More evidence that the military is slowly cutting itself off from civilian control

Summary: Michael Cohen draws our attention to this chilling quote from Chandrasekaran’s new book. It’s a natural development, still in its early stages, and long predicted on the FM website (and elsewhere).  This is chapter 3 in a series. At the end are links to the previous chapters and other posts about this trend.

{A}s I stood sadly at my country’s boundary and looked longingly into the unknown country, which was so near me and yet so far away, some little revelation might be vouchsafed to me…
— From Either/Or by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1843)

A quote highlighted by Michael Cohen from Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, page 322:

The military vision was far more expansive than what the president had outlined in the six-page terms sheet he had given Petraeus, Stan McChrystal, and Admiral Mullen when he had approved the surge in late 2009. “This approach is not fully resourced counterinsurgency or nation building,”€ Obama had written, “€œbut a narrower approach tied more tightly to the core goal of disrupting, dismantling, and eventually defeating Al Qaeda.”

Several months later, I asked one of Petraeus’€™s aides how he had reconciled the general’€™s plan with the president’€™s goal. “€œWe didn‒t pay much attention to that memo,”€ he said.

Here are a few observations about this poignant passage.

(1)  It should not surprise us

Many people saw this coming, even decades ago.  Many saw this split as it developed or afterwards.  As in this quote from a guest post by Bernard Finel:

Third, can we once and for all stop the nonsense about how Petraeus is just doing what the President wants?  How much evidence do we need that Petraeus is a free agent here, a policy entrepreneur pursuing his own foreign policy preferences?  Look, the guy is a smart guy.  Smarter than me I am sure.  But his conduct is not appropriate for a general officer.  I like this bit (from here):

During a flight in May, after a glass of wine, Petraeus told his own staffers that the administration was “[expletive] with the wrong guy.”

(2)  This is a natural development, which historians might see as inevitable


Consider the relative strengths of the military vs. the rest of the government.

  •  Conducting information operations is a core competency (see these posts).
  • The military has retired senior officiers well-placed in industry and the media
  • DoD has greater discretionary resources than any other government agency — by far.
  • We’re in year 11 of a long wars, and wars usually shift power from civilian to military hands.
  • The military (serving & vets) have a tribal-like identity and cohesion unlike anything else in government or civilian life.
  • The public has fare more confidence in the military than in the President and Congress.

The last point might prove the most important. This graphic shows the change from 2002 to 2011 in Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions survey.

The results are more striking from the their first survey in 1999 to the 2011 survey. Confidence in almost every institution has declined. Especially note the loss of confidence in the three branches of government.

  • the medical system: -1%
  • public schools: -2%
  • newspapers: -5%
  • organized labor: -7%
  • TV news: -7%
  • church: -10%
  • big business: -11%
  • the presidency: -12%
  • Congress: -14%
  • the supreme court: -14%
  • banks: -20%

Our confidence has increased in a few institutions.

  • the police: +2%
  • the criminal justice system: +5%
  • the military: +10%

(3) My guess about our future

Under the stress of the events that lie in our future, this split will widen.  We can close our eyes to their approach, but a weak passive people will be ruled. The more passive the people, the stronger the rulers. A plutocrat – military alliance has happened to so many nations for logical reasons. The rapid growth of the government’s internal surveillance and security services will make the transition easier.

If we’re sufficiently passive, the outward forms of the Second Republic will be retained — as they were in the early days of the Roman Empire.  Children will say the pledge, we’ll sing the anthem at baseball games, the titles will remain the same in Washington.  What about our patriotic gun owners?  My guess is that many will cheer.  Some will become eager recruits to the security services. Most will passively acquiesce.

If we do not passively accept the new order, then there will be turmoil. We might follow the past trend by Latin American nations from the 1930s onwards, loss of social cohesion leading to poverty. Or the fires might, like the Civil War, result in a stronger Second Republic — or an even better Third Republic.

But these are all just guesses, as extrapolations about the future must be.  The future is an unknown country.

Other Chapters in this series

  1. A look at the future of the Republic: we will choose leaders that we trust, 14 May 2012 — Today’s post is an expanded version of this.
  2. A look at the future of the Republic: we will choose leaders that we trust, not the ones we need (part 2), 15 May 2012

Another expert who has written about our frayed civilian-military relations

Bernard Finel of the National War College. Here are some of his articles about this:

For more about this malign trend see these posts

  1. Who is to blame for our civil-military dysfunction?, 5 September 2010 — Guest post by Bernard Finel
  2. The insurgency widens – another crack in civilian control of our military, 7 October 2010
  3. A Washington Insider looks at America, but does not understand what he sees, 7 September 2011
  4. America is the new Rome. Late Republican Rome (not the best of times), 13 October 2011
  5. What will replace the Constitution in Americans’ hearts? Let’s check for Fascism., 29 March 2012

32 replies »

  1. “The future is an unknown country.”
    But you sure can extrapolate, as noted and the trends are not promising.
    And this fawning over adolescents with big power and big armaments is trending the wrong way.
    The love in the US for proxy killers, Official Ones, is certainly symptomatic of some very disturbing cultural bedrocks.

    Step aside.
    The Motherland moves onward.
    Where to and what for?
    Silly question.

    America…you are “[expletive] with the wrong guy.”!



    • Re: The military has shown more competence

      Excuse me, but this is the same military that has just had its but kicked in Iraq and is the same military that screams and cries “Mommy” every time it takes a few casualties.

      The flaw with Fabius Maximus argument is that we are supposed to take seriously a threat from Petreus’ aides, when that very aid can’t handle the Taliban in Afghanistan.

      The most serious point that Fabius has made is that the military/vets form some sort of tribal outfit.

      But then so do the Crips.


    • “we are supposed to take seriously a threat from Petreus’ aides”

      It was a statement of fact, not a threat.

      “but then so do the Crips”

      Are you seriously comparing some street gang to the size and resources of the US military and intelligence community?


    • “Are you seriously comparing some street gang to the size and resources of the US military and intelligence community?”

      If the military and society in general proceed along the path you suggest, then both will come to resemble the current situation in Mexico.

      Where the drug cartels stand up quite effectively against the military.

      So, yes, I am seriously comparing them.


    • Anything is possible.

      But ours is 10x larger as a per cent of GDP! Our military spending roughly 5% of GDP; Mexico’s is 0.5% og GDP. From the World Bank, 2010 data. And that does not include all intelligence and internal security experditures, which would enlarge the gap even more.

      Size matters.


    • @Duncan Kinder

      Trotsky once remarked that the military is the mirror of society (he was Minister of War who built and supervised the Red Army in its victory during the Russian Civil War), what ever applies to it is only the reflection from the society that created it.

      If you truly believe that the US army “had its but[t] kicked in Iraq and is the same military that screams and cries “Mommy” every time it takes a few casualties,” then you must have a very lowly opinion of US citizens, you must think them no better than sheep to be corralled by a single barking dog.


    • (1) Thank you for correcting Kinder’s comment, which is IMO obviously false.

      (2) Do you have a cite for that Trotsky quote? There is a similar quote about art, from Literature and Revolution (1924), chapter 4 – “Futurism”:

      Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes. But at present even the handling of a hammer is taught with the help of a mirror, a sensitive film which records all the movements. Photography and motion-picture photography, owing to their passive accuracy of depiction, are becoming important educational instruments in the field of labor. If one cannot get along without a mirror, even in shaving oneself, how can one reconstruct oneself or one’s life, without seeing oneself in the “mirror” of literature? Of course no one speaks about an exact mirror. No one even thinks of asking the new literature to have a mirror-like impassivity. The deeper literature is, and the more it is imbued with the desire to shape life, the more significantly and dynamically it will be able to “picture” life.


  2. The military commands rather more respect than most institutions because they have demonstrated rather more competence. If Barack Obama was as good at anything as the military is at killing terrorists, if say, he was as good at picking and subsidizing winners among green energy companies, or trafficking guns to narcoterrorists, or protecting the fiscal solvency of the Republic or whatever, then he might have some moral authority too. But the military hasn’t fomented a coup, or anything like that. It’s not their fault that they’re better at their jobs than the current President and his creatures. (Or the last one for that matter.)

    It should be pointed out that if a President asks for the advice from the military, refuses to take it, and things subsequently turn out badly, they’re going to be held to account by the voters. And they know it. That doesn’t mean the military advice will always be wise, just that Presidents are always accountable.

    Obama will eventually abandon Afghanistan, just as Nixon abandoned Vietnam, but these things take time.


    • “The military commands rather more respect than most institutions because they have demonstrated rather more competence.”

      That military has been unable to win any kind of decisive strategic victory since WWII (except against insignificant midgets like Grenada and Panama). If it commands more respect it is because it operates far from the USA, so that

      (a) the actual outcome of its operations is not visible to the population of the USA, as all communication is carefully filtered and scripted into a propaganda that exalts the superb actions of the troops;
      (b) the population of the USA does not suffer directly from the action or inaction of the military.

      When those conditions were not met and the incompetence of the military was laid bare, as during the second Indochina war, no contempt was spared for the generals, and large sections of the rank and file, as well as the civilian population, ended up in a state of outright mutiny.


    • I doubt if a single sentence of Sheppard’s comment is correct, in any meaningful sense.

      (1) “The military commands rather more respect than most institutions because they have demonstrated rather more competence”
      Competence at what? The US got nothing from the expeditions to Iraq and Afghanistan, other than additional proof that foreign armies cannot win 4GWs — despite vast costs in money and blood — and bold claims.

      (2) “trafficking guns to narcoterrorists”
      I’ve seen no evidence that the President was involved in this program, which not only was quite small.

      (3) “protecting the fiscal solvency of the Republic”
      As has been endlessly shown, the damage to the Republic’s solvency occured under Reagan and Bush Jr. Obama took office in month 14 of the world economic downturn since the Great Depression, which was inevitably to have large costs.

      (4) “But the military hasn’t fomented a coup, or anything like that. ‘
      Nobody said they had.

      (5) “President asks for the advice from the military, refuses to take it,”
      To what are you referring to? Obama implemented DoD’s recommendations. As is his job, he set parameters — and DoD said they could accomplish the mission within those limits.

      (6) “Obama will eventually abandon Afghanistan, just as Nixon abandoned Vietnam, but these things take time”
      You propose a crusade, more decades of scarce US resources poured into that strategically irrelevant nation? BTW, the collapse of South Vietnam had no severe consequences to the USA, despite the ominous predictions.


    • More about the “competence” of our military.

      Our troops are among the most skillful America has ever fielded, and perhaps the best equipped (vs. the tech of their time) every seen anywhere. But their valor and effort are offset by the competence of our senior generals. Examples are legion from our recent wars. I’ll cite two (see the full posts for details), both with severe and long-lasting consequences.

      (1) Failure to secure the cities of Iraq after destroying Saddham’s regime

      From The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders, 22 May 2007:

      The events surrounding the fall of Iraq’s capital are difficult to imagine, even after four years have passed. US forces again proved invincible on the field of battle. They rolled up to Baghdad, occupied it and waited for orders. Then the capitol fell into disorder, with looting and burning of key infrastructure.

      Apparently the Pentagon’s senior generals – the best-educated generals ever to lead an Army – failed to prepare for one of history’s most common scenarios. As a result they read reports from their field commanders and watched as victory tipped over to what might become a crushing defeat. Perhaps for the next war our top generals’ briefing books should include DVD’s of War and Peace and Gone with the Wind. Watching the burning of Moscow and Atlanta might remind them to plan for this contingency.

      (2) In 2003: Failure to recognize until too late that the insurgents in Iraq were determined and difficult foes

      In 2003 the US military described the insurgents in Iraq as “dead-enders” and “bandits”. Hence our slow response, that allowed the insurgency to take root. Articles on the FM website at the time painted a different picture, predicting that the insurgents would prove to be determined and difficult foes. These received fierce criticism from those who accepted the military’s reports as gospel.

      (a) From the very first FM post – Scorecard #1, 22 September 2003:

      By all accounts opposition attacks steadily grow more sophisticated. Note the increasing number and sophistication in opposition use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). War is the ultimate form of Darwinian evolution. Guerillas learn swiftly; only the most capable survive.

      (b) Scorecard #2, 31 October 2003 — Note that even today our war advocates often get this key point wrong (ie, foreign armies fighting local insurgencies usually lose).

      Coalition forces appear to have lost the vital connection between strategy and tactics. Clear and feasible goals drive strategy, which drives tactics. … What are the Coalition’s goals and strategy? If these are in fact uncertain, as they were in the Viet Nam war, development of successful tactics becomes difficult. Maintaining domestic support and confidence becomes problematic.

      Fortunately, the public in Coalition nations does not seem to know the odds against us. In modern times, insurgents’ successes far outnumber the few successes of western nations.

      (c) Scorecard #3, 9 November 2003

      What do we know of the enemy?

      “There are former regime members who want to disrupt the successes achieved here in the north,” Major General David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, said. There are also “criminals … who are willing to be guns for hire,” in addition to “some foreigners who have come in small numbers and have been involved in this as well. (Associated Press, 9 November 2003)

      Petraeus’ opinion deserves respect. But describing insurgents as bandits goes back to the Chinese revolution, and probably beyond. Perhaps natural bravado, but lack of respect for one’s opponents is a bad sign. Especially given their progress in achieving objectives and their growing tactic skills. If they continue to develop at this rate, soon “insurgency” will no longer be a correct label. Per Webster’s: a condition of revolt against a government that is less than an organized revolution and that is not recognized as belligerency.

      … Worse, reports like following foreshadow a next (perhaps distant) phase for the insurgency, where insurgents have effective control of some areas, into which only well-armed Coalition forces can penetrate …


  3. Another point:

    When discussing the current unrest within the military towards civilian institutions, it would be very useful to consider the role of the French military during the Algerian uprisings towards the end of the Fourth and the beginnings of the Fifth Republics.

    Then Charles de Gaulle stepped in as sort of a deus ex machina.

    Nowadays, we have, for better or worse, no de Gaulle equivalent. There is a lot of puffery about Petreaus, but it is ridiculous to compare him to the Eisenhower, Bradley, McCarthtur, Patton generation. There simply is no god to emerge from any machine.

    Any would be military deus ex machina would be more like Yuan Shir Kai, the Chinese general who effectively ended the Manchu / Ching dynasty in China only to usher in the warlord era than like Julius Caesar.

    Fabius is brilliant, but his vision is simply too top heavy. There’s simply not enough underlying substance in the social fabric to support any sort of dictatorship. Things are far too soupy.


    • “but it is ridiculous to compare him to the Eisenhower, Bradley, McCarthtur, Patton generation.”

      I believe that the times make the men, and that those generals were not superior to those of today.

      As for your assertions, nobody can speak about future events with certainty. I note the facts, and that the trends look ominous.

      “There’s simply not enough underlying substance in the social fabric to support any sort of dictatorship. Things are far too soupy.”

      I have no idea what that means.


  4. Fabius wrote: You propose a crusade, more decades of scarce US resources poured into that strategically irrelevant nation?

    No, I don’t. I’m no more a fan of what we’re doing in Afghanistan than you are. I was simply pointing out that countries can take a long time to disengage from wars, even if those wars are already lost. DeGaulle took years to disengage from Algeria. Vietnam was already lost when Nixon took office. He spent four years promising “Peace with honor”. In fact, it took years to get Hanoi to agree to the release of the POWs, and anyway, elected politicians would rather that the war wasn’t actually lost on their watch, or at least not in their first term.

    Obama came to office, I think, determined to liquidate the commitment to Afghanistan, but if the Taliban rolled into Kandahar before November 2012, well….I’m not arguing whether Obama’s, or NIxon’s, or DeGaulle’s choices were wise, I’m just saying that as a practical matter, they took a certain amount of time disengaging from losing wars.

    If you want to argue they should have moved faster, that’s another topic.


  5. Fabius wrote: What’s your basis for beleif that Obama “came to office determined to liquidate the commitment to Afghanistan”?

    That’s a character judgement. As you point out correctly, “(a) His rhetoric and actions in 2008 were suitably hawkish, as I write during and after the campaign.” What he said was “suitably hawkish”, because he wanted to be elected, and he thought that would help him out. I just never thought he meant a word of it. There’s what people campaign on, and there’s what they actually do.

    Fabius wrote: Or that he “asks for the advice from the military, refuses to take it”.

    I didn’t say he refused to take it. I was attempting to explain why he might take the advice of the military even though it might be contrary to what he was otherwise inclined to do. If he rejects their advice, then politically he owns whatever happens after that, even if, hypothetically, the advice was unwise. We were discussing civilian control of the military. I say the civilians do in fact have control of the military, but are reluctant to override the advice of the Generals, and was attempting to explain why that might in some circumstances be so. I’m not debating the wisdom of the advice the military gave Obama or whether he was right to take it.


  6. FM remarks “I believe that the times make the men, and that those generals were not superior to those of today [Eisenhower, Bradley, McCarthtur, Patton].”

    Eisenhower, Bradley, MacArthur and Patton all won multiple major battles.

    No current American general or serving general in the recent past, including Petraeus and McChrystal, have won a single major battle.

    The people in charge of the Pentagon today are what Col. David Hackworth used to call “perfumed princes” — superb CEOs, stellar performers on tests who graduated first in their class, expert politicians with magnificent skills in negotiating the treacherous waters of Washington politics and the perilous shoals of the D.C.-congressional weapons procurement swamp, with no discernible competence in actual warfare.


    • Here we venture into one of the endless debated and impossible to resolve debates of military history.

      My position, FWIW, is that the generals running WWII — such as the West Point Class of 1915, 36% of whom became generals — had the good fortune to fight an enemy powerful enough to challenge us, but small and poorly run enough to crush. Of course, we were the 2nd team on the war against Germany — supporting player to Russia. I doubt there was anything special in the water of West Point during 1911-1915.

      Today’s generals fight 4GWs, which we’re ill-equipped to understand let alone win. How would the generals of the class of 1915 cope today? All we can do is have fun guessing.


  7. The other issue to bear in mind here is that ex-military enlisted disproportionately make up the ranks of police today. With the massive militarization of civilian police, this creates a pincer movement in which the military becomes increasingly free of civilian control, while the police become so militarized that they operate effectively outside the law and with military weaponry. The result is a society like the former USSR, where if you’re not a member of the military, you’re a second-class citizen.


    • This is probably a best of thread winner, pointing out a powerful and ominous trend.

      One trivia note: the ruling class of the Soviet Union was the “nomenklatura”, almost all of which we party members (plus some highly valued technical experts, senior military officers, etc). So its not correct to say that non-members of the military were second class citizens.


    • I made this exact post on an Alternet articld just in the past days. Not word for word, but the same chilling idea that the police are now para-military because of the tremendous influx of former military police into the ranks of forces all over the country.

      We also seldom remember that the first job of the military is to justify its existence, and what better for career “warriors” to justify themselves through a war policy rather than through a negitoated end to a war and thre avoidance of further conflicts? From the economic standpoint, without money to support the troops and the contractors, who make obscene profits from building a war machine, the economy would become an even greater disaster than it is already.

      But all this comes from the American mantra that because our ideas are better, it is our right/obligation to impose our ideas on the rest of the world and, thereby cnfirm our moral superiority through grossly immoral behavior. Is it anywonder that the military can point to the hatred our own arrogance has produced around the world as justification for its comtinued policing of everyone, including our own citizens? They might ignore insignificant countries, but when countries heretofore dismissed as unimportant, like Brazil, begin to emerge as smarter and stronger than they have been formerly, I cringe when they come under the harsh glare of the Alerican war machine. Why else would the USA be trying to establish military bases in such places as Paraguay but as a means to keep an eye on and eventually contain what they insist on perceiving as a potential threat to American “supremicy”?


    • @Thomas More: “The result is a society like the former USSR, where if you’re not a member of the military, you’re a second-class citizen.”

      Not true, the most influential were the security apparatus members and member of the Communist Party, many positioned themselves into positions of power after the USSR’s fall. The best example must be the current president of Russia himself: Putin was a member of the communist party and the KGB.


    • I think (speculation) that we’re moving to a social structure very roughly like that of 1984: an inner Party (the 1% and their senior officials, the next 9%), the outer party (the next 15%, including politically active), and the proles (the remaining 75%). With some, but not much, social mobility between classes.


    • Thomas More, what you wrote is certainly a possibility, but I am just as worried about defense industry. Right now, it operates almost independently from US Government – a state within the state, with Federal Government being source of funds and security. MIC requires continued warfare (or threat thereof) to continue functioning, and US overpowerful defense industry was, and is, a major factor in continuing warfare as well as in genesis of very inefficient military.

      US response to 9/11 has been illogical, disproportionate and counterproductive – but coupled with what I have outlined in previous paragraph, it becomes obvious that such response was the only possible course of action. As threat – or perceived threat – from China increases, Afghanistan will likely be abandoned by the regular military. But never completely – while US military has left Iraq some time ago, there are still US-paid mercenaries over there. And Afghanistan may be an important military base in new US contain-the-China strategy.


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