The Uncomplicated Past and the Troubled Present
Last week, the pseudonymous blogger at Who Is IOZ?posted -- let's say gleefully posted -- an excerpt from a liberal blogger's founder-referencing cri de coeur:"The Founders of this nation of ours knew that tyrants and greedy SOBs were always going to exist, but they counted on us -- the American public -- to stand with one voice and say 'enough!' when the tipping point had occurred and the wrongs became so excessive that they demanded being pulled back from the brink."
Not so much, no."One might go back," IOZ suggests,"and actually read Articles I and II to see just how Presidents and Senators were selected."
But an even more remarkable example of the tendency to compare our degraded state of political affairs to the glorious purity of the past can be found in the discussion, in the last year or so, of military discontent over the war in Iraq.
In the May issue of the Atlantic, the Boston University professor and retired U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich decried the Appeal for Redress movement of active duty troops who are critical of the ongoing conduct of the war, concluding that it"heralds the appearance of something new to the American political landscape: a soldiers’ lobby."
Something new to the American political landscape? No. And not even close. Or recently close.
To be sure, Bacevich adds a"to be sure":"To be sure, our ostensibly apolitical officer corps has been playing politics for decades." But the politics have always been played soft and low, and only at the very top:
"Through it all, however, military politics remained the exclusive purview of top-ranking generals and admirals, and typically occurred behind closed doors. Last year’s 'Generals’ Revolt,' with just-retired senior officers launching angry salvos at Donald Rumsfeld, attracted attention in part because it was so unusual."
Except that, as Bacevich doesn't mention, the very phrase"General's Revolt" has origins in other iterations of the dynamic, including a 1949 Admirals' Revolt and a 1956 Colonels' Revolt in the U.S. Army that wasn't the"exclusive purview of top-ranking generals and admirals." The colonels in that revolt, upset by Eisenhower's"New Look" plan that proposed to achieve"security with solvency" -- cutting Army divisions and relying on nuclear weapons as a deterrent -- preempted policy with early leaks to legislators and the New York Times. So the Generals' Revolt is"so unusual" that it's named after a couple of previous events.
Bacevich is very much not alone in sounding the alarm. The same month Bacevich published his Atlantic essay, the journalist Reese Schonfeld posted a discussion of Lt. Col. Paul Yingling's critique of the current batch of U.S. Army generals. Yingling, the post warns, represents something wholly new in the United States, since"never before has a serving army officer so publicly stated his views and so openly indicted his leaders."
Someone might tell Reese Schonfeld about an obscure Army officer named General Nelson Miles and his scathing 1903 report on the American war in the Philippines. Miles was Shinsekied by his bosses before General Shinseki was even born.
And so on. Here's Bacevich again:
"Yet even for these embittered generals, challenging the authority of the commander in chief —- as Douglas MacArthur had done a half century ago in Korea, with disastrous results —- remained beyond the pale. Attack an especially abrasive and dogmatic secretary of defense? Perhaps. Openly question the president? Never."
A former general openly questioning the president? Never! That sort of thing might lead to one of these former general types going so far as to run against the president. The way George McClellan did in 1864, at the height of a war over the survival of the nation.
As for Bacevich's concession that the officer corps"has been playing politics for decades" -- decades! -- the counter argument is almost too easy to bother typing. The officer corps has been deeply political since the moment of its birth, with top generals challenging the authority of their commanders, acting without orders or directly against them, and directly threatening civilian authority. The nation's military officers never just sat there like puppies, waiting to be petted. And the same goes for the enlisted ranks.
None of this means that the military has always been out of control; most military officers, and the military as a whole, have stayed well within the boundaries of civilian control. But insubordination, criticisms from below, and military-civil conflict are neither new nor unusual.
There was no golden age. The Appeal for Redress is not one of the Four Horsemen.
Jason Blake Keuter - 11/10/2007
Let's not forget Macarthur!
Chris Bray - 11/3/2007
This is what I get for burying things in links, without explicit references...
Yeah, totally, and some of the links near the end reference the court martial of Charles Lee, the revolt of the Pennsylvania line, and the Newburgh conspiracy. But NEVER BEFORE have American soldiers bucked or criticized superior authority, so none of that counts.
And the discontent of ordinary soldiers with their officers -- dude, you don't wanna get me started.
Jonathan Dresner - 11/3/2007
In a way, I'd like to suggest that our historical ignorance of the ways in which the principles of constitutional government (as we currently understand them) have been bent over time is actually a reflection of the success of a social studies curriculum which treats "government" as separate from "history" and which has -- though the right won't admit it -- been perpetuating a "city on a hill" purified Americanism for decades now.
Social Studies is one of the Four Horsemen. SATs, NCLB and student evaluations of teaching quality are the other three, if you're wondering.
Rebecca Anne Goetz - 11/3/2007
Some of these things go back to the Revolution, too--especially discontent of common soldiers with officers (and especially when they weren't allowed to elect them).