Thursday, June 22, 2006

When Johnny Comes Marching Home-Still In His Tank

WARNING: Serious, thus quite possibly pretentious, socio-political essay to follow. Feel free to skip it, fellow members of the grasshopper party. I'll try harder not to slip into antdom in the future.

A quick glance at today's news in the papers and TV will save one a lot of time over the next five months. The elections of 2006 are already over. Wake us up on November 8th.

As usual, the Republicans won the elections, thanks to their unique campaign slogan, "Vote for the party that promises to keep right on losing the war in Iraq!"

This counter-intuitive message is not really surprising. Politicians must play the hands they're dealt, and the party of George Bush can't run away from his war even if it wants to. Hubert Humphrey spent too much time shilling for the war in Vietnam to be a believable dove when he ran for president in 1968.

What's noteworthy about this week's Iraq "debate" in Congress is that both neutral observers AND THE OTHER PARTY are implictily conceding the GOP's message is a winner. This doesn't reflect a high opinion of the American electorate. It's the business of both Republicans and Democrats to understand the nebulous thoughts of the body politic. Their current consensus holds a working majority of the citizenry will continue any war indefinitely as long as the sacrifices are born by someone else. That is, so long as the dying is done by one's neighbor's loved ones, and the money spent is given by, oh, poor folks in need of medical treatment, the voters refuse to lose face by giving up on what to date has been something short of a success.

I must confess to sharing this low view of my fellow citizens. In my lifetime, nobody's ever lost an election by betting on the hate, fear, greed, cruelty, and cowardice of the tax-paying, God-fearing white American male. My question is, what happens AFTER the election. Not to the country, we'll continue our imperial decline at more or less the same pace, but to the armed forces we're cheerfully putting through the Mesopotamian meatgrinder. Various military experts have warned our army is near its breaking point. What might that look like by the 2008 New Hampshire primary.

The United States instituted the all-volunteer military in 1973 because it ran into an inescapable historical fact. No nation has ever been able to wage prolonged wars of occupation with a conscript army of its citizens. The Roman Empire was conquered by draftees, and maintained by volunteers. The great colonial empires of 19th century England were won by volunteers. Pre World War I France had two armies, one of conscripts to guard the frontier against Germany, one of volunteers in the colonies. The last nation to try such a war with a conscript army, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, collapsed entirely under the strain.

We have a volunteer army. What happens to a country when that force is unhappy in its work? If civilians endorse staying the course when the military sees only futile slaughter, how is the disagreement resolved?

The professional officer corps has already gone public with its opinion. They speak through John Murtha. So far, their fears for the army they lead have met with a resounding "tough shit." What's their next step? America's officer corps might be the best educated, most aware such group of men and women in military history. They already know resignations would produce the same answer.

That leaves mutiny, and history shows that's exactly what happens when a volunteer army has had alls it can stands and can't stands no more. Charles DeGaulle became president of the French Fifth Republic in 1958 when the professional officer corps revolted over the Fourth Republic's paralysis over the war in Algeria. De Gaulle then double-crossed the forces who brought him to power, but that's another story. When Roman emperors lost battles or came up short on payday, Roman armies deposed them.

It's not far-fetched to see some sort of American military rebellion. We're not immune to history. We couldn't remain half-slave and half-free, and we can't abuse our soldiers for our own bad reasons, either. The rebellion might not be a public event-just a quiet meeting between the president and the Joint Chiefs resulting in an announcement the war in Iraq has been won and we're coming home. Or it could be more dramatic-a beribboned general interrupting "American Idol" to announce a shakeup in Washington's roster.

America is a lucky country. In this case, we're fortunate that the unifying glue of our professional army is idealism. An individual has to have a great deal of profound belief in a nation's value system to join an army whose first principle is submission to elected civilian leadership-a belief that can take more pounding than the average citizen's faith in the USA.

But there's one thing I learned in the '60s, when very nice, hopeful, kids who had plenty of faith in the USA began deciding that faith was misplaced. It's not a happy lesson, either.

When idealists crack, the results are ugly indeed.


At 5:43 PM, Anonymous parispatois said...

the "professional" army is revolting by voting with their feet. retention rates for young officers and nco's are very low, essentially unsustainable.
unlike the situation during the creation of the fifth republique( btw, the attempted assasination happened a few blocks from my pad) the difference is the US military will demand an end to the war against the wishes of the executive branch


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