Sunday, January 28, 2007

Can we just say Gary Wills is absolutely right?


When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations, he gave himself the proper title, “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” That title is rarely — more like never — heard today. It is just “commander in chief,” or even “commander in chief of the United States.” This reflects the increasing militarization of our politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline. In wartime, it is true, people submit to the national leadership more than in peacetime. The executive branch takes actions in secret, unaccountable to the electorate, to hide its moves from the enemy and protect national secrets. Constitutional shortcuts are taken “for the duration.” But those impositions are removed when normal life returns.

But we have not seen normal life in 66 years. The wartime discipline imposed in 1941 has never been lifted, and “the duration” has become the norm. World War II melded into the cold war, with greater secrecy than ever — more classified information, tougher security clearances. And now the cold war has modulated into the war on terrorism.
I was watching, of all things, "Them" the other night. It's a classic post-WWII/Cold War film, of course, but in ways I'd never realized before. James Whitmore slides easily from Police Sgt. in New Mexico to FBI Agent James Arness's sidekick investigating giant ant sightings around the country, to man in /armny uniform with a flamethrower saving two kids in the LA storm sewer system. What struck me was how readily this was accepted, because clearly a man in 1954 would have served in the US military and so would fit in with military command again (of course, the idea that all police/military structures are one is another concomitant, as Mr. Wills points out, of WWII; and of the "militarization of politics" that Eisenhower also warned us against.) The "lesson" of WWII, it becomes more and more clear, is that America is now "Fortress America," constantly under seige and threat, and like Rome under Julius Caesar, we need a permanent diktator with all military and civil authority in order to protect the empire. I don't think that position, and the consequences of the "military industrial complex" Eisenhower warned against, are fully appreciated even today. It is significant that the Presidents who knew war and the military (Washington, Eisenhower) who get mentioned in Mr. Wills' column, also understood the importance of the Constitutional limits on the military. It is civilian Presidents (Reagan and W.) who erode those distinctions at the republic's peril.

Mr. Wills draws the right conclusion, which is the danger this militarization represents to democracy (a danger Washington and Eisenhower understood). One thing I feel constrained to point out is that the intelligence apparatus which gave rise and credence to the Bush/Cheney defense "If you knew what we know, you would see how justified all our actions are," started under Harry Truman.

Credit where credit is due.

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