The Magazine

Fighters, not First Responders

Against a larger domestic role for the U.S. military.

Oct 24, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 06 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE MAGNITUDE OF THE KATRINA disaster and the subsequent failure of local, state, and federal agencies to react in a timely manner have led some to call for an expansion of the military's role in domestic affairs. "The question raised by the Katrina fiasco," writes Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal, "is whether the threat from madmen and nature is now sufficiently huge in its potential horror and unacceptable loss that we should modify existing jurisdictional authority to give the Pentagon functional first-responder status."

The president has apparently agreed that the issue deserves a look. In a national address last month, President Bush asked Congress to consider a larger role for U.S. armed forces in responding to natural disasters. "It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces--the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice."

In a recent press briefing, he returned to the issue: "Is there a natural disaster--of a certain size--that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort? That's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about."

The president is even contemplating using the military to address public health crises, specifically an outbreak of avian flu. In response to a reporter's question, President Bush suggested that an outbreak might trigger the need for a quarantine. "And who is best to be able to effect a quarantine? One option is the use of a military that's able to plan and move." He continued by observing that, as governor of Texas, he didn't like the idea of the president telling him how to command the Texas National Guard. "But Congress needs to take a look at circumstances that may need to vest the capacity of the president to move beyond that debate. And one such catastrophe, or one such challenge, could be an avian flu outbreak."

Some in Congress had already raised the issue. Even before the president's speech, John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, saying that his committee would be looking into "the entire legal framework governing a president's power to use the regular armed forces to restore public order in . . . a large-scale, protracted emergency." He asked the secretary of defense to take the issue under consideration. In response, Rumsfeld informed Warner that the Pentagon was reviewing pertinent laws, including the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, to determine whether revisions that would give the military a greater role during major domestic disasters are needed. In response, Admiral Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. northern command, the joint command responsible for homeland defense, has proposed that the military create an active-duty force specifically trained and equipped to assist the National Guard in response to major national disasters.

On the one hand, the call for increasing the military's role in domestic affairs is understandable. The military can respond to disaster in ways that local, state, and other federal agencies can't. On the other hand, those who demand a greater domestic role for the military must consider the impact of such a step on healthy civil-military relations in the United States. In addition, they must also take account of the fear, traditionally expressed by officers, that involving the military in domestic tasks will undermine the war-fighting capabilities of their units and cause their "fighting spirit" to decline.

A DECADE AGO, an Air Force staff judge advocate officer painted a disturbing picture of future civil-military relations if the military became involved in domestic affairs. Charles Dunlap described his article, "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012," published in the Winter 1992-93 issue of Parameters, the professional journal of the U.S. Army, as a "darkly imagined excursion into the future." The article takes the form of a letter from an officer awaiting execution for opposing the military coup that has taken place in the United States. The letter argues that the coup was the result of trends identifiable as early as 1992, including the massive diversion of military forces to civilian uses.