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
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In words eerily similar to those we hear in today's debate, Dunlap's doomed officer opines that in the 1990s Americans became disillusioned with the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation's dilemmas. "We were looking for someone or something that could produce workable answers. The one institution of government in which the people retained faith was the military." Buoyed by the military's obvious competence in the first Gulf War, the public increasingly turned to it for help. Americans called for an acceleration of trends begun in the 1980s: tasking the military with a variety of new, nontraditional missions, and vastly escalating its commitment to formerly ancillary duties.

Though not obvious at the time, the cumulative effect of these new responsibilities was to incorporate the military into the political process to an unprecedented degree. These additional assignments also had the perverse effect of diverting focus and resources from the military's central mission of combat training and war-fighting.

What Dunlap describes in this article is the "salami slice" method of overthrowing democratic government: Instead of a coup d'état that seizes the government all at once, power is taken one slice at a time. The military is asked to do more and more in the domestic arena and finally concludes that it might as well run the government as a whole. This coup is the result of an accretion of power by the military. But in the end, the result is the same: a military good at maintaining itself in power, but unable to defeat a foreign enemy.

Dunlap's essay was the opening shot of a decades-long debate over the state of American civil-military relations. During the 1990s, a number of events led observers to conclude that all was not well with civil-military relations in America. Some of the most highly publicized events reflected cultural tensions between the military as an institution and liberal civilian society, mostly having to do with women in combat and open homosexuals in the military.

But more serious examples of civil-military tensions included the military's resistance (foot-dragging) to involvement in constabulary missions and the charge that General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was illegitimately invading civilian turf by publicly advancing opinions on foreign policy. In addition, there were many instances of downright hostility on the part of the military toward President Bill Clinton, whose anti-military stance as a young man during the Vietnam war did not endear him to soldiers. Many interpreted such hostility as just one more indication that the military had become too partisan (Republican) and politicized.

These events generated an often-acrimonious public debate in which a number of highly respected observers concluded that American civil-military relations were in crisis. In the words of Richard Kohn, a distinguished professor of history at the University of North Carolina and one of the country's foremost experts on the nexus between civilians and the uniformed military in the United States, civil-military relations during this period were "extraordinarily poor, in many respects as low as in any period of American peacetime history."

Some observers claimed that the civil-military tensions of the 1990s were a temporary phenomenon, attributable to the perceived antimilitary character of the Clinton administration. But these tensions did not disappear with the election and reelection of George W. Bush as president. If anything, relations have become more strained as a result of clashes between the uniformed services and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over efforts to "transform" the U.S. military and the planning and conduct of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of the uniformed services' campaign against Rumsfeld has been conducted by leaks to the press.

All of these tensions will be exacerbated if the statutes and regulations are changed to permit increased military participation in domestic affairs. Even if we don't reach the point described by Dunlap, it is almost a given that the military will be politicized to a dangerous extent. Indeed, the main reason Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act in 1878 was concern that the Army at the time was being increasingly politicized.

A PERUSAL OF RECENT ARTICLES reveals the undeniable fact that most commentators do not understand the Posse Comitatus Act at all. The Posse Comitatus Act does not constitute a bar to the use of the military in domestic affairs. It does, however, insist that such use be authorized only by the highest constitutional authority: Congress and the president.