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Tomgram: Gregory Foster, A Case for Demilitarizing the Military

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

General Lloyd Austin, the outgoing head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), recently testified before Congress, suggesting that Washington needed to up its troop levels in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, in his own congressional testimony, still-to-be-confirmed incoming CENTCOM chief General Joseph Votel, formerly head of U.S. Special Operations Command, seconded that recommendation and said he would reevaluate the American stance across the Greater Middle East with an eye, as the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman put it, to launching "a more aggressive fight against the Islamic State." In this light, both generals called for reviving a dismally failed $500 million program to train "moderate" Syrian rebels to support the U.S. fight against the Islamic State (IS). They both swear, of course, that they'll do it differently this time, and what could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, General David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), pressed by Senator John McCain in congressional testimony, called on the U.S. to "do more" to deal with IS supporters in Libya. And lo and behold, the New York Times reported that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had only recently presented an AFRICOM and Joint Special Operations Command plan to the president's "top national security advisers." They were evidently "surprised" to discover that it involved potentially wide-ranging air strikes against 30 to 40 IS targets across that country. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan -- U.S. Special Operations units and regular troops having recently been rushed once again into embattled Helmand Province in the heartland of that country's opium poppy trade -- General Austen and others are calling for a reconsideration of future American drawdowns and possibly the dispatch of more troops to that country.

Do you sense a trend here? In the war against the Islamic State, the Obama administration and the Pentagon have been engaged in the drip, drip, drip of what, in classic Vietnam terms, might be called "mission creep." They have been upping American troop levels a few hundred at a time in Iraq and Syria, along with air power, and loosing Special Operations forces in combat-like operations in both countries. Now, it looks like top military commanders are calling for mission speed-up across the region. (In Libya, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it already seems to have begun.)

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And keep in mind, watching campaign 2016, that however militaristic the solutions of the Pentagon and our generals, they are regularly put in the shade by civilians, especially the Republican candidates for president, who can barely restrain their eagerness to let mission leap loose. As Donald Trump put it in the last Republican debate, calling for up to 30,000 U.S. boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, "I would listen to the generals." That might now be the refrain all American politicians are obliged to sing. Similarly, John Kasich called for a new "shock and awe" campaign in the Middle East to "wipe them out." And that's the way it's been in debate season -- including proposals to put boots on the ground big time from Libya and possibly even the Sinai peninsula to Afghanistan, bomb the region back to the stone age, and torture terror suspects in a fashion that would have embarrassed Stone Age peoples.

Put another way, almost 15 years after America's global war on terror was launched, we face a deeply embedded (and remarkably unsuccessful) American version of militarism and, as Gregory Foster writes today, a massive crisis in civil-military relations that is seldom recognized, no less discussed or debated. TomDispatch hopes to rectify that with a monumental post from a man who knows something about the realities of both the U.S. military and changing civilian relations to it. Gregory Foster, who teaches at National Defense University and is a decorated Vietnam veteran, suggests that it's time we finally ask: Whatever happened to old-fashioned civilian control over the U.S. military? Implicitly, he also asks a second question: These days, who controls the civilians? Tom

Pentagon Excess Has Fueled a Civil-Military Crisis
How Civilian Control of the Military Has Become a Fantasy
By Gregory D. Foster

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Item: Two U.S. Navy patrol boats, with 10 sailors aboard, "stray" into Iranian territorial waters, and are apprehended and held by Iranian revolutionary guards, precipitating a 24-hour international incident involving negotiations at the highest levels of government to secure their release. The Pentagon offers conflicting reports on why this happened: navigational error, mechanical breakdown, fuel depletion -- but not intelligence-gathering, intentional provocation, or hormonally induced hot-dogging.

Item: The Pentagon, according to a Reuters expose, has been consciously and systematically engaged in thwarting White House efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and release cleared detainees. Pentagon officials have repeatedly refused to provide basic documentation to foreign governments willing to take those detainees and have made it increasingly difficult for foreign delegations to visit Guantanamo to assess them. Ninety-one of the 779 detainees held there over the years remain, 34 of whom have been cleared for release.

Item: The Pentagon elects not to reduce General David Petraeus in rank, thereby ensuring that he receives full, four-star retirement pay, after previously being sentenced on misdemeanor charges to two years' probation and a $100,000 fine for illegally passing highly classified material (a criminal offense) to his mistress (adultery, ordinarily punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice) and lying to FBI officials (a criminal offense). Meanwhile, Private Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning continues to serve a 35-year prison sentence, having been reduced to the Army's lowest rank and given a dishonorable discharge for providing classified documents to WikiLeaks that included incriminating on-board videos of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed up to 18 civilians, including two Reuters journalists, and wounded two children, and of a 2009 massacre in Afghanistan in which a B-1 bomber killed as many as 147 civilians, reportedly including some 93 children.

What do these episodes have in common? In their own way, they're all symptomatic of an enduring crisis in civil-military relations that afflicts the United States.

Hyperbolic though it may sound, it is a crisis, though not like the Flint water crisis, or the international refugee crisis, or the ISIS crisis, or the Zika crisis. It's more like the climate crisis, or a lymphoma or termite infestation that destroys from within, unrecognized and unattended. And yes, it's an enduring crisis, a state of affairs that has been with us, unbeknownst to the public and barely acknowledged by purported experts on the subject of civil-military relations, for the past two decades or more.

The essence of the situation begins, but doesn't end, with civilian control of the military, where direction, oversight, and final decision-making authority reside with duly elected and appointed civil officials. That's a minimalist precondition for democracy. A more ideal version of the relationship would be civilian supremacy, where there is civically engaged public oversight of strategically competent legislative oversight of strategically competent executive oversight of a willingly accountable, self-policing military.

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What we have today, instead, is the polar opposite: not civilian supremacy over, nor even civilian control of the military, but what could be characterized as civilian subjugation to the military, where civilian officials are largely militarily illiterate, more militaristic than the military itself, advocates for -- rather than overseers of -- the institution, and running scared politically (lest they be labeled weak on defense and security).

That, then, is our lot today. Civilian authorities are almost unequivocally deferential to established military preferences, practices, and ways of thinking. The military itself, as the three "items" above suggest, sets its own standards, makes and produces its own news, and appropriates policy and policymaking for its own ends, whatever civilian leadership may think or want. It is a demonstrably massive, self-propelled institution increasingly central to American life, and what it says and wants and does matters in striking ways. We would do well to consider the many faces of civil-military relations today, especially in light of the role the military has arrogated to itself.

A Crisis Appears and Disappears

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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