Saturday, August 28, 2010

So what IS so wrong with being Brave?

So last post I talked about why I think the current uncritical enthusiasm for the U.S. military as the guarantor of all things constitutional ("Land of the Free Because of the Brave") isn't a particularly good thing in general.

Now I want to talk about why I think it's not politically healthy for the United States in particular.

See, here's the thing:

Military power is, at bottom, about compelling action through the application of relatively unrestricted violence. In a sense, any authority works this way. You or I may obey civil law because we believe it is in the greater interest of our community, state, or nation. But if we choose not to that authority - because in a republic we vest our representatives with the authority - can use anything up to lethal force to compel that obedience.

But. We have chosen, in the United States, to hedge our civil authorities about with proscriptions. Theoretically our police and our domestic law enforcement authorities cannot do many things that would make their business simpler - things like searching, profiling, spying, or detaining, those they merely suspect of wrongdoing. Because, again, in theory, the civil contract still exists, even between those who violate that contract. We choose to imprison those of our citizens that break the rules rather than deport or execute them. They are civil criminals, not enemies. They are still within the bounds of the social contract. Our police - at least so the theory goes - cannot act towards us like our soldiers act towards an enemy.

Mind you, I suspect that they still do it, a bit, in places, at times. But I would argue that those cases merely proof the rule rather than invalidate it.

Wartime, however, is, and soldiers at war are, a legal dies non; a war, by its very nature, means that there is no civil contract. We have agreed to wartime rules that suggest that we cannot treat even our enemies like vermin to exterminate, but they are not bounded within our polity. We don't arrest them and try them - they are not violators of our contract but aliens, utterly outside of it. If we capture them we merely hold them until violence has resolved the political dispute that has made them our chattel. Then we may choose to try them, if we believe that they have committed civil crimes during the wartime, or we release them back into their own society.

And we should note that wars, in general, are often destructive to the social contract within the warring nation. In our own country we have taken actions, from imprisoning individuals without trial to imprisoning entire racial groups without substantial grounds, that would be unthinkable, were unthinkable, in peaceable times.

The history of governments, our own as well as others, suggests that wars are often destructive of political liberties. Wartime governments assume powers to prosecute wars that curtail individual freedoms. While arguably needed to be successful in war these powers are sometimes difficult to divest once peace has returned. The United States government expanded significantly in both of the Twentieth Century world wars, and was likewise fortified by the global Cold War. When Sun Tzu said that no state ever benefited from prolonged war he was speaking of the economic and social drain of blood and treasure. But the effect on politics - the effect we have seen over the past decade - tends to strengthen the government at the expense of the individual. Wars, especially modern wars, are fought by masses. The effect of war is to encourage the government to mold the citizen into a mass, to shape its public into a shaft for the military spearhead.


First, we have a current situation in which a certain portion of our leadership wishes to exercise national will in a certain portion of the globe, the Middle East. This is unsurprising and the inevitable consequence of our economic, political and military status as a Great Power.

Second, we have the natural conflict with the residents of that portion of the globe that occurs when the great power puts pressure on an extraterritorial objective. Some of this conflict will, inevitably, take the form of physical violence.

Third, we have the deliberate choice of the leadership, or at least a significant portion of that leadership, to treat this resistance as a "war", and the citizenry's choice of, or at least the indifference to, this designation, and

Fourth, we have a significant portion of this citizenry that is convinced that their nation's internal defense - its "freedoms" - depends on the power of its military to fight such a war.

The result, I opine, is that there is a critical mass of U.S. citizens who believe that "Freedom is Power". They wouldn't phrase it that way, of course, but what they believe is that military power equals political freedom. That the acts of physical force, untrammeled by civil law, that a soldier must take to win a war with an external enemy are needed to ensure civil liberty. That submission to armed force - or to the sorts of legionary disciplines used to control soldiers in battle - is what is needed to "preserve our freedoms".

I submit to you that the person who believes this sort of thing is the sort of person who has little or no objection of applying military solutions to civil problems.

Secret trials? Secret sentences? Secret prisons? How are they different from what happens to enemy soldiers in wartime, who disappear into prison camps in anonymous masses, who are, if anything, dealt with by military courts martial?

Wiretapping? Spying? How are these different from military intelligence units ferreting secrets by intercepting enemy commo, interpreting recon photos, or interrogating captured troops?

A very good example of this sort of thinking is contained in the discussion of this issue can be found over at Greenwald's blog in John Eastman's response to Greenwald's criticism of the surveillance state that has grown up as part of the "War on Terror". Eastman, who as former Dean of the Chapman University School of Law, candidate for California Attorney General, and former clerk to judges Clarence Thomas and Michael Luttig should understand the difference between civil law and the law of war, even equates the surveillance of civilian suspects with the censorship of his soldier grandfather's letters in WW1.

If this sort of "we're at war so we are all like soldiers under military discipline" attitude has captured the mind of an attorney, jurist, and potential public official, how much more likely is it that the sort of person sporting a "Land of the Free Because of the Brave" bumper sticker is willing to see military discipline, wartime rules, the spartan code of the brave, applied to the everyday life of the citizen? To the civil code of the state?

This is not a healthy thing for a republic. This is not something that any politician, any pundit, any leader, should want or should encourage. This is the sort of thinking that takes the citizen and makes them the subject, the sort of thinking that makes republics into the-nation-in-arms; that takes nations with Cincinnatus and gifts them Napoleon.

Do we really want to find out if we can do that here?


  1. Bacevich has some related thoughts. See:,_how_washington_rules__/

  2. Thanks for your post, Chief.

    My personal response on 9/11 was that the people who did this committed a CRIME against humanity, NOT an act of war. That opinion has never changed and when I get into a debate with some of the loudmouths shouting about war they are usually forced to admit that I'm right.

    I get less agreement when I point out that Bush and Cheney compounded OBL's crimes many times over with their misuse of American power but I still win more than half of these arguments so there is still some tiny amount hope for America.

  3. Pluto: That's always been my smoke test for the underlying intent of the Right; that, faced with what was clearly an act of political terrorism they responded not with the means and methods appropriated to the act, but with the means and methods appropriate to their goals - military control and political domination of a central position in the Middle East.

    The fact that OBL wanted them to do just that? That fact that they fucked that pooch so hard that it's fur flew off? Pretty much expected from the same people who have been overseeing the deconstruction of the United States of the post-WW2 period through the reintroduction of the crony capitalism, heedless deregulation, and economic inequity of the Gilded Age (combined with their own peculiar brand of faith-based decision making).

    What is disheartening to me is that I don't see the combination of wealthy Progressives, muckrakers, union organizers, social reformers, and antitrust zealots that rolled back the corruption of the Ragtime Era. Here we're presented with nearly the identical situation we faced in the 1930's: the end product of a cabal of greedy crony capitalists and their political lackeys has managed to wreck the economy and throw millions out of work. And yet there is nothing remotely similar to the coalition that produced the New Deal and FDR. Hell, instead of throwing the Republican elites and their business handlers into the political wilderness for two generations the bastards appear poised to regain power within a single electoral cycle.

    What a fuckstory. And we're inflicting it on ourselves...

  4. I've refrained from commenting so far for a couple of reasons, but now the urge overwhelms me. The first reason I’ve held my tongue (err, keyboard) until now is that my criticisms of late are too frequently turned around into a sort of Andy-is-some-kind-of-right-winger strawman argument and parrying such arguments is tiresome. The second, more important, reason, though, is that I just don't really get what you're saying. I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of days, but I simply don't follow the train of logic from a bumper sticker to a threat to the republic. The first paragraph of this post is a good place to start explaining what I don't get:

    "So last post I talked about why I think the current uncritical enthusiasm for the U.S. military as the guarantor of all things constitutional ("Land of the Free Because of the Brave") isn't a particularly good thing in general."

    First of all, I get a completely different reaction from that sticker than you do. I don't think of the military at all. What I think of is those brave souls who signed the Declaration of Independence knowing it was a death sentence should their nascent revolution fail. I also think of all the brave people since who’ve literally put their lives on the line against tyranny and not all of those people did so in uniform or even on a battlefield. In short, I don't see why you equate "brave" in that phrase with "military." Consequently, I agree completely with the bumper sticker - it is the brave that keep this country free whether that bravery is the generation which founded this nation or the tens of thousands of people from all walks of life through our history that have sacrificed in the betterment of our nation.

    Secondly, suggesting that the military is the guarantor of all things constitutional is tantamount to promoting military dictatorship. Maybe I'm reading too much into what you're saying, but your words are all I have to go on. The premise suggests to me the military has a role in policing separation of powers and domestically enforcing the dictates of the government. If that is indeed what you're suggesting by that phrasing, then I wonder who these people are that actually believe the military is the guarantor of all things constitutional. I sure haven't met any. There are probably some who believe that extreme view, but then one can find a group of people who believe almost anything if one looks hard enough. I don't think people who put inane bumper-stickers on their cars necessarily believe that, and there’s no evidence that they do – or at least you haven’t presented any evidence.


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  6. In sum, I generally reject the whole idea that bumper stickers or whatever other cultural memes one might care to bring up indicate some threat to the democracy or looming military ascendancy or anything at all beyond the capacity of Americans to be shallow. From my perspective as someone who serves part-time in the Guard, is married to an active military officer, and counts many military people (active, reserve, former and retired) among his friends (and I've talked with those friends about this very topic) the impression I get is not one of some kind of veneration of the military. In my view, this kind of bumber-sticker support to the military is just that - about twelve inches wide and skin deep. Beyond the occasional retail discount and the random old lady who says "thanks for serving" there isn't much there of substance in my view.

    A few of my military friends are actually bitter - they see the so-called veneration of the military for what it is - shallow and calculated - and resent the shallowness of support and the reality, to them, that none of these people really give a shit. Certainly very very few citizens of this country are doing anything meaningful, much less sacrificing, in “supporting the troops.” It's at that point I remind my friends that they are volunteers and they can always quit when their obligations are up if they don’t like the deal they’re getting. So I take a somewhat opposite view from yours (again, I may be misinterpreting you badly) - Specifically, it’s my bitter friends, and those like them, that I find troubling. There is what I think is an increasing entitlement mentality among some military people. This isn't very common and, strangely, I’ve seen it mostly in the Guard/Reserve, but I sense an increasing anger along the lines of this famous picture, which is already three years old now.

    So what would you say to my bitter friends? The American people are on a course to hand them the reins of power in this country? I think if you said that to them, they would laugh in your face and think you are crazy. The question for me is, which of you is closer to the truth?

    One other thing I’m not getting:

    The result, I opine, is that there is a critical mass of U.S. citizens who believe that "Freedom is Power".

    This is something else that has me scratching my head. Of course freedom is power. Freedom is about choice and freedom requires power in order to make choices. The powerless have no freedom, no choices, so the idea that power and freedom don't positively correlate makes absolutely no sense to me.

  7. As you Arty guys would say, FDChief, the gang here is in the process of getting the target bracketed, but we still haven't come close to being able to put steel on target.

    Andy makes a very good point. I tend to agree that there is no move to turn the country over to the military. Rather, I sense that there is more of a desire, in some significant circles, to exploit the military.

    My generation is the last to really have "war" involuntarily visited upon us. The end of the draft makes direct involvement in the horrors of war a voluntary affair. For the vast majority of the American population, war is a vicarious experience. America is at the mall, and has no desire to leave it. Let someone else bear the burden of war's ugliness (or even the taxes to pay for it), while 98% of the population reaps any and all benefits.

    Consequently, "we" are told that "we" are at war, yet that photo Andy offers more clearly captures the truth. The similarities between "America at War" and reality television are frightening.

    This morning we had coffee with a neighbor who's house was commandeered by the Nazis during WWII. The Nazis made a trap door in the second floor to be able to check out activities on the first floor. The family has left the trap door there as a reminder of what took place. The other night we partied with a fellow who's neighbor, 23 year old Nikolas Stellas, was hanged by the Nazi's for his activities in the Resistance. In response to the Resistance, the Nazis set out to execute 125 local citizens, to be selected by local authorities! That's "war".

    It's easy being "bumper sticker brave". I doubt that these folks wish to turn government over to the military. That would mean the imposition of discipline and a measure of self sacrifice. In all actuality, the last thing these pathetic creatures want is to suffer the slightest measure of sacrifice for the common good. So they simply spend a couple of dollars to promote letting a small number of others make the sacrifices for them. The AVF is exactly what these people want - the ability for the U.S. to visit the horrors of war upon others without the "Bummer Sticker Brave" having to leave the mall, or part with any of the money they would spend there.

  8. Freudian slip?

    I typed: "Bummer Sticker Brave"

    when I meant: "Bumper Sticker Brave"

  9. And, lest anyone jump to the conclusion that I am attacking the AVF, please understand that such is not the case. All I am positing is that in today's situation, military service, or any burden thereof, is imposed upon no one, as compared to the situation during the draft, when it was. Yes, some were able to "hide" in the Guard and Reserve during Viet Nam, but even that imposed a modest level of burden in that one had to turn up for drills and summer camp to avoid being drafted for unsatisfactory participation. Even a college deferment meant working hard enough to maintain passing grades. In short, for American males, and their families, war could, and did indeed, become a personal burden of some sort or another.

    Freed of that very possible burden, we may now go to the mall and at the same time claim to be waging war on the bad guys far away. Very far away - in every respect.

  10. Andy: You're not getting it.

    Do you think that these bumper stickers are celebrating, say, the "brave" attorneys fighting against secret prisons, endless detention, warrantless surveillance? C'mon!

    I have to disagree with Al here. I think we might get some more visibly authoritarian form of government in the future. If we do get a Caesar, I believe it will be because there is a growing segment of the U.S. population who think that a Caesar isn't such a bad idea, who think that "freedom" grows out of power, military power in some cases but "bravery" in general, the sort of "bravery" not of John Adams arguing for liberty or James Madison and Tom Jefferson pushing the Bill of Rights but of soldiers and soldiering.

    I would add that I think one reason that we are better off than we could be is that the U.S. military in general has a fairly strong tradition of respecting civilian authority!

    The U.S. public in general has never had a great record for things like respect for individual, minority, or foreign integrity, thoughtful analysis of foreign adventuring, or rational approaches to domestic spending. This sort of "Bumper Sticker Brave", to me, suggests that a portion of us are now incorporating a sort of overt loving or liking of militarism, military solutions to problems, and, in general, military "discipline" over effete liberal quibbling over things like building mosques, habeas corpus, supporting dictators, etc. Not that this sort of thinking has EVER been far from a percentage of the population...but the "Support our Troops" and the "Because of the Brave" sort of thinking makes the association between "Good American" and "Good Soldier" seem more overt.

    THAT's where the problem lies, IMO - not with the military. As far as I can tell, outside of a handful of political generals and admirals the armed services haven't asked for this and, generally speaking, don't want it.

    Who would? At this point, political control of the U.S. is becoming a sort of booby prize!

  11. And Al makes a good point; most of the people sporting this sort of sticker have no experience with soldiering, have no idea what it would mean to impose "military discipline" on the U.S. public. They are just tired of hearing people complain about killin' Ay-rabs for freedom. In their opionion, killin' Ay-rabs EQUALS Freedom, like killin' Grenadians, Lebanese, Panamanians (and probably Vietnamese, for those who even bother to think about it) did. That the killing we're doing today is just like the killing we did to stop the Japanese and the Germans in WW2.

    And I see that as a problem, because it's one thing to see military power as a general good when you NEED that power to survive - in other words "Freedom is about choice and freedom requires power in order to make choices. The powerless have no freedom, no choices, so the idea that power and freedom don't positively correlate makes absolutely no sense to me."

    But when you're using power as a luxury, power to prosecute cabinet wars, power to impose your national will on foreigners and you're confusing that with the power to defeat genuine existential threats then you're confused about the benefits and threats of that power. And you're MORE likely to not see the problem you're creating giving that power to people who, as soldiers in wartime, have a much lower legal standard of care in exercising it.

  12. Chief,

    First of all, neither of us knows why some person in Portland put some bumper-sticker on their vehicle. I'm simply saying that your interpretation of what it actually says isn't the only one (not to mention speculation about what a particular interpretation means).

    Anyway, despite your talent for narrative, I'm not buying the extrapolation you make from a bumper sticker to a future Caesar. I don't think bumper-stickers are a credible metric for determining the American people's tolerance for accepting a Caesar or much of anything really.

    Speaking of a Caesar, it's interesting that on the one hand you have this persistent worry (a completely reasonable worry, IMO) about a future "Caesar" while on the other hand, you pine for the 1930's and FDR. Except, perhaps, for Lincoln, FDR is the closest thing this country ever had to a Caesar. He wasn't exactly the poster-child for Constitutionality. All I can say is be careful what you wish for....

    Regardless, if, as I suspect, this nation is going to hit a crisis point before we make fundamental changes, then I bet the people will turn to a Lincoln or an FDR. Hopefully our institutions will be strong enough to resist the inevitable excesses of an autocratic administration, but it's a big gamble in my book - one I'd prefer to avoid. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem likely at present.

  13. Andy: Honestly...

    If you aren't familiar with the sort of person who sports this sort of political shorthand on their car or their t-shirt, I suggest you spent some time listening to Glenn Beck or "Fox and Friends" or Hannity or Mike Savage or Rush or any of the other outlets for this message. It's pretty painful, but the message is simplistic enough that it doesn't take much time to get the gist.

    And once you've been there, remind me how this portion of the U.S. public is all Constitution-y and bristling with vigilance for accountability in government, because talking with them, what I get is "You damn lib'ruls worry too much about the civil rights of terrorists".

    We've already had the "inevitable excesses of an autocratic administration", remember? It was the one that those folks - the ones with the bumper stickers? The "Support Our Troops" folks? The "Terrorist Hunting License" people? - thought so highly of.

    Not that once the accidental autocrats Mr. Cheney and his cronies were gone it seems to have made much difference. We're still fiddle-fucking about in central Asia. We're still hiding prisoners somewhere (I read that one delightful twist is that one of these gomers got, not a secret trial but a secret sentence. I love that - it's sort of Kafka's Kafka). The Obamites seem unwilling to give up an iota of the executive power that the Bushies amassed.

    So "accepting Caesar or much of anything"? How 'bout torture? How 'bout secret prisons? How 'bout...Jesus, man, how much of anything do you want? I try not to get as angry as Charles used to about this stuff...but what the hell do you think we have right now?

    The U.S. public has ALREADY bought off on notions of government power that would have made John "Alien and Sedition Acts" Adams drool and Madison nail his ten amendments to their fucking foreheads. And this isn't even the third or so whose public statements - including things like the bumper stickers, T-shirts, and so forth - suggest that their vision of the country is even less liberal. This is the Joe and Mary Lunchpail who have sat here while the last Administration, and this one, have used everything from the ridiculous (the "no-fly" list that you can't get off once you get on) to the really ominous to prosecute the various "Wars on...", from Drugs to Terror.

    Personally, I don't think the U.S. public is coherent enough at this point TO turn to someone like Lincoln or FDR. Neither of them were suited for a time that insists on the sort of ridiculous pandering to the voters' basest desires as ours does, neither of them were the sort of confidence tricksters we've seen since the time of Reagan, whose gift seems to be telling people not what the need to hear but what they want to hear.

    We supposedly "voted out" the GOP con-artists for "change"...have you seen any real "change"? If we can't even get a supposedly "liberal" Democrat to agree to return to the interpretation of civil law and the law of war that were generally accepted as little as a decade ago, what do you think will bring about this crisis point and these "fundamental changes"?

    No, I'm fairly sure that we will get the increasingly oligarchic and autocratic rule our present level of public discourse deserves. I suggest, rather, that we will simply continue to slide into the slow calcification of social senility.


    Hell, at this point I'd settle for a goddam Adlai Stevenson...

  14. I was a bit less than clear above. The "bravers" are probably more than happy to impose discipline on others, not just happy to exercise it, or have it imposed upon themselves. They want the power, not the responsibility. They wouldn't want to turn the government over to the military (i.e. be subject to military rule), but rather would use the military to govern others, while retaining "freedom" for themselves. AFter all, a police state is great when you are the police.

  15. Aviator,
    Killing 125 hostages is not warfare but rather criminal activity.
    Plain and simple.
    Don't confuse criminal activity with warfare.

  16. jim wrote:

    Killing 125 hostages is not warfare but rather criminal activity.

    I don't remember addressing the killing of hostages. ???????