Lost in the general haze of stupid/evil that hangs over Sarah Palin was a grace note in her recent speech supporting indictment-in-waiting Joe Miller, her cherished anti-Murkowski senatorial candidate.
In a sparsely attended rally for the fading Teabagger senatorial candidate, Palin recalled Miller’s military background, and asked “are we even fit to tie his combat boots?”
Are we fit?
Well yes – and what makes this so dangerous is not just that Palin is once again being Palin, but that after a decade of warrior worship, this kind of nonsense is staining more and more of our national fabric.
The end point of such hagiography is pretty well mapped out. If people persuade themselves that the military offers a unique reservoir of virtue — and especially if the uniformed officer corps come to believe it…then the next move is obvious.
…which brings me to an article published last month that I don’t think got enough attention.
Writing in the National Defense University’s Joint Force Quarterly, United States Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Andrew Milburn found within himself the courage to say exactly what he thinks:
“There are circumstances under which a military officer is not only justified but also obligated to disobey a legal order. [italics added]
And there you have it: a claim that the US military should take the hard duty of deciding national policy when – in the view of the officer corps – the civil powers are incapable of doing so properly.
Most important, note that Milburn is not asserting that military personnel must refuse illegal orders. This is already an obligation, and there are at formal safeguards to protect those who meet it. (Though not those who frivolously invoke this duty – see the fate of the birthers who sought to deny President Obama’s authority as Commander in Chief.)
No, here Milburn argues that officers, especially senior ones, have a moral responsibility to refuse perfectly legal orders from their civilian superiors. His criteria are simple: the uniformed services should reject orders that are – in the sole judgment of the officers concerned — “likely to harm the institution writ large—the Nation, military, and subordinates…”
As expansive a claim of uniformed autonomy as that may be, Milburn does not stop there. He goes on to claim that military autonomy should extend not just to weighing decisions taken in the midst of war, but also over
“judgments that fall within the realm of jus ad bellum, [criteria for initiating a war] especially if Congress appears to have neglected its responsibilities in this regard.”
That is: Milburn sees the military, or at least its senior officer corps as something approaching a fourth branch of government. He even uses the core vocabulary of Constitutional interpretation to emphasize the point:
“The military professional plays a key role as a check and balance at the indistinct juncture between policy and military strategy. He should not try to exclude himself from this role, even on issues that appear to involve policy.”
But mightn’t such an expansive view of military authority lead to overreach? Not to worry, says Milburn, exercising Hollywood’s conventional euphemism* for the phrase f**k you:
“Human nature, as well as professionalism, provides a bulwark against such an eventuality. It is fair to assume that generals like being generals, and thus would select judiciously those causes for which they were prepared to sacrifice their careers.”
For all that this may seem reasonable — shouldn’t officers resign when they face demands they cannot accept? – it’s almost impossible to overstate how radical a break this is with American traditions of civil-military relations, a shift made all the more parlous because it is an view not limited to this one officer. [Warning – Freeper link].
Thankfully, there has been some significant push back from within the officer corps that captures the essential wrongness of Milburn’s argument. Here, I’ll turn the floor over to USA Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, writing in the invaluable Small Wars Journal blog.
Yingling takes Milburn apart step by step. The best thing to do is read his whole post, but for just a taste, here’s how he eviscerates the Milburn’s core view of the bounden duty of an officer. Consider the oath each officer in the US military takes, Yingling writes, a commitment that reads, in part:
I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.
As Yingling notes, there is nothing here the resembles Milburn’s view of the officer’s obligation to defy civilian authority:
“the military officer’s oath prescribed by the US Code says nothing about the health of the military institution or the welfare of subordinates. However important these goals may be, no act of law makes them co-equal with the preservation of the Constitution.
Yingling similarly demolishes the rest of Milburn’s case, leaving the obvious unspoken. Even if Milburn doesn’t get this, the rest of us can reasonably grasp that the top brass are, of course, no more a unique repository of rigor or virtue than any other self-selecting powerful in-group. That doesn’t mean that general officer corps is devoid of virtue, of course — just that they are no more immune to realities of human experience than the rest of us
At the same time, Yingling recognized the debt of gratitude that I agree we owe Milburn. He is as wrongheaded as it is possible to be, but he appears to be an almost comically naïve honest man. And so, Yingling writes:
However regrettable Milburn’s arguments may be, we ought to thank him for making these views public. Many others who apparently share his views lack his candor. Anonymous military officers’ bitter condemnations of civil authorities have become standard fare in many media outlets. These are the officers we should truly fear – those who skulk sullenly in corners with like-minded victims of alleged civilian malfeasance, drawing their wages while condemning the society that pays them.
Which brings me back to Palin, and other such mindless hagiographers of the uniform and the gun.
I don’t actually think that the US is in any proximate danger of a military coup. But as Yingling recognizes, Milburn’s article – published, remember, by a journal from one of the military’s own graduate schools — is just one of many examples of the pressure that military and its fans put on any civilian leadership. This is yet another warning shot aimed at driving upstarts like President Obama and his administration out of the rooms where real men make decisions.
And if I’m even close to right in my reading of this, then let me end on a bit of pre-Godwinization
In January, 1919, long before Hitler found his way to his first Nazi Party meeting – while he was still in bed, recovering from a gas attack he endured near the end of World War – the new Social Democratic government struck a devil’s bargain with the German General Staff. Defend the nascent republic, the new defense minister, Gustav Noske, said, and the civilian socialists would leave military matters to the autonomous authority of the high command.
The deal paid off, at least in the short term, as the generals suppressed the communist uprising known as Sparticist week, using both regular army units and the first of the right-wing militias called Freikorps.
In the long run? It did not, as we all know, turn out that well.**
*Old joke: how does a Hollywood producer suggest you should be intercoursed?
A: “Trust me”
**See Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture for an excellet brief overview of the lows, highs, and deeper lows that flowed through that post “Great” War Germany.
Images: Constantino Brumidi, “The Apotheosis of Washington” (detail), fresco in the US Capitol rotunda, 1865.
Beham, (Hans) Sebald, “Three Soldiers and a Dog,” c. 1540.
Captured British tank, used by troops to suppress the Spartacist uprising, Berlin, 1919.