Tuesday, June 2, 2020

One of the Worst Days In American Civil-Military Relations

There is a lot going wrong in the US--pandemic, deep recession, a most corrupt government, racial injustice--but my corner lately has been civil-military relations.  That subfield focuses on how do civilians control their militaries and how do their armed forces react to the exertions of control.  One classic issue is how do the armed forces react when asked to engage in domestic security operations.  Do they obey, do they resist, do they initiate?  In the US, civ-mil scholars usually focus on whether the military fully complies with the orders of civilians, do the civilians take into account the advice of the military, and whether civilians and military understand each other.  Often, folks say there is a crisis in US civ-mil relations for one reason or another.

Yesterday was perhaps not the worst day in American civil-military relations, as the US army didn't kill, capture, or torture citizens (see Lindsay' Cohn's article for some history and the legalities of all of this).  But because of the many different actions yesterday broke so many different norms of American civil-military relations, it was perhaps the worst day for this important relationship since the Great Depression (since the vets marched on Washington). 

Let me briefly listicle the key actors in American civ-mil and where things have gone so very wrong:
  • The person who has the main responsibility for navigating the relationship is the Secretary of Defense as the most senior civilian focused on defense.  SecDef Mark Esper referred to Minneapolis as a "battlespace" which only  makes sense if ... American citizens are the adversary.  It was an awful, awful thing to say because it basically means that the US military, regulars or National Guard, are at war with civilians.  
  • Senators and Representatives on the respective Armed Services committees play a key role in overseeing the armed forces.  One of the key players on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Tom "Harvard maybe overrated" Cotton called on the US regular troops to entry the fray holding back nothing and giving no quarter--which means killing those who surrender.  Everyone pointed out this would be a war crime.  Given that the GOP has a majority in the Senate, don't expect much serious oversight coming from there, as Cotton and his peers are unlikely to let the agenda of that committee drift towards doing its responsibilities.
    AP-Patrick Semansky from Defense One
  • The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is senior adviser to the President and the SecDef but has no command authority except over the Joint Staff--a group of unarmed staffers (I didn't see a weapon in my year in the Pentagon on the Joint Staff except by troops from elsewhere guarding the building).  Yet, Trump said that he was in command.  Making it appear that way, General Mark Milley walked around the protest/police riot* area, wearing his BDU's--the uniform officers wear when engaged in operations, not the usual spiffy uniform worn when advising the President.  So, even if Milley was not in command, he appeared to be so.  
  • The President of the United States, commander-in-chief, abused his authority to deploy US forces--National Guard and maybe Regular--for a photo op.  I have not read anything yet that clarifies who flying Blackhawk helicopters to disperse crowds--has that ever happened before on US soil--but it came clearly at the request of Trump so that he could waddle over to a
    Sam Ward from DCist.com
    vandalized church (despite the preferences of those who run that church) and hold a bible awkwardly.  Does the President have the authority to do this?  According to Lindsay Cohn, mostly, yes.  But abuse of power is when one uses their power in ways that are inappropriate.  There may be more inappropriate ways to use the military, but using them for a photo op while squelching the first amendment rights of peaceful protesters is clearly very wrong.
  • The last components of civilian control of the armed forces are the media and the public.  No, they are not "in control" of the military, but they play a vital role in the civilian-military relationship.  The media helps to shine a spotlight on when either the civilians, the military, or both are engaging ways harmful to good civ-mil relations.  The media has been doing its job this weekend, despite being under attack by police forces across the country.  Why attack the media?  Because it is much harder to hold the police accountable if we cannot see and hear what they are doing.  The public also plays a vital role--sending signals to their representatives what is acceptable or not and engaging in protest if their politicians do not act.  The vast majority of citizens involved have been engaged in protest including civil disobedience.  We shall see if the surveys match what we have seen thus far.  The problem is that Trump polarizes everything.  This weekend, there was a survey that showed the vast majority of Americans on the same side.  We shall see if this continues.
So, on the whole, civil-military relations are broken.  Not irreparably so, but that may still happen.  The big questions ahead are:
  • If Trump insists on sending troops to states where governors don't want them, will they go?  When leaders seek to use the military to repress, the military has a choice not to leave their bases.  Last night, elements left their bases for operations in DC, which has a special status, seen essentially as federal property.  While many lines have been crossed, sending regular US forces into hostile states would be a big red line.
  • What will Congress do?  
  • How will the public react?  The US military, like the armed forces of many democracies, is one of the most popular institutions.  Why?  In part because it is seen as non-partisan, whereas most other institutions are seen as partisan which combined with polarization leads to one part or another or both of America disliking it.  If the US military jumps in, doing Trump's bidding beyond, public support of the armed forces will surely drop.  It may already be happening thanks to this weekend's events.
 We have lived in dark times for quite a while, but as Trump keeps reminding us, it can always get worse.  Yesterday was the worst day in American civil-military relations in recent memory.... but it can get worse.  

* I am taking to calling these police riots since most of the violence is being instigated by the police in most places this weekend.

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