The Pentagon Is the President's Private Army


The Pentagon, methinks, is out of control. We no longer have a military in service to the state, but a state in service to the military. Few notice (I suspect) because of two ingrained habits of mind.

First, we think of the President as just that, the President, the country’s civilian governor who, oh yeah, is technically the Commander-in-Chief. “Technically,” because he isn’t really in the military and doesn’t strut about in a uniform with ribbons and feathers. He seems more a CEO than a general.

Second, we tend to think of the military as a federal department under civilian control. The Pentagon carries out policy, we believe, but doesn’t make it.

Would it were so. The military today is hardly under civilian control. Note that Congress long ago gave up its power to declare war. This is crucial. Politically it is far safer to acquiesce in a war than to declare one.

In practical terms, the checks and balances in the Constitution no longer restrain the Commander-in-Chief, and thus not the soldiery. (The Supreme Court has become a mausoleum. It might be replaced by a wax museum without anyone’s noticing.) The Pentagon is now the private army of any president who chooses so to use it.

Our foreign policy has been militarized. This is not just a matter of countless alliances and bases abroad. A few days ago, the military attacked Syria. This, an act of war, was a result not of national but of military policy. So far as I know, the attack was neither ordered nor authorized by Congress. The soldiers do as they please, and we find out about it later. This is not civilian control.

Such occurrences are inevitable when the military controls policy. Soldiers are truculent by nature, think quickly of military solutions, and need enemies to justify both their existence and their budget. Among recent consequences: attacking Syria, occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, bombing Pakistan, bombing Somalia, threatening Iran, threatening North Korea, encouraging Israel to bomb Beirut, arming Georgia, and aggressively expanding NATO to encircle Russia.

Ominously, we now accept that the behavior of the armed forces is none of our business. Note the years of expectancy as we waited to see whether the Commander-in-Chief, a de facto six-star general, would attack Iran.

I suspect that few realize how militarized the United States itself has become. The transformation has been inconspicuous. The Pentagon avoids undue attention. Quietly it has expanded its reach.

Abolishing the draft was an important step, since it severed any connection between the upper levels of society and the armed forces. The educated don’t much care what the army does as long as they don’t have to help do it.

The economy also has been militarized. Although the United States has no national enemies, it spends phenomenally on a martial empire whose only purpose is to be a martial empire. Add up the “defense” budget (it was last used for defense in 1945), the war bills, black programs, Veterans Administration’s budget, on and on, and you reach a trillion dollars a year. A country in decline cannot long waste so much money. Perhaps as important, the military cannot spend so much without gaining great if unnoticed political power. In particular, the production of hugely pricey weapons has been woven into the economy to such an extent that it cannot be brought under control. Cancel the F22, the JSF, and suchlike, and the economies of politically powerful states go into recession. None dare do it. Close big bases? Whole towns would shut down.

The country has no need of such a military, and especially not of the formidably costly weapons. Having no plausible enemy of any sophistication, the Pentagon exercises itself by attacking primitive nations in the Third World, and usually losing. For this you do not need an F22. You could lose as well with slingshots.

The spectacle of an alleged superpower struggling to beat yet another collection of ragtag guerrillas may seem darkly comical, but winning or losing isn’t the point; the endless wars keep the contracts flowing, the promotions coming, and fuel demands for a larger army.

We would do well to bear in mind the dangers of excessive military influence in national life. Professional soldiers have little in common with the rest of the country. We like to think of them as Our Boys in Uniform, the brave and the true and the patriotic, defenders of democracy, and so on. It isn’t so. The officer corps is authoritarian to the roots of its soul, has little use for democracy, and prides itself on blind obedience. Soldiers do not readily distinguish between dissent and treason. Further, they regard civil society as an unworkable anarchy of weaklings who lack the will to fight.

The gap between military and civilian consciousness is huge. The ideal officer goes to a service academy where, in late and impressionable adolescence, he learns to walk in squares, always obey, and regard the polish of his belt buckle with insane concern. Thereafter the only answer he knows is “Yessir.” To a civilian, the conformism, the lack of independence and, yes, the pride in the lack are incomprehensible. Then, for thirty years, the soldier spends most of his time with similar people and comes to believe that it is not just a reasonable but the best way to live. Like cops, soldiers tend to socialize among themselves because they fit awkwardly into civil society. Watch a colonel at a civilian cocktail party. He isn’t sure whether he is “Sir” or “Bob.”

And soldiers seek war. They will say they don’t, of course. Can you imagine Tiger Woods spending thirty years practicing his golf swing without wanting to get into a tournament?

The military mindset is not American, not consonant with the ideals the country stands for and to some extent achieves. Most imperfectly, yet genuinely, America has cherished dissent and eccentricity and freedom. Yes, I know about the intolerance of small towns and I grew up in the South. But compare America at its worst to any military dictatorship.

Which is where we seem to be heading. Today the Pentagon — again, Mr. Bush is the Pentagon — openly seeks domestic power. For example, (this from Salon) Army combat troops will now be “assigned on a permanent basis to engage in numerous domestic functions” — including, as the article put it, “to help with civil unrest and crowd control.” That is, the Pentagon will be able to crush dissent. One expects this from Guatemala, which we seem bent on becoming.

Recall further that the Pentagon has been calling for the power to conduct domestic surveillance of the general population, as for example in its program of Total Information Awareness. The NSA, CIA, the Commander in Chief are all military or paramilitary, and Homeland Security is very much in the vein of military dictatorships everywhere. The new rights of the FBI to spy on everything from library records to habits of travel fit the pattern well. The FBI is not military but its behavior is authorized by the Commander-in-Chief. The lines are blurring.

We are going to pay for this.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.

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