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General News    H3'ed 1/28/21

Tomgram: Mandy Smithberger and William Hartung, The Pentagonization of America

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

It's ever more obvious that the forever wars the U.S. military has been fighting for almost two decades are coming home, especially in the wake of the creation of a Baghdad-style "Green Zone" in Washington, D.C., for the recent inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. We now know as well that, on January 6th, during the storming of the Capitol by a mob of white nationalists and QAnoners, the military arrived in Washington earlier than most of us imagined. NPR reports that, among those in that vast crowd who broke into the Capitol, ran riot, and have so far been charged with crimes, nearly one in five was a military veteran or a member of the armed forces. And keep in mind that National Guard officials removed 12 of the troops they sent to Washington to protect the inauguration, at least some for fear of similar inclinations. Of course, none of this should be surprising since, among the crew of Wolverine Watchmen arrested last October for planning the kidnapping and possible assassination of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, at least two were Marine veterans.

Today, TomDispatch regulars and Pentagon experts Mandy Smithberger and William Hartung note a particular irony of this century: the less effective the U.S. military has been abroad, the more it's fought those pointless forever wars to hell and back, the more it's come to be prized, respected, and treasured here at home. In the process, as those two authors suggest today, American democracy, too, has been transformed into a kind of Green Zone. There should be a distinct irony in that, if anyone were paying real attention. Joe Biden typically ended his Inaugural Address, "May God bless America and may God protect our troops." The question Smithberger and Hartung ask is, if God is protecting the troops, who's protecting us? Not, it seems, the powers-that-be in Washington when it comes to the militarization of our political system. Tom

Demilitarizing Our Democracy
How the National Security State Has Come to Dominate a "Civilian" Government

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This month's insurrection at the Capitol revealed the dismal failure of the Capitol Police and the Department of Defense to use their expertise and resources to thwart a clear and present danger to our democracy. As the government reform group Public Citizen tweeted, "If you're spending $740,000,000,000 annually on 'defense' but fascists dressed for the renaissance fair can still storm the Capitol as they please, maybe it's time to rethink national security?"

At a time of acute concern about the health of our democracy, any such rethinking must, among other things, focus on strengthening the authority of civilians and civilian institutions over the military in an American world where almost the only subject the two parties in Congress can agree on is putting up ever more money for the Pentagon. This means so many in our political system need to wean themselves from the counterproductive habit of reflexively seeking out military or retired military voices to validate them on issues ranging from public health to border security that should be quite outside the military's purview.

It's certainly one of the stranger phenomena of our era: after 20 years of endless war in which trillions of dollars were spent and hundreds of thousands died on all sides without the U.S. military achieving anything approaching victory, the Pentagon continues to be funded at staggering levels, while funding to deal with the greatest threats to our safety and "national security" from the pandemic to climate change to white supremacy proves woefully inadequate. In good times and bad, the U.S. military and the "industrial complex" that surrounds it, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower first warned us about in 1961, continue to maintain a central role in Washington, even though they're remarkably irrelevant to the biggest challenges facing our democracy.

These days, it's completely normal for military and defense officials to weigh in endlessly on what once would have been civilian matters. As the Biden years begin, it's time to give some serious thought to how to demilitarize our democracy.

Unfortunately, in the America of 2021, the short-term benefit of relying on the widely accepted credibility of military figures to promote policies of every sort is obvious indeed. Who in the political class in the nation's capital wouldn't want a stamp of approval from dozens of generals, active or retired, endorsing their favorite initiative or candidate? (It's something in years past the authors of this piece have been guilty of as well.) As it happens, though, such approval comes at a high price, undermining as it does the authority of civilian officials and agencies, while skewing resources toward the Pentagon that should be invested elsewhere to keep us truly safe.

It's an essential attribute of the American system that the military remains under civilian authority. These days, however, given the number of current or retired military officers who have become key arbiters of what we should do on a dizzying array of critical issues, civilian control is the policy equivalent of an endangered species.

In the last election season, long before the attack on the Capitol, there was already an intense national discussion about how to prevent violence at the polls, a conversation that all too quickly (and disturbingly) focused on what role the military should play in the process. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was repeatedly asked to provide assurances that it would have no role in determining the outcome of the election, something that in another America would have been a given.

Meanwhile, some actually sought more military involvement. For example, in a widely debated "open letter" to Milley, retired Army officers John Nagl and Paul Yingling stated that "if Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order." Proposals of this sort undermine the integrity of the many laws Congress and the states have put in place to prevent the military or armed vigilantes from playing any role in the electoral process.

Similarly, both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden have identified the military as a key future player in distributing the Covid-19 vaccine, something that could and should be handled by public-health institutions, if only they, like the Pentagon, had adequate resources.

The Military Knows Best?

During and after the attack on the Capitol, officials from the military and national security worlds were given pride of place in discussions about the future of our democracy. Their opinions were sought out by the media and others on a wide range of issues that fell well outside their primary areas of expertise. A letter from 10 former secretaries of defense calling on the Republican caucus to respect the results of the election was given headline attention, while political figures pressed to have retired military officers involved in the January 6th assault tried in military, not civilian, courts.

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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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