Excerpts from “American Coup d’Etat: Military thinkers discuss the unthinkable” in the April 2006 editor of Harper’s magazine.
“The only truly existential threat that American democracy might face today,” the Harper’s editors write, could be the “unthinkable” – a military coup. The latest Harper’s pulls together “a panel of experts to discuss the state of our military – its culture, its relationship with the wider society, and the steadfastness of its loyalty to the ideals of democracy and to the US Constitution.”
Though we’re living under the threat of foreign terrorists, Harper's writes, the only way to “subdue America entirely” would be to “seize the machinery of state itself, to steer it toward malign ends – to carry out, that is, a coup d’etat.” The question is, under what circumstances would our military officers join in such an effort.
Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University and the author, most recently, of The New American Militarism. He served as an officer in the US Army from 1969 t0 1992.
Brig. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., staff judge advocate at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. In 1992 he published an essay entitled “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.” Harper’s adds that his views “are personal and do not reflect those of the US Department of Defense.”
Richard H. Kohn, chair of the curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and editor of the book The United States Military Under the Constitution of the United States, 1789-1989, among others.
Edward N Luttwak, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of many books, including Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook.
Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper’s.
"Wait a minute, this president is berserk; he's starting a war, and we're against it."
DUNLAP: One interesting scenario would be a crisis between the branches of government that are expected to control the military. I.e., if the armed forces were caught between the orders of the president, the Congress, or even the courts, and there were no constitutional path to resolve the disagreement.
KOHN: Wouldn't the armed forces simply freeze? They'd be paralyzed.
LUTTWAK: It's a very interesting line of inquiry. Let's say a president, exercising his proper and legitimate presidential authority, initiates a military action. Then Congress wakes up and says, "Wait a minute, this president is berserk; he's starting a war, and we're against it." But in the meantime, the military force has already been put in a very compromised situation. If things were moving very fast, the military might well take an unconstitutional action.
"By design the military is authoritarian, socialistic, undemocratic."
WASIK: Let's get back, though, to the subject of crises, whether real or contrived. It seems as though the American public wants to see the military step in during these situations. A poll taken just after Hurricane Katrina found that 69 percent of people wanted to see the military serve as the primary responder to natural disasters.
DUNLAP: People don't fully appreciate what the military is. By design it is authoritarian, socialistic, undemocratic. Those qualities help the armed forces to serve their very unique purpose in our society: namely, external defense against foreign enemies. In the military we look to destroy threats, not apprehend them for processing through a system that presumes them innocent until proven guilty. And I should add that if you do try to imprint soldiers with the restraint that a police force needs, then you disadvantage them against the ruthless adversaries that real war involves.
WASIK: Then why do so many Americans say they want to see the military get involved in law enforcement, "peacekeeping," etc.?
DUNLAP: Americans today have an incredible trust in the military. In poll after poll they have much more confidence in the armed forces than they do in other institutions. The most recent poll, just this past spring, had trust in the military at 74 percent, while Congress was at 22 percent and the presidency was at 44 percent. In other words, the armed forces are much more trusted than the civilian institutions that are supposed to control them.
Are we experiencing a “creeping coup d’etat” right now?
BACEVICH: The question that arises is whether, in fact, we're not already experiencing what is in essence a creeping coup d'etat. But it's not people in uniform who are seizing power. It's militarized civilians, who conceive of the world as such a dangerous place that military power has to predominate, that constitutional constraints on the military need to be loosened. The ideology of national security has become ever more woven into our politics. It has been e especially apparent since 9/11, but more broadly it's been going on since the beginning of the Cold War.
KOHN: The Constitution is being warped.
BACEVICH: Here we don't need to conjure up hypothetical scenarios of the president deploying troops, etc. We have a president who created a program that directs the National Security Agency, which is part of the military, to engage in domestic eavesdropping.
LUTTWAK: I don't know if this would be called a coup.
KOHN: Because it's so incremental?
LUTTWAK: It's more like an erosion. The president is usurping additional powers. Although what's interesting is that the president's usurpation of this particular power was entirely unnecessary. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, which approves terrorism-related requests for wiretaps, can be summoned over the telephone in a matter of minutes. In its entire history, it has said no to a request for surveillance only a handful of times, and those were cases where there was a mistake in the request. Really, even a small-town sheriff can get any interception he wants, so long as after the fact he can show a judge that there was reasonable cause.
BACEVICH: Bush's move was unnecessary if the object of the exercise was to engage in surveillance. It was very useful indeed if the object is to expand executive power.
KOHN: Which is exactly what has been the agenda since the beginning of this administration.
LUTTWAK: Now you're attributing motives.
BACEVICH: Yes, I am! If you read John Yoo, he suggests that one conscious aim of the project was to eliminate constraints on the chief executive when it comes to matters of national security.
DUNLAP: I will say that even if it was a completely legal project, there is a question of how appropriate it is for the armed forces to be involved in that kind of activity. Since, as I noted before, the American people have much less confidence in those institutions of civilian control than they do in the armed forces, we need to be very careful about what we ask the military to do, even assuming it's legal.
WASIK: If we are talking about a "creeping coup" that is already under way, in what direction is it creeping?
BACEVICH: The creeping coup deflects attention away from domestic priorities and toward national-security matters, so that is where all our resources get deployed. "Leadership" today is what is demonstrated in the national-security realm. The current presidency is interesting in that regard. What has Bush accomplished apart from posturing in the role of commander in chief? He declares wars, he prosecutes wars, he insists we must continue to prosecute wars.
KOHN: By framing the terrorist threat itself as a war, we tend to look upon our national security from a much more military perspective.
BACEVICH: We don't get Social Security reform, we don't get immigration reform. The role of the president increasingly comes to be defined by his military function.
KOHN: And so our foreign policy becomes militarized. We neglect our diplomacy, de-emphasize allies.
Partisanship and recruitment in the military
WASIK: I want to address the question of partisanship in the military. Insofar as there is a "culture war" in America, everyone seems to agree that the armed forces fight on the Republican side. And this is borne out in polls: self-described Republicans outnumber Democrats in the military by more than four to one, and only 7 percent of soldiers describe themselves as "liberal."
KOHN: It has become part of the informal culture of the military to be Republican. You see this at the military academies. They pick it up in the culture, in the training establishments.
DUNLAP: The military is an inherently conservative organization, and this is true of all militaries around the world. Also the demographics have changed: people in the South who were Democratic twenty years ago have become Republican today.
BACEVICH: Yes, all militaries are conservative. But since 1980 our military has become conservative in a more explicitly ideological sense. And that allegiance has been returned in spades by the conservative side in the culture war, which sees soldiers as virtuous representatives of how the country ought to be.
KOHN: And meanwhile there is a streak of anti-militarism on the left.
BACEVICH: It's not that people on the left disdain the military but rather that they are just agnostic about it. They don't identify with soldiers or soldiering.
LUTTWAK: And their children have less of a propensity to serve in the military. Parents who describe themselves as liberal are less likely to make positive noises to their children about the armed forces.
DUNLAP: Which brings up a crucial point. Let's accept as a fact that the U.S. military has become more overtly ideological since 1980. What has happened since 1980? Roughly, that was the beginning of the all-volunteer force. What we are seeing right now is the result of twenty-five years of an all-volunteer force, in which people have self-selected into the organization. Who goes into the military?
BACEVICH: But the military is also recruited. And it doesn't seem to me that the military has much interest in whether or not the force is representative of American society.
KOHN: I don't think that's true.
BACEVICH: Where do you think recruiting command is focused right now? It's focused on those evangelicals, it's on the rural South. We are reinforcing the lack of representativeness in the military because of the concentrated recruiting efforts among groups predisposed to serve.
DUNLAP: They are so focused on getting qualified people. The military is going to the Supreme Court so that it can recruit on campuses where currently we're not able to.
KOHN: That's just law schools.
DUNLAP: But it has implications across the armed forces.
BACEVICH: The recruiters go for the rich turf, which is where the evangelicals are. You have to work a hell of a lot harder to recruit people from New ton and Wellesley, Massachusetts.
KOHN: Or anywhere in the well-to-do or even middle-class suburbs.
BACEVICH: In an economic sense, the services are behaving quite rationally. But in doing so they perpetuate the fact that we have a military that in no way "looks like" American society.
The president and the "flight suit of a fighter jock"
DUNLAP: The other part of the problem is the behavior of the politicians. They realize the affection that American people have for people in uniform.
BACEVICH: And so they land on aircraft carriers to prance around in the flight suit of a fighter jock. Both parties now see the military vote as being a part of politics, as a constituency. It's a constituency that the Republicans think they own and intend to continue to own. It's a constituency that the Democrats want to pry away.
KOHN: And partisanship in the military overall, i.e., the percentage of the military that identifies with a party as opposed to being "independent" or non-affiliated, is much greater overall. Not only are military officers more partisan than the general population; they're more partisan than, say, business leaders and other elite groups. I've tracked the numbers of retired four-star generals and admirals endorsing a candidate in presidential campaigns, and it's vastly up in the last two elections.
BACEVICH: Remember at the Democratic National Convention, where General Claudia Kennedy introduced General John Shalikashvili to address the delegates? Why were they up there? There was only one reason: to try to match the parade of retired senior officers that the Republicans have long been trotting out on political occasions.
KOHN: But is that to get military votes? Or just to connect with the American people on national security and patriotism?
BACEVICH: It's both. In 2000, the Republican National Committee put ads in the Army Times and other service magazines attacking the Clinton/Gore record. To me that was, quite frankly, contemptible. But the military are not supposed to be political. They’re supposed to be separate from politics.
How transparent should the uniformed side of the armed forces be about their opinions?
KOHN: Consider this glaring example of political manipulation by the military: After every other American war before the Cold War, the country demobilized its wartime military establishment. Even during the Cold War, when we kept a large standing military, we expanded and contracted it for shooting wars. But in 1990 and 1991, the military – through General Colin Powell, who was head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time – intervened and effectively prevented a demobilization.
BACEVICH: More accurately, I'd say that he prevented any discussion of a demobilization.
KOHN: That's right.
DUNLAP: We did have a reduction in the size of the military. There were cuts of around 9 percent, in both dollars and manpower. KOHN: But it was nothing compared to the end of great American wars prior to that.
BACEVICH: Powell is explicit on this in his memoirs. "I was determined to have the Joint Chiefs drive the military strategy train," he wrote. He was not going to have "military reorganization schemes shoved down our throat."
KOHN: This was not a coup, but it was very clearly a circumvention of civilian political authority.
BACEVICH: Let us also consider the classic case of gays in the military. Bill Clinton ran for the presidency saying he would issue an executive order that did for gays what Harry Truman did for African Americans. He wins the election. When he tries to do precisely what he said he would do, it triggers a firestorm of opposition in the military. This was not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff merely saying, in private, "Mr. President, I would like to give you my professional opinion."
KOHN: It was the most open revolt the American military as a whole has ever engaged in.
KOHN: Open revolt, yes.
BACEVICH: Now, Clinton's actions were ill-advised, to put it mildly. But what we got was something like rebellion. Two Marines published an op-ed in the Washington Post, warning the Joint Chiefs that if they failed to stop this policy from being implemented, they were likely to lose the loyalty of junior officers. I mean, holy smokes.
DUNLAP: Which brings up the issue: How transparent should the uniformed side of the armed forces be about their opinions? I will tell you, it is very difficult for serving officers to figure out exactly where the line is. There are points where they feel that their military values require them to speak out.
KOHN: I'm not sympathetic. As professional military officers, they are called upon to make far more difficult decisions in far more ambiguous and dangerous situations. The civil-military relationship is one of the most important parts of their profession, and if they are not educated and prepared enough to make the proper judgments, then they don't belong in high-ranking positions.
"Whether we like it or not, the military has learned how to use the political system..."
LUTTWAK: ....One day General Eric Shinseki, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, happened to be testifying on Capitol Hill. Somebody asked him about a possible invasion of Iraq, and General Shinseki – reflecting what, as I understand it, was the view of anyone who had ever looked at that country and counted its population – said that it would take several hundred thousand troops to control Iraq. Whereupon Shinseki was publicly contradicted by his civilian superiors, who ridiculed his professional opinion.
DUNLAP: Right. Dick, do you consider that to have been appropriate feedback for him?
KOHN: No, Shinseki behaved appropriately. In contradicting and disparaging him, the civilians signalled to the military that they did not want candor even when it is required, which is in front of Congress.
DUNLAP: There are two other interesting examples with General Pace, our current chairman. One was when he differed with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld about what a military person should do if he or she is present when there's an abuse during an interrogation process. Pace insisted that the military had the obligation to intervene – which I think is the right answer.
KOHN: But afterward he fudged it and claimed that there was no disagreement with the secretary.
DUNLAP: Be that as it may, I think it was the right answer. The second and, I think, more difficult scenario was when Representative Jack Murtha said that he wouldn't join the armed forces today, nor would he expect others to do so. General Pace publicly criticized Murtha's remarks. Here was another instance in which the senior representative of the uniformed military spoke out in what was arguably a political context against civilian leadership. But in this case again, I thought it was appropriate.
WASIK: So it seems clear that whether we like it or not, the military has learned how to use the political system to protect its interests and also to uphold what it sees as its values. Thinking over the long term, are there any dangers inherent in this?
KOHN: Well, at this point the military has a long tradition of getting what it wants. If we ever attempted to truly demobilize – i.e., if the military were suddenly, radically cut back– it could lead if not to a coup then to very severe civil military tension.
BACEVICH: Because the political game would no longer be prejudiced in the military's favor.
KOHN: That's right.
BACEVICH: But there is a more subtle danger too. The civilian leadership knows that in dealing with the military, they are dealing with an institution whose behavior is not purely defined by adherence to the military professional ethic, disinterested service, civilian subordination. Instead, the politicians know that they're dealing with an institution that to some degree has its own agenda. And if you're dealing with somebody who has his own agenda, well, you can bargain, you can trade. That creates a small opening – again, not to a coup but to the military making deals with politicians whose purposes may not be consistent with the Constitution.