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The Politicization of Military Commanders

Constance Seré

Since when did American military commanders start inserting themselves into political debates? When did men in uniform -- honored, but never elected -- start giving the American people lectures on politics? Evidently, when the Bush administration told them to, as part of its "surge" against American public opinion.

But officers should be reminded: "Just following orders" is no justification when an order goes against the American historical and Constitutional tradition. And it's also in statute, specifically, the National Security Act of 1947, the preamble of which reads:

"In enacting this legislation, it is the intent of provide for... unified direction under civilian control."

And that means you, Major General Benjamin R. Mixon, commander of American forces in northern Iraq. You are a repeat offender. In one such instance, on July 13, Mixon ends his response to a question regarding the much-debated decrease in troop levels by delivering these instructions to Congress as it seeks to craft an Iraq strategy:

"...[It] needs to be well thought out, and it cannot be a strategy that is based on 'well, we need to leave.' That's not a strategy, that's a withdrawal."

In looking at Mixon's words, which is more obvious: his condescension toward Congress -- or his contempt for Congress?

And yet at the same time, a Member of Congress might well be intimidated by such talk from a general. What Iraq War-skeptical but also risk-averse politician would wish to be put in a position where a general, invoking all the prestige of his position, would accuse the politician of "not thinking through" a strategy. In the game of politics, not many politicians want to confront not only their natural political opponents, but also the weight of the institutional military.

And in fact, the Founders of the Constitution didn't want that, either. That's why they enshrined the principle of political control into our politics, much to the dismay of, to name one celebrated example, Douglas MacArthur, when Harry Truman fired him during the middle of the Korean War.

Indeed, to this day, there is such a phobia about letting people use their American military uniforms to make a political statement that even Iraq War veterans, Corporal Adam Kokesh, Marine Sergeant Liam Madden, and Corporal Cloy Richards, were busted for wearing a stripped down uniform in the course of protests. Although maybe that was different, since Kokesh, Madden and Richards were wearing their uniforms as part of an anti-war demonstration. Wearing a uniform to protest the war is bad, we might conclude from the Bush administration's actions and inactions, but wearing a uniform to promote the war -- now that's good!

In addition to Mixon, let's take another example:

Reporters at the Pentagon asked Army Major General Rick Lynch, commander of the Multi-National Division-Center, Friday (who joined them via teleconference from Iraq) to remark on GOP Senator John Warner's recent comments to President Bush that, "[He] can initiate a first withdrawal. [He] can pick the number. It will send a signal to the Iraqi government that matches [his] words. His words being, 'We're not going to be there forever.'"

Lynch, adding insult to Mixon's injury, replied, "Only when the Iraqi security forces come forward and say, 'OK, here I am, I'm trained and equipped, I'm ready, I'm the Iraqi army or I'm the Iraqi police,' can I turn those sanctuaries over, and that's not going to happen between now and Christmas... [we] would take a giant step backward."

First of all, isn't a decrease in troop levels by definition "a giant step backward?" I would argue that indeed it is, and 'backward' is, in this case, is a positive characterization of necessary action. As in, we'll -- at some point in the near future -- leave (or, in Lynch's vague terminology "take a giant step backwards." Just as when we arrived, we took a giant step "towards" Iraq. I'll accept that interpretation as legit logic; though I think it's clear Lynch was taking a swipe at the growing number of war critics who've been left wanting objective information.

And secondly, it's doubtful whether the Iraqi security forces will ever come forward and say, "I'm trained and equipped, I'm ready, I'm the Iraqi army or I'm the Iraqi police." So, in other words, Lynch is implying an indefinite extended-stay in Iraq.

Unfortunately for the cynics, the Department of Defense under Gates is no different than it was under Rumsfeld, in terms of utilization of a war propaganda machine. This time around, though, the Pentagon is calling it a "War Information Room." Worry not about its purpose, however - Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell assures us that "[He] would not characterize it as a war room." He insists, "It's far less sinister than that. It's more like a library."

Aside from this laughable attempt at public manipulation, there is no evidence that the military is making much of an effort to establish a reputation for legitimate data dissemination. What's strange about this oft-unnoted fact is that nobody should be more eager to keep clear of politics than the military itself. The armed forces enjoy their unique status in our national life because they are uniquely isolated from politics. And that's a good thing, not a bad thing.

Because law has blatantly failed to preclude political interference by civilian military generals, action must be taken to reprimand the offenders. The Bush administration holds ultimate responsibility in reacting harshly to comments made by Major General Lynch, Major General Mixon, and others; and while its certainly in its best interest to do so, I have my doubts -- and in such a case, it's up to the Congress to remind the Pentagon of the rules, perhaps by terminating a career or two.

Why act so definitively? The paramount principle of civilian control of the military is severely compromised if one party can invoke the prestige of our armed forces in a dispute with the other party. Generals aren't meant take sides -- well, I take that back -- generals are meant take our side, the side of the United States.

If that's not a given, then the integrity of the military is at stake; and I think we can all agree that if there's one place politics ain't allowed, it's the military's sphere. A symbol of our nation, glorious and independent of mere partisan bickering and press-jabs, the armed forces simply cannot be made into just another political tool.

Who are we if not governed by a limited Executive Branch, and protected by a civilian and objective military? I, for one, am reluctant to accept anything short of such an arrangement, lest we fall prey to self-interested figures in the guise of civil servants -- a la General MacArthur, who recognized that his opinion, as a powerful military general, could sway the American public's political temperature when it became necessary in strategic planning and decision-making. Constance M Seré maintains and writes for a blog she created in May 2007, called "Con's Stance," on which she critically examines current events for their historical value, as well as for their pertinence to the members of her generation, Generation Y.

© 2007 The Huffington Post

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