Militarism and the Breakdown of Constitutional Government
Last week, filled with grief and sorrow for those killed and injured and with anger at those who had done this, I confronted the solemn responsibility of voting to authorize the country to go to war. Some believe this resolution was only symbolic, designed to show national resolve. But I could not ignore that it provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war. It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events—anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration. I could not support such a grant of war-making authority to the president; I believe it would put more innocent lives at risk.
—Congresswoman Barbara Lee ([Democrat from California], the
only member of Congress to vote against the transfer of the war
power to the president for the invasion of Afghanistan),
San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 2001
One of the oddest features of political life in the United States in the years since the terrorist attacks is how few people have thought or acted like Barbara Lee. The public expresses itself in opinion polls, which some students of politics scrutinize intently, but there is little passion in the society, certainly none proportionate to the threats facing our democratic republic. The United States today is like a cruise ship on the Niagara River upstream of the most spectacular falls in North America. A few people on board have begun to pick up a slight hiss in the background, to observe a faint haze of mist in the air or on their glasses, to note that the river current seems to be running slightly faster. But no one yet seems to have realized that it is almost too late to head for shore.
Like the Chinese, Ottoman, Hapsburg, imperial German, Nazi, imperial Japanese, British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Soviet empires in the last century, we are approaching the edge of a huge waterfall and are about to plunge over it.
If the American democratic system is no longer working as planned, if the constitutional checks and balances as well as other structures put in place by the founders to prevent tyranny are increasingly less operational, we have not completely lacked for witnesses of every stripe, domestic and foreign. General Tommy Franks, commander of the American assault on Baghdad, for instance, went so far as to predict that another serious terrorist attack on the United States would “begin to unravel the fabric of our Constitution,” and under such circumstances, he was open to the idea that “the Constitution could be scrapped in favor of a military form of government.”1 The historian Kevin Baker feared that we are no longer far from the day when, like the Roman Senate in 27 bc, our Congress will take its last meaningful vote and turn over power to a military dictator. “In the end, we’ll beg for the coup,” he wrote.2
On October 10, 2002, Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat from West Virginia) asked plaintively about the separation of powers, “Why are we being hounded into action on a resolution that turns over to President Bush the Congress’s Constitutional power to declare war? . . . The judgment of history will not be kind to us if we take this step.”3 Nonetheless, the following day, the resolution carried by a 77–23 vote in the Senate and 296–133 in the House of Representatives. The Berkshire Eagle editorialized, “The Senate, which was designed by the framers of the Constitution to act as a brake on the popular passions of the day, was little more than a speed bump under the White House steamroller.”4 The libertarian writer Bill Winter conjectured that the problem was “the monarchization of America under Bush.”5 Adam Young, a Canadian political commentator, wondered, “How did the chief magistrate of a confederated republic degrade into the global tyrant we experience today, part secular pope, part military despot, part pseudo-philosopher-king and full-time overbearing global gangster?”6 Indeed, that is the question for all of us.
Former British foreign secretary Robin Cook noted that “[a]ll the checks and balances that the founding fathers constructed to restrain presidential power are broken instruments.” Cook observed the hubris and megalomania that flowed from this in John Bolton, then the number three official at the State Department (subsequently ambassador to the United Nations). When asked about possible incentives that might cause Iran to end its nuclear ambitions, Bolton replied, “I don’t do carrots.” Cook accurately predicted that members of the Bush administration “will . . . celebrate their  election victory by putting [the Iraqi city of] Fallujah to the torch,” as they did that very November.7
Marine general Anthony Zinni, General Franks’s predecessor as Centcom commander in the Middle East, worried about the way the Pentagon was further expanding its powers at the expense of other agencies of government. “Why the hell,” he asked, “would the Department of Defense be the organization in our government that deals with the reconstruction of Iraq? Doesn’t make sense.”8 One anonymous foreign service officer supplied an answer to Los Angeles Times reporter Sonni Efron, “I just wake up in the morning and tell myself, ‘There’s been a military coup,’ and then it all makes sense.”9 Even the president himself was a witness of sorts to the changes under way, baldly asserting at a White House press conference on April 13, 2004, that he was “the ultimate decision-maker for this country”—a notion that would have appalled the authors of the Constitution.10
I believe that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have led the country into a perilous cul-de-sac, but they did not do it alone and removing them from office will not necessarily solve the problem. The crisis of government in the United States has been building at least since World War II. The emergence of the imperial presidency and the atrophying of the legislative and judicial branches have deep roots in the postwar military-industrial complex, in the way broad sectors of the public have accepted the military as our most effective public institution, and in aberrations in our electoral system. The interesting issue is not the damage done by Bush, Cheney, and their followers but how they were able to get away with it, given the barriers that exist in the Constitution to prevent just the sorts of misuses of power for which they have become notorious.
Historian Carol Berkin in her book A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the Constitution argues that the nation’s “Founders—including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania and dozens of others—envisioned a supreme legislative branch as the heart and soul of America’s central government. . . . America’s modern presidency, with all its trappings, would be unimaginable to men like Madison, Washington, and Franklin. Of all those historic figures at the 1787 [Constitutional] Convention, perhaps only Alexander Hamilton would relish today’s playing of ‘Hail to the Chief.’ ”11
The intent of the founders was to prevent a recurrence of the tyranny they had endured under Britain’s King George III. They bent all their ingenuity and practical experience to preventing tyrannies of one, of the few, of a majority, of the monied classes, or of any other group that might obtain and exercise unchecked power, often adopting institutional precedents from the Roman Republic. Inspired by the French political philosopher Montesquieu’s discussion of the “separation of powers” in his On the Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, the drafters of the American Constitution produced a sophisticated scheme to balance power in a republic. The most basic structure they chose was federalism, setting up the states as alternatives to and limitations on the power of the national government. Congress was given that quintessential parliamentary power—control of the budget—without which it would be merely an ornamental body like the “people’s congresses” in communist-dominated countries. Congress was also charged with initiating all legislation, making the final decision to go to war, and if necessary getting rid of an unsatisfactory president by impeachment, something also achievable through periodic elections. To moderate the power of Congress somewhat, the Constitution divided it into two quite differently elected and apportioned houses, each capable of vetoing the other’s decisions.
Both houses of Congress must ultimately pass all laws, and the president, who is entrusted with implementing them, is given a veto as well. The Congress, in turn, can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds vote, and even when Congress and the president agree on a law, the Supreme Court, exercising the function of interpreting the laws, can still declare it unconstitutional. The president and members of Congress must be re-elected or leave office, but judges serve for life, although Congress can impeach them. The president nominates the heads of the cabinet departments, who serve at his pleasure, as well as all judges, but the Senate must approve them.
Over time, this balance-of-power spirit came to influence other institutions of government that the Constitution did not mention, including the armed forces, where competition among the services—the army, navy, air force, and Marine Corps—dilutes somewhat the enormous coercive power entrusted to them.12 To prevent a tyranny of the majority, the Constitution authorizes fixed terms and fixed times for elections (borrowed from the Roman Republic) as a way to interfere with the monopolization of power by an individual, an oligarchy, or a political party.
Unfortunately, after more than two centuries (about the same length of time that the Roman Republic was in its prime), this framework has almost completely disintegrated. For those who believe that the structure of government in Washington today bears some resemblance to that outlined in the Constitution of 1787, the burden of proof is on them. The president now dominates the government in a way no ordinary monarch possibly could. He has at his disposal the clandestine services of the CIA, a private army unaccountable to the Congress, the press, or the public because everything it does is secret. No president since Harry Truman, having discovered what unlimited power the CIA affords him, has ever failed to use it. Meanwhile, the “defense” budgets of the Pentagon dwarf those of the rest of the government and have undermined democratic decision making in the process. Funds for military hardware are distributed in as many states as possible to ensure that any member of Congress who might consider voting against a new weapons system would be accused of putting some of his constituents out of work.
When in May 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listed a large number of unneeded domestic military bases that he wanted to close as an economy measure, the affected communities promptly erupted in protest and began frantic lobbying efforts to “save” their particular installations. Advocates of keeping the bases open phrase their arguments in terms of national security, but the true reason is jobs, jobs, jobs.13 As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote at the height of the Cold War, “It is no secret that the billions of dollars demanded by the Pentagon for the armaments industry are necessary not for ‘national security’ but for keeping the economy from collapsing.”14
“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” It is not precisely clear who first spoke these immortal words—Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, or the antislavery abolitionist Wendell Phillips—but during the Cold War and its aftermath, Americans were not particularly vigilant when it came to excessive concentration of power in the presidency and its appendages, and we are now paying a very high price for that. From the founding of the republic to the moment of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address in 1961, some of our leaders have warned us that the greatest threat to our republican structure of government is war, including its associated maladies of standing armies, a military-industrial complex, and all the vested interests that develop around a massive military establishment.
The classic statement of this threat was by the chief author of the Constitution, James Madison:
Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. . . . War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.15
The United States has been continuously engaged in or mobilized for war since 1941. Using statistics compiled by the Federation of American Scientists, Gore Vidal has listed 201 overseas military operations between the end of World War II and September 11, 2001, in which the United States struck the first blow. Among these, a typical example was Operation Urgent Fury in 1983, “Reagan’s attack on the island of Grenada, a month-long caper that General [Alexander M.] Haig disloyally said could have been handled more efficiently by the Provincetown police department.”16 Excluding minor military operations, Drexel University historian and political scientist Michael Sullivan counts only “invasions, interventions, and regime changes since World War II” and comes up with thirty bloody, often clandestine, American wars from Greece (1947–49) to Yugoslavia (1995 and 1999).17 Neither of these compilations included the wars in Afghanistan (2001–) and Iraq (2003–).
It should be noted that since 1947, while we have used our military power for political and military gain in a long list of countries, in no instance has democratic government come about as a direct result. In some important cases, on the other hand, democracy has developed in opposition to our interference—for example, after the collapse of the regime of the CIA-installed Greek colonels in 1974; after the demise of the U.S.-supported fascist dictatorships in Portugal in 1974 and Spain in 1975; after the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986; after the ouster of General Chun Doo-Hwan in South Korea in 1987; and after the ending of thirty-eight years of martial law on the island of Taiwan in the same year.18 The United States holds the unenviable record of having helped install and then supported such dictators as the Shah of Iran, General Suharto in Indonesia, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and Sese Seko Mobutu in Congo/Zaire, not to mention the series of American-backed militarists in South Vietnam and Cambodia until we were finally expelled from Indochina.19 In addition, for decades we ran one of the most extensive international terrorist operations in history against Cuba and Nicaragua because their struggles for national independence had produced outcomes that we did not like.
The unintended result of this record of militarism is the contemporary Leviathan that dominates Washington, threatening our nation with bankruptcy, turning many of the organs of our “free press” into Pravda-like mouthpieces, and disgracing the nation by allowing our young men and women to torture prisoners picked up on various battlefields or even snatched from city streets in allied countries. In using the term “militarism,” I want to distinguish it from defense of country. No one questions the need to raise a citizens’ army and the obligation of able-bodied men and women to serve in it in order to defend the nation from foreign aggression. But the wars listed above are virtually all ones that we entered by choice rather than out of necessity. In many cases, they were shrouded in secrecy, while our political leaders lied to Congress and the public about the need to fight them. The launching of the Vietnam and Iraq wars are only the most blatant examples of presidential deception.20 There are almost certainly several cases currently hidden behind the walls of “classification” in which we secretly fomented the downfall of a government and offered clandestine assistance to the side we favored.21 Most recently, these may well include the abortive attempt to overthrow President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in April 2002 and the use of front organizations to bring to power pro-U.S. governments in the former Soviet states of Georgia in November 2003 and the Ukraine in November 2004.
Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate and a Vietnam veteran with twenty-three years of service in the U.S. Army, believes, “Americans in our own time have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without precedent in U.S. history, Americans have come to define the nation’s strength and well-being in terms of military preparedness, military action, and the fostering of (or nostalgia for) military ideals.”22
How did this come about? As a start, we have indeed fought too many wars of choice, starting in 1898 with our imperialist conquests of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and our establishment of a protectorate over Cuba, shortly followed by World War I. World War II, while not a war of choice, produced the most complete mobilization of resources in our history and led to the deployment of our forces on every continent. After the victory of 1945, some Americans urged a rapid demobilization, which actually was well under way when the Cold War and the Korean War restored and enlarged our military apparatus. It would never again be reined in, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The inevitable result was a continual transfer of powers to the presidency exactly as Madison had predicted, the use of executive secrecy to freeze out Congress and the judiciary, the loss of congressional mastery over the budget, and the rise of two new, extraconstitutional centers of power that are today out of control—the Department of Defense and the fifteen intelligence organizations, the best known of which is the Central Intelligence Agency. I believe we will never again know peace, nor in all probability survive very long as a nation, unless we abolish the CIA, restore intelligence collecting to the State Department, and remove all but purely military functions from the Pentagon. Even if we did those things, the mystique of America as a model democracy may have been damaged beyond repair. Certainly, under the best of circumstances, it will take a generation or more to overcome the image of “America as torturer.”23
In 1964, Hannah Arendt addressed a similar problem when she tried to plumb the evil of the Nazi regime. Her book Eichmann in Jerusalem dealt with the trial of the former SS officer Adolf Eichmann, who was charged with organizing the transport of Jews to death camps during World War II. She subtitled her book A Report on the Banality of Evil but used that now famous phrase only once, at book’s end, without explaining it further.24 Long after Arendt’s death, Jerome Kohn, a colleague, compiled a volume of her essays entitled Responsibility and Judgment. What made Eichmann both evil and banal, Arendt concluded in one of those essays, was his inability to think for himself.
“Some years ago,” she wrote, “reporting the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, I spoke of the ‘banality of evil’ and meant with this no theory or doctrine but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps an extraordinary shallowness. However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.”25
Arendt was trying to locate Eichmann’s conscience. She called him a “desk murderer,” an equally apt term for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld—for anyone, in fact, who orders remote-control killing of the modern sort—the bombardment of a country that lacks any form of air defense, the firing of cruise missiles from a warship at sea into countries unable to respond, such as Iraq, Sudan, or Afghanistan, or, say, the unleashing of a Hellfire missile from a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle controlled by “pilots” thousands of miles from the prospective target.
How do ordinary people become desk murderers? First, they must lose the ability to think because, according to Arendt, “thinking conditions men against evil doing.”26 Jerome Kohn adds, “With some degree of confidence it may be said that the ability to think, which Eichmann lacked, is the precondition of judging, and that the refusal as well as the inability to judge, to imagine before your eyes the others whom your judgment represents and to whom it responds, invite evil to enter and infect the world.”27 To lack a personal conscience means “never to start the soundless solitary dialogue we call thinking.”28
If an individual’s thinking is short-circuited and does not rise to the level of making judgments, he or she is able to understand acts, including evil acts, only in terms of following orders, doing one’s duty, being loyal to one’s “homeland,” maintaining solidarity with one’s fellow soldiers, or surrendering one’s will to that of the group. This phenomenon is common in some forms of political life, as Arendt demonstrated in her most famous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, but it is ubiquitous in military life, where, in order to prevail in battle, soldiers have been conditioned to follow orders instantly and to act as a cohesive group. In such roles, “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence.”29 This is one reason why democratic republics must be particularly vigilant about standing armies and wars of choice if, that is, they intend to retain their liberties.
At Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, some American soldiers had become so inured to the torture of Iraqi inmates that they made a screen saver of naked Iraqi captives stacked in a “pyramid” with their tormentors looking on and laughing in the background.30 By contrast, on January 13, 2004, Sergeant Joseph M. Darby of the army’s 372nd Military Police Company turned over a computer disk of similar photos from Abu Ghraib of American soldiers torturing Iraqis to the army’s Criminal Investigations Division. He said that the photos “violated everything that I personally believed in and everything that I had been taught about the rules of war.”31 Sergeant Darby had not stopped thinking.
Copyright © 2006 by Chalmers Johnson. All rights reserved.