Sunday, April 29, 2007

Soldiers' Politics

The current issue of The Atlantic has an interesting essay written by Andrew J. Bacevich, a Boston University history professor. Unfortunately, only the opening paragraph is available on-line to non-subscribers to the magazine. Here it is:

On January 16, 2007, Sergeant Liam Madden, an Iraq War veteran and still an active U.S. marine, paid a visit to Capitol Hill. The date marked the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Madden had chosen it consciously: He was hoping to start a political movement of his own. Acting on behalf of hundreds of his fellow soldiers, he presented members of Congress with an “Appeal for Redress From the War in Iraq.”

Here is the text of that appeal (typed out from the paper version of the article):

As a patriotic American, proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.

Here's the problem: Sgt. Madden had about 1700 other active duty soldiers sign his appeal. In other words, Sgt. Madden presented members of Congress with a petition. The distinction is important, according to Prof. Bacevich. Individual soldiers to have the right to file an appeal, a grievance, if you will, with their elected representatives for individual mistreatment. They are, however, barred from collective political activity, and with good reason, in Prof. Bacevich's view.

Fortunately, The Atlantic website has an interview with Mr. Bacevich which clarifies his position.

I see the appeal as new and noteworthy for two reasons. The first is that it represents a collective effort on the part of serving soldiers to influence national security. Secondly, the traditional or standard politicking by the American military typically occurs at the senior ranks of the military, but the organizers and the majority of the participants in the appeal for redress are junior enlisted soldiers. This is military politicking from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

Do you think that soldiers who have signed the appeal are acting within their rights?

No, I don’t. I think that although it’s being styled as an appeal—that is to say it’s being advertised as if it were equivalent to the individual appeal connected to individual grievances, this is in fact a petition. It is a collective political act and it’s not intended to redress a particular problem of either an individual soldier or even of the 1,700 soldiers who have signed it. It’s intended to bring about a change in U.S. national security policy. I myself think that the policy that the appeal addresses—namely the Iraq war—is an utterly misguided policy. I think the war is unnecessary. It has been utterly bungled. But I don’t believe that it ought to be the place of soldiers acting collectively to try to put pressure on members of Congress, or on Congress collectively, in order to bring about a change in policy. That really begins to undermine the principle of civilian control, which we all should be careful to guard.

Prof. Bacevich goes to some length to point out that we've gotten used to the politicking done by the senior officers of the military and he condemns the actions of those generals such as Curtis LeMay who went behind President Eisenhower's back to Congress to get the exorbitant funding he wanted for the Strategic Air Command (which continues to get exorbitant funding) as much as he does Sgt. Madden's appeal. His point is that the US has civilian control of the military for good reason, and that civilian control has to be maintained if we are to avoid the kinds of upheaval we've seen in the juntas in other parts of the world.

Does Prof. Bacevich believe that soldiers give up all their rights at the enlistment office? Hardly:

On matters of policy, those who wear the uniform ought to get a vote, but it's the same one that every other citizen gets--the one exercised on Election Day. To give them more is to sow confusian about the soldier's proper role, which centers on service and must preclude partisanship. Legitimating soldiers' lobbies is likely to warp national-scurity policy and crack open the door to praetorianism.

Although I agree with Sgt. Madden's position on this foul war, I have to agree with Prof. Bacevich on this one.



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