As President Obama illustrated in his speech this week on Afghanistan at West Point, he has chosen to wrap himself in the flag as commander in chief. Apparently, he has judged that since he lacks military credentials, he cannot afford not to do so. While many have compared him to President Kennedy, the contrast could not be sharper. Chastened by the failure of military advice, Kennedy refused the sort of advice on which Obama now acts. Mr. Obama’s choice will shape America in the decades ahead—and the militarization of America will proceed apace.
This trend toward the military’s increased influence on civilian government would have shocked those present at the founding of our country.
This growing military influence on the civilian economy and government has been accelerating since the Vietnam War. Today, when the Pentagon asks for money to fund its war effort, Congress rushes to meet or even exceed its demands. Well over half all the disposable funds of the federal government are passed to the Defense Department. And the military has taken over the functions or moved into what have been civilian departments. With their impressive displays of ribbons and stars, and an active public-relations program, generals have become accepted as experts in diplomacy.
This shift to the military is evident not only in government but also in the media. During the two Iraq campaigns, every television station featured a retired general or two to shape public perception on what was happening and why. And today, as terrorism has become the No. 1 public concern, retired middle-grade and enlisted soldiers man the burgeoning new “security” companies like Blackwater.
This trend toward the military’s increased influence on civilian government would have shocked those present at the founding of our country. In the years before the American Revolution, few colonists on the Atlantic seaboard joined militias or even knew how to use arms. Since a used musket cost the equivalent of enough wood or coal to heat a house for the winter, most thought it was better to be warm. So when George Washington arrived in Cambridge in June 1775 to take command of his army, he found that only about one volunteer in four had a gun. Worse, as he soon found, nowhere in the colonies was gunpowder produced—it had always been imported from England—and no one knew how to supply shoes or blankets for would-be soldiers.
Washington, who had sought a commission in the British army, was horrified. As he wrote, “When I took command of the army, I abhorred the idea of independence.” On that policy he had no choice so he set out to do the only thing he could imagine doing: to create an American clone of the British army. That force became the Continental Line.
Like European generals, Washington despised the frontier militias, calling them “an exceeding dirty and nasty people;” they engaged in la petite guerre (the French term for the Spanish guerrilla) which “regulars” regarded as “a manifestation of criminality.” Washington never understood them, but it was the raiders, the local vigilantes (known as “Committees of Safety”) and the militiamen who not only did most of the fighting, wearing down the British troops, but also hanged, chased away, or coerced the pro-British Loyalists. Thus, they deprived the British army of sanctuary, supplies, and intelligence. Despite the myth we have inherited of Washington’s Continental Line, as I show in my book, Violent Politics, it was the insurgents who made the British give up.
The insurgent heritage was embodied in the Constitution as the right to bear arms. Popular fear of the power of a regular army was then widespread, but after the electoral defeat of the Federalists, it faded. The armies of both the United States and later of the Confederacy were composed mainly of temporarily converted civilians. After the Civil War, the professional army existed mainly in the West where it fought the native Americans. In the Philippine campaign and in both World Wars I and II, as well as in Vietnam, American armies were drawn from civilians.
A major change in armies, the economy, and the civil-military balance of the government can be dated from about 1950. What happened is complex but deserves to be understood because it underlies America as we know it today. Cost-plus procurement during World War II had trained a generation of business leaders who found readjustment to competitive civilian markets unrewarding. They increasingly sought profit by importing cheap components for goods they marketed under their brand names while they plunged into what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” For every “civilian” industry, the difference between profit and loss was often determined by military contracts. Since the market was the federal government, producers soon learned politics. In addition to lobbying (often with newly retired senior officers) and contributing to election funds, they farmed out production of components to smaller companies in virtually every congressional district. Thus downsizing or canceling a program threatened jobs nearly everywhere. By the end of the 1960s, the American economy had undergone a glacial shift with the industrial side of the military-industrial complex riding high.
But at the same time, the Vietnam War showed that the military side of the military-industrial complex was politically vulnerable. Too many sons of middle-class America had to be drafted and many got killed in Vietnam. The military drew a classic answer already learned in the Roman empire: a professional officer corps commanding soldiers from aliens and members of deprived minorities. Since they are effectively outside of politics, casualties among their ranks do not trigger anti-war demonstrations. The army was freed from this ultimate scrutiny. And a nation was forever changed.
William R. Polk served in the Kennedy administration as the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for the Middle East and Western Asia. Later he was professor of history at the University of Chicago and president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. His latest books are Violent Politics and Understanding Iran. His Web site is www.williampolk.com.