Has a grand tradition of "military liberalism" come to a dead end in Iraq?
I. Distrusting the Military
THE COMPLEX AND SOMEWHAT ill-defined relationship between the military establishment and constitutional government is a subject that has made many Americans uncomfortable, especially in the modern era when the United States has assumed a leadership role in world affairs. American Cold War era culture, after all, cautioned us about the intrinsic anti-democratic nature of top-ranking military officers, whether in cinematic portrayals like Seven Days in May or Doctor Strangelove or the very real inflammatory politicking of retired generals like Douglas MacArthur, Curtis LeMay, or Edwin Walker.
In reaction to these Cold War and Vietnam-era fears, scholars such as Samuel P. Huntington (The Soldier and the State) and, more recently, Eliot Cohen (Supreme Command) have written insightfully about the proper relationship between civilian and military authorities in a constitutional democracy like ours. These scholars generally agree that the delicate balance was sometimes upset in our past wars when politicians did not have much knowledge about military affairs. Sometimes, out of insecurity, they blustered and bullied officers, or at other times, in recognition of their own ignorance, civilian leaders ceded too much control to the Pentagon.
Under the Clinton administration it was felt that an increasingly alienated military exercised too much autonomy, whether in lecturing civilian authorities that gays simply would not work as fully accepted members of the armed forces or in voicing strong initial opposition to the prospect of humanitarian intervention in the Balkans. Militaries for their part understand that during "peace-keeping" exercises the rules of engagement change, the cameras intrude, and they are asked to assume civilian roles where their target profile increases, while their ability to fight back without restrictions is checked.
During the current Bush presidency, by contrast, the charge was often just the opposite: a compliant Pentagon had been bullied by its civilian overseers into keeping quiet about doubts over the feasibility of neoconservative nation-building. In fact, in 2006 we witnessed a "revolt of the generals" against civilian leadership of the Pentagon. Top brass came forward out of recent retirement to lambaste secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over the entire civilian conduct of the war in Iraq. They complained that there had been too much micromanagement of the war, too many policy demands placed on a military that was stretched too thin to carry such burdens, and too much Utopian ideology guiding the conduct of the war at the expense of realistic judgments of what in fact was possible.
This insurrection of top retired officers was not quite unprecedented, except in the left's sudden muted silence in response to this rare emergence of likeminded critics of the policy in Iraq. Instead, it was more reminiscent of an earlier "revolt of the admirals" in 1949-50. At that time, in the early years of the Cold War, threatened postwar cutbacks in naval operations led to a similar expression of public outrage by admirals against their civilian overseers. The controversy brought down secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and led to firings and resignations of top military officers.
Why do democratic societies perennially worry about their own military's periodic objections to civilian oversight and larger liberal values? Why, often in response, do military leaders conclude that they are either misunderstood or manipulated by civilian authorities whom they regard as naïve or ignorant about military affairs?
IT IS A FACT WORTH REMEMBERING that the armed forces are inherently hierarchical organizations based on rank and the chain of command. There is no opportunity in military units for decision by majority vote when war begins. Once bullets fly, soldiers can ill afford to debate the wisdom of assaulting the next hill. …