroomed. Once the military demonstrated its expertise, it wasn’t long before environmental problems were declared “national security threats” and full responsibility devolved to the armed forces.
Other problems were transformed into “national security” issues. As more commercial airlines went bankrupt and unprofitable air routes dropped, the military was called upon to provide “essential” air transport to the affected regions. In the name of national defense, the military next found itself in the sealift business. Ships purchased by the military for contingencies were leased, complete with military crews, at low rates to US exporters to help solve the trade deficit. The nation’s crumbling infrastructure was also declared a “national security threat.” As was proposed back in 1991, troops rehabilitated public housing, rebuilt bridges and roads, and constructed new government buildings. By late 1992, voices in both Congress and the military had reached a crescendo calling for military involvement across a broad spectrum of heretofore purely civilian activities. Soon, it became common in practically every community to see crews of soldiers working on local projects. Military attire drew no stares.
The revised charter for the armed forces was not confined to domestic enterprises. Overseas humanitarian and nation-building assignments proliferated. Though these projects have always been performed by the military on an ad hoc basis, in 1986 Congress formalized that process. It declared overseas humanitarian and civic assistance activities to be “valid military missions” and specifically authorized them by law. Fueled by favorable press for operations in Iraq, Bangladesh, and the Philippines during the early 1990s, humanitarian missions were touted as the military’s “model for the future.” That prediction came true. When several African governments collapsed under AIDS epidemics and famines around the turn of the century, US troops–first introduced to the continent in the 1990s–were called upon to restore basic services. They never left. Now the US military constitutes the de facto government in many of those areas. Once again, the first whisperings of such duties could be heard in 1992.
By the year 2000 the armed forces had penetrated many vital aspects of American society. More and more military officers sought the kind of autonomy in these civilian affairs that they would expect from their military superiors in the execution of traditional combat operations. Thus began the inevitable politicization of the military. With so much responsibility for virtually everything government was expected to do, the military increasingly demanded a larger role in policymaking. But in a democracy policymaking is a task best left to those accountable to the electorate. Nonetheless, well- intentioned military officers, accustomed to the ordered, hierarchical structure of military society, became impatient with the delays and inefficiencies inherent in the democratic process. Consequently, they increasingly sought to avoid it. They convinced themselves that they could more productively serve the nation in carrying out their new assignments if they accrued to themselves unfettered power to implement their programs. They forgot Lord Acton’s warning that “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Congress became their unwitting ally. Because of the popularity of the new military programs–and the growing dependence upon them–Congress passed the Military Plenipotentiary Act of 2005. This legislation was the legacy of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Among many revisions, Goldwater-Nichols strengthened the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and mandated numerous changes intended to increase “jointness” in the armed services. Supporters of the Military Plenipotentiary Act argued that unity of command was critical to the successful management of the numerous activities now considered “military” operations. Moreover, many Congressmen mistakenly believed that Goldwater-Nichols was one of the main reasons for the military’s success in the First Gulf War. They viewed the Military Plenipotentiary Act as an enhancement of the strengths of Goldwater-Nichols.
In passing this legislation Congress added greater authority to the military’s top leadership position. Lulled by favorable experiences with Chairmen like General Colin Powell, Congress saw little danger in converting the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff into the even more powerful Military Plenipotentiary. No longer merely an advisor, the Military Plenipotentiary became a true commander of all US services, purportedly because that status could better ameliorate the effects of perceived interservice squabbling. Despite warnings found in the legislative history of Goldwater-Nichols and elsewhere, enormous power was concentrated in the hands of a single, unelected official. Unfortunately, Congress presumed that principled people would always occupy the office. No one expected a General Brutus would arise.
The Military Plenipotentiary was not Congress’s only structural change in military governance. By 2007 the services were combined to form the Unified Armed Forces. Recall that when we graduated from the War College greater unification was being seriously suggested as an economy measure. Eventually that consideration, and the conviction that “jointness” was an unqualified military virtue, led to unification. But unification ended the creative tension between the services. Besides rejecting the operational logic of separate services, no one seemed to recognize the checks-and-balances function that service separatism provided a democracy obliged to maintain a large, professional military establishment. The Founding Fathers knew the importance of checks and balances in controlling the agencies of government: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. . . . Experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary controls . . . [including] supplying opposite and rival interests.”
Ambition is a natural trait of military organizations and their leaders. Whatever might have been the inefficiencies of separate military services, their very existence served to counteract the untoward desires of any single service. The roles and missions debates and other arguments, once seen as petty military infighting, also provided an invaluable forum for competitive analysis of military doctrine. Additionally, they served to ensure that unscrupulous designs by a segment of the military establishment were ruthlessly exposed. Once the services were unified, the impetus to do so vanished, and the authority of the military in relation to the other institutions of government rose. Distended by its pervasive new duties, monolithic militarism came to dominate the Darwinian political environment of 21st-century America.
Why did the uniformed leadership of our day acquiesce to this transformation of the military? Much of the answer can be traced to the budget showdowns of the early 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the US military without an easily articulated rationale for large defense budgets. Billions in cuts were sought. Journalist Bruce Auster put it bluntly: “Winning a share of the budget wars . . . require[s] that the military find new missions for a post-Cold War world that is devoid of clear military threats.” Capitulating, military leaders embraced formerly disdained assignments. As one commentator cynically observed, “the services are eager to talk up nontraditional, budget-justifying roles.” The Vietnam-era aphorism, “It’s a lousy war, but it’s the only one we’ve got,” was resuscitated.
Still, that doesn’t completely explain why in 2012 the military leadership would succumb to a coup. To answer that question fully requires examination of what was happening to the officer corps as the military drew down in the 1980s and 1990s. Ever since large peacetime military establishments became permanent features after World War II, the great leveler of the officer corps was the constant influx of officers from the Reserve Officers Training Corps program. The product of diverse colleges and universities throughout the United States, these officers were a vital source of liberalism in the military services.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, that was changing. Force reductions decreased the number of ROTC graduates the services accepted. Although General Powell called ROTC “vital to democracy,” 62 ROTC programs were closed in 1991 and another 350 were considered for closure. The numbers of officers produced by the service academies also fell, but at a significantly slower pace. Consequently, the proportion of academy graduates in the officer corps climbed. Academy graduates, along with graduates of such military schools as the Citadel, Virginia Military Institute, and Norwich University, tended to feel a greater homogeneity of outlook than, say, the pool of ROTC graduates at large, with the result that as the proportion of such graduates grew, diversity of outlook overall diminished to some degree.
Moreover, the ROTC officers that did remain increasingly came from a narrower range of schools. Focusing on the military’s policy to exclude homosexuals from service, advocates of “political correctness” succeeded in driving ROTC from the campuses of some of our best universities. In many instances they also prevailed in barring military recruiters from campus. Little thought was given the long-term consequences of limiting the pool from which our military leadership was drawn. The result was a much more uniformly oriented military elite whose outlook was progressively conservative.
Furthermore, well-meaning attempts at improving service life led to the unintended insularity of military society, representing a return to the cloistered life of the pre-World War II armed forces. Military bases, complete with schools, churches, stores, child care centers, and recreational areas, became never-to-be-left islands of tranquillity removed from the chaotic, crime-ridden environment outside the gates. As one reporter put it in 1991: “Increasingly isolated from mainstream America, today’s troops tend to view the civilian world with suspicion and sometimes hostility.” Thus, a physically isolated and intellectually alienated officer corps was paired with an enlisted force likewise distanced from the society it was supposed to serve. In short, the military evolved into a force susceptible to manipulation by an authoritarian leader from its own select ranks.
What made this all the more disheartening was the wretched performance of our forces in the Second Gulf War. Consumed with ancillary and nontraditional missions, the military neglected its fundamental raison d’etre. As the Supreme Court succinctly put it more than a half century ago, the “primary business of armies and navies [is] to fight or be ready to fight wars should the occasion arise.” When Iranian armies started pouring into the lower Gulf states in 2010, the US armed forces were ready to do anything but fight.
Preoccupation with humanitarian duties, narcotics interdiction, and all the rest of the peripheral missions left the military unfit to engage an authentic military opponent. Performing the new missions sapped resources from what most experts agree was one of the vital ingredients to victory in the First Gulf War: training. Training is, quite literally, a zero-sum game. Each moment spent performing a nontraditional mission is one unavailable for orthodox military exercises. We should have recognized the grave risk. In 1991 The Washington Post reported that in “interview after interview across the services, senior leaders and noncommissioned officers stressed that they cannot be ready to fight without frequent rehearsals of perishable skills.”
The military’s anti-drug activities were a big part of the problem. Oh sure, I remember the facile claims of exponents of the military’s counternarcotics involvement as to what “valuable” training it provided. Did anyone really think that crew members of an AWACS–an aircraft designed to track high-performance military aircraft in combat–significantly improved their skills by hours of tracking slow-moving light planes? Did they seriously imagine that troops enhanced combat skills by looking for marijuana under car seats? Did they truly believe that crews of the Navy’s sophisticated antiair and anti-submarine ships received meaningful training by following lumbering trawlers around the Caribbean? Tragically, they did.
The problem was exacerbated when political pressures exempted the Guard and the Reserves from the harshest effects of the budgetary cutbacks of the early 1990s. The First Gulf War demonstrated that modern weapons and tactics were simply too complex for part-time soldiers to master during their allotted drill periods, however well motivated. Still, creative Guard and Reserve defenders contrived numerous civic-action and humanitarian assignments and sold them as “training.” Left unexplained was how such training was supposed to fit with military strategies that contemplated short, violent, come-as-you-are expeditionary wars. Nice-to-have Guard and Reserve support-oriented programs prevailed at the expense of critical active-duty combat capabilities.
Perhaps even more damaging than the diversion of resources was the assault on the very ethos of military service. Rather than bearing in mind the Supreme Court’s admonition to focus on warfighting, the military was told to alter its purpose. Former Secretary of State James Baker typified the trendy new tone in remarks about the military’s airlift of food and medicine to the former Soviet republics in early 1992. He said the airlift would “vividly show the peoples of the former Soviet Union that those that once prepared for war with them now have the courage and the conviction to use their militaries to say, `We will wage a new peace.'”
In truth militaries ought to “prepare for war” and leave the “peace waging” to those agencies of government whose mission is just that. Nevertheless, such pronouncements–seconded by military leaders–became the fashionable philosophy. The result? 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 warfighters. When these philanthropists met the Iranian 10th Armored 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.
The devastation of the military’s martial spirit was exemplified by its involvement in police activities. Inexplicably, we ignored the deleterious effect on combat motivation suffered by the Israeli Defense Forces as a result of their efforts to police the West Bank and Gaza. Few seemed to appreciate the fundamental difference between the police profession and the profession of arms. As Richard J. Barnet observed in The New Yorker, “The line between police action and a military operation is real. Police derive their power from their acceptance as `officers of the law’; legitimate authority, not firepower, is the essential element.”
Police organizations are understandably oriented toward the studied restraint necessary for the end sought: a judicial conviction. As one Drug Enforcement Administration agent noted: “The military can kill people better than we can [but] when we go to a jungle lab, we’re not there to move onto the target by fire and maneuver to destroy the enemy. We’re there to arrest suspects and seize evidence.” If military forces are inculcated with the same spirit of restraint, combat performance is threatened. Moreover, law enforcement is also not just a form of low-intensity conflict. In low-intensity conflict, the military aim is to win the will of the people, a virtually impossible task with criminals “motivated by money, not ideology.”
Humanitarian missions likewise undermined the military’s sense of itself. As one Navy officer gushed during the 1991 Bangladesh relief operation, “It’s great to be here doing the opposite of a soldier.” While no true soldier relishes war, the fact remains that the essence of the military is warfighting and preparation for the same. What journalist Barton Gellman has said of the Army can be extrapolated to the military as a whole: it is an “organization whose fighting spirit depends . . . heavily on tradition.” If that tradition becomes imbued with a preference for “doing the opposite of a soldier,” fighting spirit is bound to suffer. When we first heard editorial calls to “pacify the military” by involving it in civic projects, we should have given them the forceful rebuke they deserved.
Military analyst Harry Summers warned back in ’91 that when militaries lose sight of their purpose, catastrophe results. Citing a study of pre-World War II Canadian military policy as it related to the subsequent battlefield disasters, he observed that
instead of using the peacetime interregnum to hone their military skills, senior Canadian military officers sought out civilian missions to justify their existence. When war came they were woefully unprepared. Instead of protecting their soldiers’ lives they led them to their deaths. In today’s post-Cold War peacetime environment, this trap again looms large. . . . Some today within the US military are also searching for relevance, with draft doctrinal manuals giving touchy-feely prewar and postwar civil operations equal weight with warfighting. This is an insidious mistake.
We must remember that America’s position at the end of the Cold War had no historical precedent. For the first time the nation–in peacetime–found itself with a still-sizable, professional military establishment that was not preoccupied with an overarching external threat. Yet the uncertainties in the aftermath of the Cold War limited the extent to which those forces could be safely downsized. When the military was then obliged to engage in a bewildering array of nontraditional duties to further justify its existence, it is little wonder that its traditional apolitical professionalism eventually eroded.
Clearly, the curious tapestry of military authoritarianism and combat ineffectiveness that we see today was not yet woven in 1992. But the threads were there. Knowing what I know now, here’s the advice I would have given the War College Class of 1992 had I been their graduation speaker:
- Demand that the armed forces focus exclusively on indisputably military duties. We must not diffuse our energies away from our fundamental responsibility for warfighting. To send ill-trained troops into combat makes us accomplices to murder.
- Acknowledge that national security does have economic, social, educational, and environmental dimensions, but insist that this doesn’t necessarily mean the problems in those areas are the responsibility of the military to correct. Stylishly designating efforts to solve national ills as “wars” doesn’t convert them into something appropriate for the employment of military forces.
- Readily cede budgetary resources to those agencies whose business it is to address the non-military issues the armed forces are presently asked to fix. We are not the DEA, EPA, Peace Corps, Department of Education, or Red Cross–nor should we be. It has never been easy to give up resources, but in the long term we–and the nation–will be better served by a smaller but appropriately focused military.
- Divest the defense budget of perception-skewing expenses. Narcotics interdiction, environmental cleanup, humanitarian relief, and other costs tangential to actual combat capability should be assigned to the budgets of DEA, EPA, State, and so forth. As long as these expensive programs are hidden in the defense budget, the taxpayer understandably–but mistakenly–will continue to believe he’s buying military readiness.
- Continue to press for the elimination of superfluous, resource-draining Guard and Reserve units. Increase the training tempo, responsibilities, and compensation of those that remain.
- Educate the public to the sophisticated training requirements occasioned by the complexities of modern warfare. It’s imperative we rid the public of the misperception that soldiers in peacetime are essentially unemployed and therefore free to assume new missions.
- Resist unification of the services not only on operational grounds, but also because unification would be inimical to the checks and balances that underpin democratic government. Slow the pace of fiscally driven consolidation so that the impact on less quantifiable aspects of military effectiveness can be scrutinized.
- Assure that officer accessions from the service academies correspond with overall force reductions (but maintain separate service academies) and keep ROTC on a wide diversity of campuses. If necessary, resort to litigation to maintain ROTC campus diversity.
- Orient recruiting resources and campaigns toward ensuring that all echelons of society are represented in the military, without compromising standards. Accept that this kind of recruiting may increase costs. It’s worth it.
- Work to moderate the base-as-an-island syndrome by providing improved incentives for military members and families to assimilate into civilian communities. Within the information programs for our force of all-volunteer professionals (increasingly US-based), strengthen the emphasis upon such themes as the inviolability of the Constitution, ascendancy of our civilian leadership over the military, and citizens’ responsibilities.
Finally, I would tell our classmates that democracy is a fragile institution that must be continuously nurtured and scrupulously protected. I would also tell them that they must speak out when they see the institution threatened; indeed, it is their duty to do so. Richard Gabriel aptly observed in his book To Serve with Honor that
when one discusses dissent, loyalty, and the limits of military obligations, the central problem is that the military represents a threat to civil order not because it will usurp authority, but because it does not speak out on critical policy decisions. The soldier fails to live up to his oath to serve the country if he does not speak out when he sees his civilian or military superiors executing policies he feels to be wrong.
Gabriel was wrong when he dismissed the military’s potential to threaten civil order, but he was right when he described our responsibilities. The catastrophe that occurred on our watch took place because we failed to speak out against policies we knew were wrong. It’s too late for me to do any more. But it’s not for you.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., USAF, was the Deputy Staff Judge Advocate, US Central Command, at MacDill AFB, Florida. He is a graduate of St. Joseph’s University (Pa.), the Villanova University School of Law, and the Armed Forces Staff College, and he is a Distinguished Graduate of the National War College, Class of 1992. He has taught at the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s School, and served tours in Korea and the United Kingdom. In 1987 he was a Circuit Military Judge, First Judicial Circuit, and was subsequently assigned to the Air Staff in the Office of the Judge Advocate General. Lieutenant Colonel Dunlap was named by the Judge Advocates’ Association as the USAF’s Outstanding Career Armed Services Attorney of 1992. This article is adapted from his National War College student paper that was co-winner of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 1991-92 Strategy Essay Competition, in which students from all the senior service colleges compete.
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This gives an interesting look into the perspective of an Officer from the early 90’s U.S. Military, and some of what he says here explains why we have some of the issues we do in the Military, as a whole. Many of the things said here, are what I’d expect an Air Force Officer to predict. Keep in mind, this was written as Bill Clinton was assuming power, so he hadn’t seen any of what he did to the Military, Law Enforcement “Enhancement” and that of the Surveillance State.
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