While the military has always been esteemed in the Republic, and successful generalship served as a steppingstone to the Presidency (Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant, to name two), for most of the country’s history the military was kept in severe check. For a great power, the United States had an almost laughably small regular peacetime Army. On the eve of World War I, the regular Army and National Guard numbered just around 200,000 soldiers, a force dwarfed by Germany’s army. A “preparedness” drive was bruited, but the public wanted none of that.
It was only with the titanic struggle of World War II, and the ensuing Cold War against Soviet Russia, that the United States acquired what every great power had always had: a large, permanent military establishment. Conscription ended after the end of World War I; it continued after the Second World War until the disaster of Vietnam and the near mutiny of the conscript Army made leadership decide on a highly trained, volunteer force.
While, as I said, the military has always been honored in American history, its place in the Republic was made well known. The early years of the Civil War were a litany of Abraham Lincoln firing a string of generals, mostly for incompetence, and at least one, George B. McClellan, who openly questioned his Commander in Chief, and subsequently went on to run against him in 1864. But it was a given that the military was a servant of the state, not the other way around.
With the advent of World War II and then the Cold War, that began to change. The country was, to an extent, on a permanent war footing, one which really hasn’t lessened, even under President Obama. The responsibilities of superpower status, first in contention with the Soviet Union, and then as the sole military and political superpower, meant that both a large military establishment, and a powerful defense industry to sustain it came into being, in a nation which had had neither for its previous history. And that has meant that the nation has seen something not seen before: contention between a career military leadership, and its apologists, which expects to be deferred to, and civilian politicians Constitutionally placed above the generals. Sometimes these civilian overseers give the generals all they want, whether out of an alignment with their views, as in G.W. Bush, or out of weakness, as with Bill Clinton.
What the military leadership, defense industry, and their allies don’t tolerate is a President who wants to rethink the entire concept of permanent war. In Barack Obama they’ve met such a man. He ran in 2008 specifically on a platform to end the disastrous Iraq War. He surged troops into Afghanistan, but as a prelude to make the country more secure and eventually pull out. (That the country is starting to slide back into dysfunction, as Iraq has, speaks more to the hamfisted policy under President Bush. Afghanistan may have been broken, finally, beyond repair.) I’m not sanguine about drone attacks; I think they present numerous problems, foremost being mistaken strikes. I would very much like to see them diminish. But, what drones provide is what brute force invasions do not: targeted strikes against enemies which, despite the carping of those on the Left, are very real. The fact that the Administration is pursuing vigorous diplomacy across the Middle East to solve the issues which lead to terrorism means that drones will, eventually, not need to be used.
Such a President, who wants to fundamentally rethink the premise of perpetual war, is a threat to a mindset and an economy which thrives on war. The fact is that the United States could slash its defense budget and still have the world’s strongest military. But that would cut into both profits and power. Republicans have kept themselves in power in large part by wrapping themselves in the military; they are the first to use any attack on its prerogatives as an attack on patriotism.
And generals have come to expect an alarming amount of deference. One of the most infuriating things to come out of President Bush’s mouth was the refrain that he would do whatever “the generals on the ground” said to do. In doing so, he was at least rhetorically abdicating one of the prime powers of his office, to decide on military matters. That’s something President Obama is not afraid to do, seeking advice from beyond the usual suspects and coming to a decision even when it’s not popular with the brass. (See: Libya.) What the military industrial complex has in President Obama is someone it can neither bully nor cajole. If the country is serious about cutting its budget deficit, it cannot afford unlimited funding to the military. If the country is serious about rebuilding at home, then the money has to come from somewhere. (Higher taxes on the rich come to mind, but that’s another battle.)
In a world where power is daily becoming more diffuse, overweening military strength becomes less viable. Power has to be exercised in more a nuanced fashion, mixing the hard power of the military with the soft power of diplomacy, culture, ideas. And this is threatening to a culture steeped in 60 years of war and threat of war. The mandarins of power are bitter because the world they thought was eternal is turning out to be like any human construct: passing, transitory, ephemeral. The military deserves honor and respect; but in our constitutional system, it has a decided place, and that is under civilian authority. It is an idea which served the Republic for most of its history; it's one we have to reclaim.