Our Greatest National Security Threat? Perpetual War
Why military dissent is not an oxymoron
The United States is now engaged in perpetual war with victory nowhere in sight. Iraq is chaotic and scarred. So, too, is Libya. Syria barely exists. After 15 years, “progress” in Afghanistan has proven eminently reversible as efforts to rollback recent Taliban gains continue to falter. The Islamic State may be fracturing, but its various franchises are finding new and horrifying ways to replicate themselves and lash out. Having spent trillions of dollars on war with such sorry results, it’s a wonder that key figures in the U.S. military or officials in any other part of America’s colossal national security state and the military-industrial complex (“the Complex” for short) haven’t spoken out forcefully and critically about the disasters on their watch.
Yet they have remained remarkably mum when it comes to the obvious. Such a blanket silence can’t simply be attributed to the war-loving nature of the U.S. military. Sure, its warriors and warfighters always define themselves as battle-ready, but the troops themselves don’t pick the fights. Nor is it simply attributable to the Complex’s love of power and profit, though its members are hardly eager to push back against government decisions that feed the bottom line. To understand the silence of the military in particular in the face of a visible crisis of war-making, you shouldn’t assume that, from private to general, its members don’t have complicated, often highly critical feelings about what’s going on. The real question is: Why they don’t ever express them publicly?
"Perpetual war is a far greater threat to democracy in our country than ISIS, Russia, or any other external threat you want to mention."
To understand that silence means grasping all the intertwined personal, emotional, and institutional reasons why few in the military or the rest of the national security state ever speak out critically on policies that may disturb them and with which they may privately disagree. I should know, because like so many others I learned to silence my doubts during my career in the military.
My Very Own “Star Wars” Moment
As a young Air Force lieutenant at the tail end of the Cold War, I found myself working on something I loathed: the militarization of space. The Air Force had scheduled a test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile to be launched at high altitude from an F-15 fighter jet. The missile was designed to streak into low earth orbit to strike at the satellites of enemy powers. The Soviets were rumored to have their own ASAT capability and this was our answer. If the Soviets had a capability, Americans had to have the same -- or better. We called it “deterrence.”
Ever since I was a kid, weaned on old episodes of “Star Trek,” I’d seen space as “the final frontier,” a better place than conflict-ridden Earth, a place where anything was possible -- maybe even peace. As far as I was concerned, the last thing we needed was to militarize that frontier. Yet there I was in 1986 working in the Space Surveillance Center in Cheyenne Mountain in support of a test that, if it worked, would have helped turn space into yet another war zone.
It won’t surprise you to learn that, despite my feelings, which couldn’t have been stronger, I didn’t speak up against the test. Not a peep. I kept my critical thoughts and doubts to myself. I told myself that I was doing my duty, that it wasn’t my place to question decisions made at high levels in the administration of then-President Ronald Reagan. You can’t have a disciplined and orderly military if troops challenge every decision, can you? Orders are to be obeyed, right? Ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die -- especially since we were then at war with the Soviets, even if that war fell under the label of “cold.”
So I buried my misgivings about facilitating a future shooting war in orbit. I remember, in fact, hoping that the ASAT test would go well and that I’d be seen as effective at my job. And in this I think I was probably pretty typical of military people, then and now.
The F-15 ASAT program was eventually cancelled, but not before it taught me a lesson that’s obvious only in retrospect: mission priorities and military imperatives in such a hierarchical situation are powerful factors in suppressing morality and critical thinking. It’s so much easier, so much more “natural,” to do one’s job and conform rather than speak out and buck a system that’s not made for the public expression of dissenting views. After all, a military with an ethos of "we're all volunteers, so suck it up -- or get out" is well suited to inhibiting dissent, as its creators intended.
To those who’ve been exposed to hierarchical, authority-heavy institutions, that lesson will undoubtedly come as no surprise. Heck, I grew up Catholic and joined the military, so I know something about the pressures to conform within such institutions. In the Church, you learn -- or at least you did in my day -- that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God, and the “old guard” priests and nuns I encountered were more than ready to encourage that fear. In the military, you learn from day one of basic training that it’s best to put up and shut up. No grumbling in the ranks. No quibbling. Yes, sir; no, sir; no excuse, sir. Cooperate and graduate. That conformist mentality is difficult to challenge or change, no matter your subsequent rank or position.
There’s a sensible reason for all this. You can’t herd cats, nor can you make a cohesive military unit out of them. In life and death situations, obedience and discipline are vital to rapid action.
As true as that may be, however, America doesn’t need more obedience: it needs more dissent. Not only among its citizens but within its military -- maybe there especially.
Unfortunately, in the post-9/11 era, we’ve exalted and essentially worshipped the military as “our greatest national treasure” (the words of former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta at the recent Democratic convention). The military has, in fact, become so crucial to Washington that aspiring civilian commanders-in-chief like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump lean on retired generals to anoint them as qualified for the job. (For Trump, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn did the honors; for Hillary, General John Allen.)
The Pentagon has, in a very real sense, become America’s national cathedral. If we’re going to continue to worship at it, we should at least ask for some minimal level of honesty from its priests. In militarized America, the question of the moment is how to encourage such honesty.
Call it patriotic dissent. By “dissent” I mean honest talk from those who should know best about the hazards and horrors of perpetual war, about how poorly those conflicts have gone and are going. We desperately need to encourage informed critics and skeptics within the military and the Complex to speak their minds in a way that moves the national needle away from incessant bombing and perpetual war.
Yet to do so, we must first understand the obstacles involved. It’s obvious, for example, that a government which has launched a war against whistleblowers, wielding the World War I-era Espionage Act against them and locking away Chelsea Manning for a veritable lifetime in a maximum security prison, isn’t likely to suddenly encourage more critical thinking and public expression inside the national security state. But much else stands in the way of the rest of us hearing a little critical speech from the “fourth branch” of government.
Seven Reasons Why It’s So Hard to Break Ranks
As a start, it’s hard for outsiders to imagine just how difficult it is to break ranks when you’re in the military. So many pressures combine to squelch dissent -- everything from feelings of loyalty and patriotism to careerist concerns and worries about punishment. I wasn’t immune from such pressures, which is why my story is fairly typical. As I’ve said, I had my criticisms of the military, but I didn’t begin to air them until 2007, two years after I’d retired.
Why the delay? I can offer explanations but no excuses. Unless you’ve been in the military, you have little idea how all-enveloping and all-consuming such a life can be. In a strange way, it may be the closest thing to true socialism in America: base housing provided and tied to your rank, government doctors and "socialized" medicine for all, education for your children in base schools, and worship at the base chapel; in other words, a remarkably insular life, intensified when troops are assigned to “Little Americas” abroad (bases like Ramstein in Germany). For Star Trek: The Next Generation fans, think of Ramstein and similar bases around the world as the Borg cubes of American life -- places where you’re automatically assimilated into the collective. In such a hive life, resistance is all but futile.
This effect is only intensified by the tribalism of war. Unit cohesion, encouraged at all times, reaches a fever pitch under fire as the mission (and keeping your buddies and yourself alive) becomes all-consuming. Staring at the business end of an AK-47 is hardly conducive to reflective, critical thinking, nor should it be.
Leaving military insularity, unit loyalty, and the pressure of combat aside, however, here are seven other factors I’ve witnessed, which combine to inhibit dissent within military circles.
1. Careerism and ambition: The U.S. military no longer has potentially recalcitrant draftees -- it has “volunteers.” Yesteryear’s draftees were sometimes skeptics; many just wanted to endure their years in the military and get out. Today’s volunteers are usually believers; most want to excel. Getting a reputation for critical comments or other forms of outspokenness generally means not being rewarded with fast promotions and plum assignments. Career-oriented troops quickly learn that it’s better to fail upwards quietly than to impale yourself on your sword while expressing honest opinions. If you don’t believe me, ask all those overly decorated generals of our failed wars you see on TV.
2. Future careerism and ambition: What to do when you leave the military? Civilian job options are often quite limited. Many troops realize that they will be able to double or triple their pay, however, if they go to work for a defense contractor, serving as a military consultant or adviser overseas. Why endanger lucrative prospects (or even your security clearance, which could be worth tens of thousands of dollars to you and firms looking to hire you) by earning a reputation for being “difficult”?
3. Lack of diversity: The U.S. military is not blue and red and purple America writ small; it’s a selective sampling of the country that has already winnowed out most of the doubters and rebels. This is, of course, by design. After Vietnam, the high command was determinednever to have such a wave of dissent within the ranks again and in this (unlike so much else) they succeeded. Think about it: between “warriors” and citizen-soldiers, who is more likely to be tractable and remain silent?
4. A belief that you can effect change by working quietly from within the system: Call it the Harold K. Johnson effect. Johnson was an Army general during the Vietnam War who considered resigning in protest over what he saw as a lost cause. He decided against it, wagering that he could better effect change while still wearing four stars, a decision he later came deeply to regret. The truth is that the system has time-tested ways of neutralizing internal dissent, burying it, or channeling it and so rendering it harmless.
5. The constant valorization of the military: Ever since 9/11, the gushing pro-military rhetoric of presidents and other politicians has undoubtedly served to quiet honest doubts within the military. If the president and Congress think you’re the best military ever, a force for human liberation, America’s greatest national treasure, who are you to disagree, Private Schmuckatelli?
America used to think differently. Our founders considered a standing army to be a pernicious threat to democracy. Until World War II, they generally preferred isolationism to imperialism, though of course many were eager to take land from Native Americans and Mexicans while double-crossing Cubans, Filipinos, and other peoples when it came to their independence. If you doubt that, just read War is a Racket by Smedley Butler, a Marine general in the early decades of the last century and two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor. In the present context, think of it this way: democracies should see a standing military as a necessary evil, and military spending as a regressive tax on civilization -- as President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously did when he compared such spending to humanity being crucified on a cross of iron.
Chanting constant hosannas to the troops and telling them they’re the greatest ever -- remember the outcry against Muhammad Ali when, with significantly more cause, he boasted that he was the greatest? -- may make our military feel good, but it won’t help them see their flaws, nor us as a nation see ours.
6. Loss of the respect of peers: Dissent is lonely. It’s been more than a decade since my retirement and I still hesitate to write articles like this. (It’s never fun getting hate mail from people who think you’re un-American for daring to criticize any aspect of the military.) Small wonder that critics choose to keep their own counsel while they’re in the service.
7. Even when you leave the military, you never truly leave: I haven’t been on a military base in years. I haven’t donned a uniform since my retirement ceremony in 2005. Yet occasionally someone will call me “colonel.” It’s always a reminder that I’m still “in.” I may have left the military behind, but it never left me behind. I can still snap to attention, render a proper salute, recite my officer’s oath from memory.
In short, I’m not a former but a retired officer. My uniform may be gathering dust in the basement, but I haven’t forgotten how it made me feel when I wore it. I don’t think any of us who have served ever do. That strong sense of belonging, that emotional bond, makes you think twice before speaking out. Or at least that’s been my experience. Even as I call for more honesty within our military, more bracing dissent, I have to admit that I still feel a residual sense of hesitation. Make of that what you will.
Bonus Reason: Troops are sometimes reluctant to speak out because they doubt Americans will listen, or if they do, empathize and understand. It’s one thing to vent your frustrations in private among friends on your military base or at the local VFW hall among other veterans. It’s quite another to talk to outsiders. War’s sacrifices and horrors are especially difficult to convey and often traumatic to relive. Nevertheless, as a country, we need to find ways to encourage veterans to speak out and we also need to teach ourselves how to listen -- truly listen -- no matter the harshness of what they describe or how disturbed what they actually have to say may make us feel.
Encouraging Our Troops to Speak More Freely
Perpetual war is a far greater threat to democracy in our country than ISIS, Russia, or any other external threat you want to mention. To again quote former President Eisenhower, who as supreme commander of Allied forces in World War II had learned something of the true nature of war, “Only Americans can hurt America.”
The military and the entire apparatus of the burgeoning national security state should exist for a single purpose: to defend the country -- that is, to safeguard the Constitution and our rights, liberties, and freedoms. When it does that, it’s doing its job, and deserves praise (but never worship). When it doesn’t, it should be criticized, reformed, even rebuilt from the ground up (and in more modest, less imperial fashion).
But this process is unlikely to begin as long as our leaders continue to wage war without end and we the people continue to shout “Amen!” whenever the Pentagon asks for more weapons and money for war. To heal our increasingly fractured democracy, we need to empower liberty and nurture integrity within the institution that Americans say they trust the most: the U.S. military. Dissenting voices must be encouraged and dissenting thoughts empowered in the service of rejecting the very idea of war without end.
Some will doubtless claim that encouraging patriotic dissent within the military can only weaken its combat effectiveness, endangering our national security. But when, I wonder, did it become wise for a democracy to emulate Sparta? And when is it ever possible to be perfectly secure?