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 TomDispatch.com, 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.