A Military Perceived As Possibly Losing Grip

You’ve probably noticed numerous military (or special operators) personnel acting out against Democrats and President Obama. Some are active duty, some are retired. All are leveraging their public-funded training and experience for partisan advantage.

Military Headaches Come In Threes?

The three most recent incidents are: (i) a group of low-ranking active duty military committing murder to further a scheme to assassinate the president; (ii) a former SEAL trying to publish a book on the UBL raid without submitting it for clearance; and (iii) that now well-known front group of former SEAL and special operators attacking Obama for the election. (Video h/t @Sam_Lowry_USA).

No one should deny anyone’s First Amendment rights if retired and in compliance with classification rules. Still, these examples risk creating the perception of the military as just another partisan special interest group. And it’s perceptions that are important here.

Senior military leadership have an opportunity to set or re-establish bright, emphatic lines of expected behavior. And communicate what’s permissible, even if unwelcome. In a healthy domestic political environment, much of that would be undertaken by both parties. What is crucial is that communication occurs.

We’re just entering the first phase of resource contraction for the military/intelligence/contractor community after unprecedented largesse. Severe domestic cuts are also likely, regardless of November’s results. The service chiefs need to look ahead.

The Military Benefits From Clarifying Bright Lines

Chairman JCS Dempsey’s statements that he’s “disappointed” by recent events and that they “don’t make my job any easier” are candid but only a tepid first step. Admiral McRaven’s reaction to the SEAL book, while adhering to an unwritten code of understatement, should be only the beginning in clarifying for the public what is or isn’t permissible activity. Especially after a year of ‘leaks’ being used as a partisan wedge issue.

Public trust is a crown jewel for the military but can be fragile. Internal military cultural signals, personnel shifts, etc. to address recent events won’t be enough. This isn’t about trying to clean house at Colorado Springs because of Evangelical excesses. A national stage is involved. Given the permeability of military culture with the civilian social networks, service chiefs can’t assume their cultural signals are axiomatically ascendant.


These three events occur amidst the long-standing civilian-military divide. We’ve devoted decades to following that matter and tried to focus attention in the 1990s. We spoke about it with the old Office of Force Transformation, NDU and elsewhere. Lots of smart people work the problem; solutions still elusive.

We’d be the first to argue that civilian inattention and indifference to obligations, commitments and cultures remains a large contributor to the gap. We see little sign of civilian leadership and culture changing focus soon. Work must be incremental in both directions. Yet the military is subordinate to our civilian society and must remain so.

All the more reason for the military to do its utmost to assure the public it remains apolitical. To be be perceived as such. Above all, we urge that when in doubt, err on the side of communicating where its control over personnel and their actions begins and ends.

What Exactly Does Civilian Control Over The Military Mean In A Demotic Age?

Movement intolerance for any individual or institution that breaks their role as obedient prop can be famously vindictive. Even a prop as sanctified and invested with hollow tropes as the U.S. military.

Witness Paul Ryan’s recent outburst against the services. Ryan bemoans that the military isn’t revolting against budget rollbacks from current record levels. Ryan denounces Pentagon budget proposals, saying:

“We don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice,” Ryan said during a forum on the budget sponsored by the National Journal. “We don’t think the generals believe their budget is really the right budget.” […] He went on to say that while there were certainly inefficiencies that could be reduced in the Pentagon’s budget, fighting wars in the Middle East and a “dangerous world” necessitated keeping defense spending level.

Ryan added that “What I believe is this budget does hollow out defense. I believe this budget goes beyond where we should go to keep people safe.”

In the inside baseball world of D.C. power, it’s easy to dismiss Ryan’s judgment. He doesn’t sit on a defense authorization/appropriations committee and has almost no granular expertise on defense postures, industrial base or commitments. But as Chairman of the Budget Committee, Ryan lurks at the aorta of Movement radicalism in the House and nationally. This distinguishes him from say, John Kasich, who tilted at windmills called the B-2 back in the day. Ryan’s stoking of Rightist rage against the domestic social contract while adding yet still more to the defense budget moves the political needle and thereby redefines the middle for the Goldilocks mindset. In the long run, control of political narrative wins, trumping objectively factual expertise almost every time. That’s the New Normal.

U.S. Military, Budget Crisis, Paul Ryan

Ryan’s political frustration is palpable: after a decade of trebled budgets, car window dohickeys and treacly Super Bowl rituals, the military now is going rogue? Ignoring the script of Obama’s menace to national security?

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dempsey doesn’t like being called a liar. And in a Twitterverse of 140 characters it would end here. Personality clash, with initial smack talk all shut down by Dempsey’s atomic knee drop. Booyah.

Except larger questions about civil-military relations remain. We speak not of Ryan’s clumsy attempt to suborn military insurrection. The U.S. military over the centuries has seen and rejected that gambit before.

Similarly, the military’s institutional memory remembers draw downs in the past – whether post 1945 (WWII), post 1953 (Korea), post 1975 (Nam) or post 1991 (Sovs). This is not their first rodeo. Bartering political trade offs and stunt posturing they leave to Leon Panetta, who is laboring mightily to earn his seat in the Building. The services know that across history, adopting a long term view in the face of budget rollbacks allowed them to emerge ultimately more capable later. It’s one reason the military internally is more realistic about the dangers of American fiscal (and social) implosion than professional politicians. Still, they’ll game the system in the here and now, too. They’re not idiots.

What makes 2012 qualitatively different is the pervasive abstraction of demotic America and her government. Never before has a military of this scale and capacity been subordinate to such an impulsive, consequence-free, meme-drenched polity. After all, ‘serious’ people actively pursued two new wars (Syria and Iran) and came damn close to getting at least one. Obama, just a year ago, unilaterally waged war against Libya on his own initiative, against military advice and without congressional penalty. That’s a precedent with unknown consequence.

Certainly earlier eras endured bitter partisan ideological differences, especially after 1975. Political institutions, however, retained their identity, sense of (constitutional) purpose and political coherence. Whether one agreed with Barry Goldwater on Taiwan or the Boland Amendment, separation of powers and checks and balances meant something. Today? Not so much.

People accept today that political institutions are almost notional and pro forma – mere backdrops for the ever malleable political narrative of The Moment. The U.S. military so far remains apart from the general meme-soaked dissolution. That’s not to say Tweets and burps aren’t present. But as the Marines demonstrated recently, discipline extends to Facebook, too. We think it a good decision. The services’ internal culture and discipline still makes them the most successful enrolling institutions beside the Catholic Church. They’re not immune to fads and internal meme stupors, of course – witness Colorado Springs, RDO, EBO, Warden, NetCentric Warfare, Wehrmacht-esque infatuation with operational success, etc. COIN, anyone?

It’s always a mistake to project linear change into the future. Still, one can’t help but dread the day civilian control over the military simply means ‘Likes’.

A Consumer Society Seeks Expiation Of Guilt (Memorial Day Edition)

Expiation: The act of making satisfaction or atonement for any crime or fault; the extinguishing of guilt by suffering or penalty.

(emphasis added)

We celebrate today’s holiday in solemn recognition of the outsized burden we all collectively impose on our professional military, reservists and families. We also believe today’s ostensibly fulsome ‘honoring’ those who served is a transient, narcissistic gesture to alleviate abstract guilt.

The point of the definition, of course, is that the paeans across the Twitterverse, blogs and TeeVee involve no real suffering or penalty (besides stultification). Sincere and heartfelt efforts still unsatisfying because to honor requires deeper understanding beyond responding to retinal impressions.

(Have no fear, Dear Reader, we’re not going to join in the Franzen fracas that to use Facebook is to never know love. The old French New Wave cinema would have known how to deal with that anyway).

Thanks, Charlie Moskos. You’re Missed.

Why a critique instead of treacly obeisance to Memorial Day iconography? Because we remember Charlie Moskos.

[Read more…]

Signs Of Things To Come

The U.S. Army doesn’t believe it can rely on its troops to maintain good order and discipline with Sarah Palin around. Or her ability to modulate herself. So why have her on base at all? Just another small but notable development given the rapid growth of seditious ‘oath keepers’ and other anti-liberal democratic groups.

The Movement long ago figured out that FDR’s liberalism reigned for 34 years because liberal personnel staffed government, especially the ‘power institutions’. In traditional political science terms the latter are usually internal security, law (DoJ) and the military. Today, FDR’s paradigm is on its head. The Warlord stuffed them with recruits during his most toxic years. Obama’s enemies now unsurprisingly are targeting power institutions first to de-legitimize Obama personally and secondly to activate their self-righteous impulses to act out.

One can debate how much immediate danger these brazenly treasonous activities may pose to the Republic. We do think it’s no longer debatable that Shy Meyer’s post-Vietnam tripwire all volunteer force (“AVF”) can be called a definitive failure. He designed the AVF in the 1970s to prevent the U.S. Army becoming a tool of imperial aggression divorced from domestic political commitment. In his world of mass armies with secondary and tertiary echelons he made sure a 500,000 commitment like Vietnam would be impossible because the AVF would be too small. A president would be forced to call out the national guard Meyer assumed. Something Johnson and Nixon never did. Both refused to burden the voters that way. Plus, Meyer knew ending the draft would save the military from civilian contempt.

Dude, Where Are The Tea Bags?

Today’s quasi-mercenary AVF is untethered from all of Meyer’s anchors. In fact, rather than a safeguard protecting the Nation, Meyer’s AVF poses potential problems far beyond Westmoreland’s era. More than ever today’s military culture inherently is distinct from our civilian world (although what we know today as corporate hierarchies and chains of command were copied from the Union Army during the first industrial surge post Civil War). The AVF culture is self selecting – the evangelical problem at Colorado Springs just one indicia. Meyer couldn’t have foreseen how technology would be a force multiplier allowing a small, isolated, self-selected AVF force to maintain itself deployed while Americans shop and watch TV. Meyer devoted himself to prevent America from living out every day 2001-2009.

And resentment builds. These over-stressed troops see their reality in theater and broken families as merely fodder for stunt media reporting. Add a Nation which openly tolerates actual mercenaries to operate with more pay and less rules like Prince, Dyncorp, etc. Cynicism naturally builds. And then the top brass dip in. The underlying moral corruption becomes pervasive. It’s not a new thing – the Stiftung used to see it every week going back decades. But the trend line spiked sharply up.

Shy Meyer’s gift to the Republic? A dysfunctional civil-military relationship that breeds recruits for the oathiness crowd. Recruits committed to kinetic solutions and already largely strangers to civilian liberal democratic society and pluralism. We don’t know what percentage are *potential* McVeighs. But to shove Cheney-ism back at him, it’s gonna be above 1 %.

Meanwhile, local and state law enforcement likewise have been radicalized the last 8 years. Obama shows no sign of breaking the cycle. ‘Fusion centers’ where your local sheriff or police chief might have the almost pornographic thrill of rubbing elbows with FBI, Homeland Security, even the now considerably less cool CIA, etc. And how empowering for a local or state official to receive information stamped “Sensitive But Unclassified”. Why, they’re almost one of the team! National security is the ultimate get out of boring routine regulation free card. When the Warlord’s crew proposed creating that new tag we at first would sit in meeting and strain not to roll our eyes. But the goal was to radicalize and it worked. We can’t remember how many hours of our life we will never get back listening to pleas from dairy processing plants in Strawberry Point or truck refitting depots in Texarkana that they needed millions in federal aid to stop imminent Al Qaeda attack. Now, recruitment pools for anti-liberal democratic forces under the banner of oaths, the constitution, etc.

Shy Meyer failed. The AVF as a concept failed. America let them both down. The military must be reconnected with the polis. It’s time for Americans to cowboy up. Whether by draft, by changed incentive mechanisms or other means. The military burden must be shared and that experience flow both ways. Our liberal democracy will be revitalized with a broader life experience of the military’s perspective of team work, discipline and learning to tolerate diverse backgrounds re-entering our culture. The military will become a democratic force with fresh infusions of civilian tolerance of non-radicalized ideologies. Ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is getting it backwards. We all win by taking steps to ensure the military looks alot more like America.

The odds of any of this happening are about as good as Obama doing more than Goldilocks on Afghanistan. We know. Same with the Movement walking away from shot after shot of impulsive, nihilistic fantasies. We share some readers’ skepticism that a rebuilt Republican Party (or other means) committed to pluralistic participatory politics can put the leash back on. An interesting conundrum? Which problem is the more urgent for liberal democracy – an expanding radicalized Movement here at home or the bloated Permanent National Security State? We’ll concede it’s a false binary. There’s a third and possibly more likely outcome. Americans may not care.

* We blew the mass spell check. Mea culpa General Meyer.

Bob Gates Re-Considered

Bob Gates in the eyes of contemporaneous history likely will be seen as a major factor righting the ship of state so damaged by the Warlord’s extemporaneous tragedy. His measured and quiet judgment exerts true institutional and policy change, helping to create conditions for a new beginning with American engagement with the world. He vindicates Zbig’s comprehensive assessment, working to heal U.S. institutions and long term national interests so wantonly destroyed by Cheney and Rumsfeld, aided and abetted by a hapless General Jello, his Benchpresser and the inept Rice.

Gates is to the Stiftung somewhat of a surprise. We did not expect in late 2008 to be writing an encomium like this. Yet here we are.

[Read more…]

Mind The Gap*

One thing all our primary fuss omits is how the future president will handle civil-military relations in a post-Iraq, post Global Strike-fantasy world. Fixation on crosses and who is down with the flu or plays the faux-good ol’ boy card best merely highlights how detached the American people are from international affairs or their own military. This also applies to candidates who have exactly one year of federal national service to their name.

Hoffman’s piece above is a good start but only that. The next president will have to address this issue either by choice or forced circumstance. We suspect the latter. Especially if laying down a phat bass line or purposeful inexperience rule the day.
* From the Tube