This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
I have a fairy tale for you. Once upon a time, a representative democracy was established with a constitution that distilled the wisdom of the ages. Its foundational principles included civilian control of the military and a system of checks and balances that encouraged vigorous public debate as a basis for effective policy-making.
In this fabled land, the role of civilian leaders was, in part, to serve as a check on military ambition and endless wars. They were to prove cautious, too, in committing their citizen-soldiers to battle, and when they did, they would issue Congressional declarations of war so that everyone could grasp the nature of the national emergency at hand and the necessity of military action. In waging war, they would rely on shared sacrifice and even raise taxes. When necessary, it was their job to rein in or even remove military leaders who acted like Caesar (read: General Douglas MacArthur) rather than Cincinnatus (read: General George Washington).
Yes, you’ve guessed it: it’s not a fairy tale, or at least not completely. It’s the United States — an older America that, despite a decidedly checkered and often imperial past, was nevertheless proud of its reluctance to fight, but steadfast in its commitment to win once it decided that battle was the course of action. Even then, this America remained resolute in its reluctance to embrace a military ethos or bow down before military gods, committed as it was to civilian primacy and the avoidance of a large standing army.
Paradoxically, the last vestiges of this America could still be seen some 50 years ago under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a retired five-star general, who tried with varying degrees of success to limit defense spending, and who famously warned in his farewell address in 1961 of the dangers of a surging “military-industrial complex.”
And leaping forward almost four decades, here’s another paradox for you: prior to September 11, 2001, what many leading pundits and commentators fretted most about was an alleged widening gap between American civilians and their now all-volunteer military. In 1997, Wall Street Journal Pentagon correspondent Tom Ricks typically worried about an all-volunteer military that saw civilians as privileged and flabby, increasingly considered itself a breed apart, and held the public it served in contempt.
Concerned as well was Richard Kohn, former chief historian of the U.S. Air Force. In a special lecture to Air Force Academy cadets in 1999 on “the erosion of civilian control of the military in the United States today,” Kohn worried about a military that openly disrespected President Bill Clinton, its commander-in-chief, even as it meddled in areas like policy-making for which it was not suited and from which it had been excluded by the Constitution.
How times have changed. In the post-9/11 world, a far more insidious problem confronts us. That gap, if it ever existed, is no more. Instead, at the highest levels, what’s civilian and what’s military are increasingly difficult to tell apart as the two spheres blur and blend. Today, civilian control of the military is largely a principle without a meaning, while inside Washington’s Beltway, even with a scorecard it’s hard to tell the players apart.