Is the Idea of a Military Coup Hysterical?

Unlike George Washington or Cincinnatus, today’s warrior-generals don’t return to the plough.  They cash-in at the trough of the military-industrial complex

W.J. Astore

The National Review labels the idea of a military coup in Trump’s America “hysterical.” Here’s David French criticizing my recent article at

Here we go again — another article talking about how the retired generals in Trump’s cabinet, civilians who are nominated by a civilian and confirmed by a civilian senate, represent the erosion of the principle of civilian control over the military. But this time, there’s a hysterical twist. The nomination of James Mattis for secretary of defense and John Kelly for secretary of homeland security and the selection of Michael Flynn for national security adviser is worse than a real-life coup. No, really.

French goes on to say the following:

Lots of people read this nonsense. Lots of people believe this nonsense. I’ve been arguing for some time that the prime threat to our national unity isn’t action but reaction. Activists and pundits take normal politics (retired generals have a long history of serving this nation in civilian offices, beginning with George Washington) and respond with an overreaction that pushes their fellow citizens into believing that the sky is falling.

In my article for, I made the same point that retired generals have a long history of serving this nation, beginning with Washington.  But Washington was a special case, an American Cincinnatus, a citizen first, a soldier second.  As I mentioned in my article, today’s generals are cut from a different cloth.  They self-identify as warriors first and foremost.  Even when they retire, they usually go to work immediately for the military-industrial complex, making millions in the process.

French seems to think that if a civilian like Donald Trump nominates four recently retired warrior/generals, and if a civilian Congress approves them, this in no way constitutes a coup.  And, strictly speaking, that’s true.

Yet consider this.  These four warrior/generals will direct the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the National Security Council.  Professional warriors are filling the highest leadership positions in a superpower military complex that is supposed to be overseen by civilians.  They will command budgetary authority approaching a trillion dollars annually. If this isn’t a de facto military coup, what is?

Consider as well that their boss, Donald Trump, professes to admire two American generals: George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur.  In choosing Patton and MacArthur, Trump has all the signs of an immature military hero-lover. Mature historians recognize that generals like George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley were far more distinguished (and far more in keeping with the American citizen-soldier ideal) than Patton and MacArthur. Indeed, both Patton and MacArthur were over-hyped, deliberately so, for propaganda purposes during Word War II. MacArthur was a disaster in the Philippines, and Patton wasn’t even needed during D-Day. Both fancied themselves to be warriors; both were vainglorious showboats, stuck on themselves and their alleged military brilliance.

“Retired” warriors are simply not the right men in a democracy to ride herd on the military. Warrior/generals like Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly — men defined by the military and loyal to it for their entire lives — are not going to become free-thinkers and tough-minded critics in a matter of months, especially when they’ve already cashed in after retirement by joining corporate boards affiliated with the military-industrial complex.

Look, I realize some Americans see nothing wrong with generals taking charge of America. As one disgruntled reader wrote me, “I value the experience of generals who led Soldiers and Marines in combat on the ground.”

Well, I value that too.  So does our country, which is why the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) advise our president.  But what Trump has done is to surround himself with a rival JCS, his own band of warriors, generals that he sees as the equivalent to Patton and MacArthur. He’s created a dynamic in which the only advice he’ll get on national security is from military minds.  And if you’re looking to Congress as a check on military rule, consider that the last time Congress formally exercised its authority to declare war was December 1941.  Yes, 75 years ago this month.

Hey, nothing to worry about here.  Don’t get hysterical.  Let the “civilian” generals rule! After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Further Thoughts: I think many in America equate militarism to fascism; they think that, so long as jackbooted troops aren’t marching loudly down American streets and breaking down doors, militarism doesn’t exist here.

But militarism, as a descriptive term, also involves the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout civil society and political culture in America.  Since 9/11, if not before, Americans have been actively encouraged to “support our troops” as a patriotic duty.  Those troops have been lauded as “warriors,” “war-fighters,” and “heroes,” even as the U.S. military has become both thoroughly professionalized and increasingly isolated from civil society.  This isolation, however, does not extend to public celebrations of the military, most visibly at major sporting events (e.g. NFL football games).  (A small sign of this is major league baseball players wearing camouflaged uniforms to “honor” the troops.)

Trump’s decision — to put four senior “retired” generals in charge of America’s military and national security — acts as an accelerant to the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout America’s civil society and political culture.  Again, the USA, one must recall, was founded on civilian control of the military as well as the ideal of the citizen-soldier.  The latter ideal is dead, replaced as it has been by a new ideal, that of the warrior.

And civilian control?  With four generals in command, enabled by an inexperienced civilian commander-in-chief whose ideal general is defined by Patton and MacArthur, you have in essence a repudiation of civilian control.


10 thoughts on “Is the Idea of a Military Coup Hysterical?

  1. Thank you for a cogent analysis. David French may have served in the army too, but from what I can gather he was there as a lawyer & did not participate directly in combat, unlike you.
    I get the distinct impression that he has not been able to assess the real mentality of the general-turned-politician, which is so clearly demonstrated by the 4-some appointed by Trump. There are exceptions, such as those you mention (Washington, Eisenhower,etc.), but the majority of are in there for their own gain & personal political agenda.

    Keep up the good & insightful work !!


    1. Thanks, Klaas. Just one point: I am a veteran, but not a combat veteran. Of course, I’ve talked to lots of combat veterans, including those in my own family. The gist of their comments to me: Being shot at is much overrated. And the more war stories that veterans tell in which they’re the hero, the more likely it is that they didn’t see any meaningful action.

      Most combat veterans, those who’ve endured the worst of war, want to put the memories behind them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for your honesty re your being non-combat. I don’t overrate combat veterans, on the contrary. I do know that if they go into politics, like that 4-some, they overrate themselves, believing themselves to be on a par with real icons like the ones you mentioned.
        I enjoy your articles 🙂


      2. Reg; ” And the more war stories that veterans tell in which they’re the hero, the more likely it is that they didn’t see any meaningful action.” _ Likely never even left the states or ever entered a war zone.
        Those guys that brandish the vet hat, jacket, bumper sticker, etc, wear it on their sleeve, might have been in country, but were likely in a support role, not ever in a threatening situation. All of the WW11, Korean, Vietnam, actual combat vets I have talked to over many years, were reluctant to talk about their experience. Often, the families overhearing our conversations were shocked that they were talking about their experiences cuzz the family had never heard them talk about it before. These men didn’t have the hat, jacket, license plate, etc. Once, when I was a young man, I asked my uncle about his WW11 experience and he just got up and walked away. But, mostly, I have been lucky that combat vets, members of captured air crews(WW11) have related, at times reluctantly, but comfortably, their experiences to me for my as yet unpublished book… ‘The Last Breath’.

        My long time best friend, an Army Scout who led a small group into Laos and Cambodia, never talks about his experience and there are no clues that he was ever in the military.
        There were very few actual Vietnam combat vets. Now days, many who never saw action in Vietnam put on the mantle of combat Veteran… Phony warriors, all.

        Thanks for clarifying your service. The term ‘Veteran’ misconstrues reality, as for most of the public, it confers something(combat) not applicable to a large majority of those who served in the military.


  2. “Is the Idea of a Military Coup Hysterical?”

    “Hysterical”? No. “Historical?” Yes.

    Only recently, for example, U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry completed marathon negotiations with his Russian diplomatic counterart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, agreeing to coordinate U.S. and Russian military forces in the fight against the so-called Islamic State — or ISIS, or Al Nusra, or whatever Al Qaeda calls itself these days — in Syria. With the ink not even dry on the agreement, the U.S. military — i.e., the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter with top U.S. generals publicly announcing that they would have to wait and see before following the orders of their Commander-In-Brief — torpedoed the deal with a sudden sneak attack on Syrian Army servicemen, killing and wounding several dozen of them in coordination with an ISIS military advance against Syrian government forces in Der Ezzor, Syria.

    Oops! Big Mistake! We really didn’t know who we were bombing over and over again. Honest Injun.

    Yeah, right.

    So much for negotiating agreements with the civilian U.S. government. Now Russia, Turkey, and Iran have started their own negotiations to help end the U.S. proxy war on Syria — now that Syrian, Russian, Iranian, and Hezbolla forces have driven the U.S.-sponsored jihadi terrorists from East Aleppo. This time around, the U.S. did not receive an invitation to participate in these diplomatic discussions. I wonder why? Who would bother with the powerless, lame-duck U.S. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry? How utterly humiliating, if not actually treasonous. “Protect and defend the U.S. Constituion,” my aching ass.

    A military coup “hysterical”? No, not in the slightest. President Obama lost control of the U.S. military almost as soon as he assumed office in January of 2009 when the U.S. military bullied him into “surging” more U.S. troops into Afghanistan where America remains mired eight years later in an endless quagmire. Not that any U.S. president has much control over the American military to begin with. The U.S. military hardly even bothers to disguise its contempt for civilian oversight anymore. The U.S. military has so many wannabe MacArthurs and Pattons that one can hardly count them. Mr David French, for his part, doesn’t even know the history of the U.S. mililtary over the last month or two, let alone since the end of WWII in 1945, when the real military coup occurred. In this regard, it pays to recall the U.S. military’s attempted meddling in the Chinese Civil War of 1945-49, when the U.S. civilian government pretty much lost control of foreign policy for good. Consider, from Barbara Tuchman, Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945 (New York: the Macmillan Company, 1970):

    The making of foreign policy in World War II came out of the great allied conferences dominated by the military where the military staffs were the working members, and the civil arm, except for the two chiefs of state, was represented meagerly, if at all. Pomp and uniforms held the floor and everyone appeared twice as authoritative as he would have in the two-button business suit of ordinary life. Human fallibility was concealed by those beribboned chests and knife-edge tailoring. By the nature of the message they proposed to send to [China’s] Chiang Kai-Shek, the military were conducting foreign policy and nobody questioned it.

    “The message adopted the tone of a headmaster to a sullen and recalcitrant schoolboy. … it is doubtful if the note would have been addressed to the head of any European government. ….

    Seventy years later, watching an endless parade of American generals and admirals flying into and out of ostensibly “sovereign” nations in their personal jumbo jets (larger and more lavishly appointed than the Secretary of State’s) while loudly shooting off their mouths about what the leaders of those nations ought or ought not to do — on pain of the American military bombing the living shit out of them or withholding “military aid” — does indeed describe the behavior of a corporate-military establishment that has long assumed the prerogatives of civilian government. Of course, preemptively laying claim to over half of the U.S. government’s annual discretionary budget offers probably the best indicator of who rules whom in America. Follow the Money! Just because our ticket-punching, stuffed-shirt, fuck-up-and-move-up “military leaders” do not openly proclaim their actual political power and authority, doesn’t mean that they don’t assume without question that they, in fact, have every right to exercise it. They have done so for the entire second half of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first with little, if any, competent direction or control by their ostensibly “superior” civilian “management.”

    Mr David French, like Rip Van Winkle, seems to have awoken groggily from a long, seventy-year nap, finding himself in a bewildering fantasy world consisting solely of empty public-relations jargon that he credulously ingests while mistaking appearance for reality. The public-relations appearance of civilian control of the military in America has worn awfully thin, though, One has to try really, really hard not to see through the transparent charade. “None so blind as those who will not see.

    Whether President-elect Donald Trump has any understanding of this dreadful history, I have no way of knowing. From his public pronouncements, what I can make of them, it does not seem so to me. Nevertheless, if he expects his minor coterie of defrocked and discredited U.S. generals to educate him on their own bloody failures, let alone on how to prevent their splendidly-uniformed-and-decorated, active duty brethren from meddling in (and fouling up) American foreign policy, then I pity him and us. He probably does know more than these well-heeled military pensioners do about truly important matters, like making business deals with countries instead of unleashing the deranged American military on them. Still, it shouldn’t take much to know more than little or nothing. But if President-elect Trump really does — as he should — know more than these demonstrated failures do, then why he needs them or anyone like them, I cannot begin to fathom. The fed up American people elected Donald Trump President so that he would fire these sorts of career incompetents, not hire them.

    I do not think that Mr David French understands the difference between “militarism,” as the principle strategy of the Ruling Corporate Oligarchy, and Military Idolatry, the cheap, worshipful propaganda ploy used to implement it. I do, though. military service in Vietnam and reading a few good books taught me all I ever needed to know about these things.


    1. Yes, Mike. Americans don’t realize how powerful the generals are, especially those that head Major Commands. They are much like Roman proconsuls. They command enormous resources and budgetary authority, with perks to match (those private jets you mention, lots of aides, and so forth).

      The U.S. State Department is dwarfed by the Pentagon, so much so that U.S. Foreign Policy is dominated by the military (and the military-industrial complex). Often, the goal of our foreign policy seems to be the sale of weapons — The USA dominates the international trade in arms.

      In 2011, I wrote a short article on this at Huff Post (when Huff Post was more respectable). Here it is:

      And the text:

      Last week, a quotation and a joke captured the zeitgeist of the American moment. The quotation came from Philip J. Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, related to a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony:

      “We think we have the finest military hardware in the world,” Rowley said. “And if India is upgrading its defense capabilities, they should buy American.”

      The joke came from Hillary Clinton as she tried to defend her department’s overseas developmental funds from Congressional cuts. With Secretary of Defense Bob Gates in her corner, she quipped that his Department of Defense (DoD) gets all the money it asks for from Congress, even as her Department of State is forced to fight to preserve what would be “small change” to the DoD.

      Why this quotation, and why this joke, to capture the spirit of our times?

      Is there not something less-than-dignified about our State Department serving as shills for U.S. defense contractors? Yes, if India truly needs modern warplanes, I’d prefer to see them buy F-16s or F-18s and not Russian MiGs, but our defense contractors are already quite proficient at marketing their products, and our Pentagon has plenty of resources devoted to FMS (foreign military sales). Again, is it not unseemly to have our Secretary of State, our chief diplomat, pressuring allies to buy only those weapons with a “Made in America” label on them?

      Now, let’s turn to that U.S. Global Leadership Coalition at which Clinton uttered her little joke. Is it not unconscionable that our diplomats and foreign development experts have to fight for what amounts to table scraps compared to the cornucopia of funding and resources available to the Pentagon and DoD?

      To Gates’s credit, our Secretary of Defense has himself complained about the paucity of funding available to State, a point Clinton hammered home in January 2009 when she noted, “the disparity of resources is such that when you’ve got more than 10 times the resources going to the Defense Department than you have going to the State Department and foreign aid, DOD has in effect been re-creating mini-State Departments.”

      If nothing else, Clinton’s joke last week suggests that nothing has changed in Washington’s ordering of priorities since Obama became president. More money for defense and for war; more penny-pinching for diplomacy and foreign development.

      Surely our country has its priorities out of order. More for war and weapons, less for diplomacy and foreign aid, and shilling for American defense contractors, is a recipe for forever war – and for the irreversible decline of America, morally as well as strategically.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. That’s right. The U.S. military attacked the Syrian Arab Army in favor of ISIS positioning. And the U.S. has been using the tactic of terrorism by facilitating the very “terrorist” factions we are supposedly up against to implement the farcical said objectives of fighting terrorism and protecting civilians. Go figure the actual objectives.

      Barbara Tuchman: “Human fallibility was concealed by those beribboned chests and knife-edge tailoring.” Fine writing and reference.

      Not to be stressed enough: “Of course, preemptively laying claim to over half of the U.S. government’s annual discretionary budget offers probably the best indicator of who rules whom in America.” And cheap propaganda ploys.

      Thanks for your writing.


  3. First, the term civilian does not exclude veterans. If it did, it would be a slap in the face to every veteran, who would then be disqualified from serving their country after their military term. If these appointees are a problem then every military recruit should be told they will not be qualified for civilian leadership positions due to their military experience. So Trump is in fact appointing civilians and it is hysterically imbecilic to call it a de facto coup.

    Secondly, the reason the Pentagon is too powerful now is that we have civilians who have expanded an unconstitutional neocon/neoliberal agenda over the past 24 years at least. (And plenty of evil prior to the ascendancy of the neocons). If Trump’s appointments of civilians with military credentials can return US forces to a truly republican mission, of only engaging overseas when it is in America’s defensive interests, it will be a step in the direction of restoring the military to its proper role. The only way you can tame the Pentagon is to have a few generals who can utterly destroy the evil idea that the military can ever be used for “humanitarian intervention.”

    Calling what Trump is doing a “coup” in any sense is nonsense.


    1. Technically, you’re right. The day you leave the military is the day you become a civilian. But to argue that men like Mattis and Kelly, both with 40+ years of service as Marines, are the same as civilians in their ethos, experiences, education, and commitments is to embrace the absurd. Let’s not forget as well Mattis’s quick move to make money with military contractors ($1.5 million) in his brief retirement, including his association with the disgraced company Theranos (see here

      Also, I’ve known retired generals. Two of the ones I’ve known insisted on being called “general,” and took it as a slight if their rank wasn’t recognized in retirement.

      With respect to a coup: When generals occupy the highest civilian posts in the land (SecDef, Homeland Security, National Security Council), what are we to call that? When the national security state consumes nearly 60% of the federal budget for discretionary spending, what are we to call that? If not a coup, call it total military dominance.

      With respect to how all these generals will lead the Pentagon, DHS, and the NSC, heck, I hope you’re right. I hope these generals bring sanity. I hope they get the U.S. military out of unwinnable wars. Only time will tell if America’s general/civilians will do this.

      But “taming” the Pentagon by appointing generals? Men who have already cashed in with the military-industrial complex? Sorry, I don’t see the logic there.

      Liked by 1 person

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