When the Man on the Horse Won’t Get Off His Ass
Like many others, I’ve taken comfort over the years from the reluctance of American military men to intervene in politics—two hundred and thirty years without a coup. George Washington’s decision not to seize power by force is perhaps an even more defining moment in our history than the Declaration of Independence, which, after all, would read as pretty feckless exercise in enthusiasm had the revolution resulted in a dictatorship. The willing subordination of military to civilian authority is not without its ambiguities, however. It certainly doesn’t mean that the generals and the admirals, inhabitants of an authoritarian world of obedience and deference, respect democratic politics. Indeed, many of them find the give and take of free institutions distasteful and avoid partisan involvement as much out of fastidiousness as principle. Which has a good side and a bad side. The prospect of some future Colin Powell riding a tank onto the Whitehouse lawn is remote, but it’s easy to imagine the Joint Chiefs of Staff looking the other way in the event of a violent seizure of power. “We don’t want to be involved.” The precedents are not favorable. It wasn’t the Italian army that marched on Rome back in 1922, but the fascist seizure of power was made possible by passivity of the generals. The aristocratic German General Staff certainly looked down on the hysterical corporal; but they were too proud to get political and, anyhow, the new party promised to respect their prerogatives and increase their budget allotments. Historically, right-wing craziness is ineffectual without the willingness of military men to sit on their hands. Of course Bush hardly measures up to Mussolini or Hitler and he lacks (for now) the requisite army of street thugs; but the acquiescence of high-ranking officers to torture and illegal wiretapping shows how little effective resistance to extra-constitutional behavior we can expect from a supposedly apolitical military. That’s especially serious because the American military has enormous prestige right now, not only because of its technical competence but because it is perceived, probably inaccurately, as less corrupt than such despised institutions as Congress and the Press. If Bush turns out to have been the John the Baptist to some really malevolent messiah, can we expect the Generals to defend the republic?