By Other Means

America the Coupless

Just because our military won't take over doesn't mean civilians can ignore it.

SHAWN THEW-Pool/Getty Images
SHAWN THEW-Pool/Getty Images

Happy birthday, America! It’s good to live in a land that hasn’t had a successful coup attempt, military or otherwise, in 237 years.

Two-hundred thirty-seven coup-less years is nothing to sneeze at. In some countries, the coup d’état is practically a national sport. Haiti has had several dozen coups, and Afghanistan, Thailand, and Bolivia have each had a dozen or more. The 20th century was chock-full of coups in Europe: France saw its last coup attempt in 1961, while the Italians, who’ve gone in for coups since well before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, tried their most recent coup in the 1970s. Europe has managed to remain largely coup-less for the last few decades, but the 21st century is proving to be a good time for the coup d’état in most other parts of the world. Since the year 2000, there have been coups and coup attempts in Fiji, Ecuador, Congo, Venezuela, Guinea, Nepal, Libya, Syria, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Cote D’Ivoire, Haiti, the Philippines, and Egypt, to offer just a partial list.

You might think that after 237 years, we Americans are just about due for a military coup — and if you Google the terms "military coup united states," you’ll find plenty of nutballs who are thoroughly convinced of it. One right-wing site suggests, "If the American voters are unable to stop the bleeding and remove this lunatic of a President … then perhaps the military will provide the justice that a growing number of Americans are clamoring for." Another site dedicated to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories advocates a coup to end "Jewish rule in our nation," or, alternatively, to end "the Obama problem." (And you thought Obama was a Muslim!) Then there’s someone calling himself "Video Rebel," who warns that our "self-appointed leaders on Wall street [sic]," not content with outsized corporate profits, plan to "release a series of plagues" — or perhaps start a race war — then "enslave the survivors." Our only hope of salvation lies in a military coup, since "the American military hopefully will refuse to sacrifice millions of their relatives."

Meanwhile, other Internet denizens live in fear of the military coup that’s right around the corner. One self-styled "geopolitical analyst" warns, "The US intelligence community, in conjunction with Wall Street corporate-financier interests, have spent an inordinate amount of time positioning themselves for a possible military coup and martial law take over of the United States," to be led, apparently, by David Petraeus. Another site warns that "various elements" within the U.S. military, angry about federal debt levels, are "actively planning" for the overthrow of President Obama.

Don’t start stockpiling munitions just yet: In the non-crackpot world, virtually no one thinks a U.S. military coup is in the realm of the conceivable.

Thankfully, coups just aren’t our style. In 2006, Harper’s Magazine assembled several top military thinkers and asked them to assess the likelihood of a military coup: The group was unanimous in their conviction that it couldn’t happen. It "just wouldn’t work here," said Edward Luttwak. "It’s impossible given the culture of the military," agreed Charles Dunlap (at the time still a senior Air Force JAG officer). "The professional ethic in the military is firmly committed to the principle that they don’t rule," confirmed Andrew Bacevich.

The occasional nutjob notwithstanding, we have an extraordinarily professionalized military, in which, as Dunlap asserts, "[C]ivilian control of the military is … deeply ingrained." Study after study of military attitudes reaffirms this. An exhaustive 2009 study found that a solid 70 percent of Army officers consider it inappropriate for active-duty military personnel to offer any public criticism of the decisions of senior civilian leaders, and most officers hew strongly to the view that the military’s job is to advise, but not to "advocate" or "insist" on matters relating to the use of force.

That’s something worth celebrating this 4th of July. There’s plenty to criticize about American democracy — but we don’t solve our political disputes with tanks in the streets and elected officials in military detention.

But let’s not congratulate ourselves too much. The chances of a military coup in the United States are vanishingly tiny, but that doesn’t mean civil-military relations in the United States are healthy. On the contrary: There are plenty of danger signs both within the military and within the civilian population, and civil-military relations are characterized by numerous misunderstandings and misperceptions. (There’s also ample reason to worry about the increasing blurriness between military and non-military spheres, a subject I’ve touched on in previous columns, and will say more about in the future — but for now, let’s just look at military and civilian attitudes towards civil-military relations.)

Start with some troubling trends within the military: For several decades, America’s military leadership has self-identified as more conservative and more Republican than the general public. In itself, this isn’t necessarily a problem: Most military personnel are professional enough to keep their politics far away from how they do their jobs. But the norm against partisanship seems to be weakening. In a 2012 Foreign Affairs article, Heidi Urben, Peter Feaver, James Golby, and Kyle Dropp warned of a trend towards increasing partisan political activity by military personnel. Looking at surveys, data on political contributions, and a CNAS study showing that "public expression by senior military officials of opposition or support for use of force abroad has a measurable impact on U.S. public opinion," they worried that political endorsements by retired senior officers, "now a regular feature of presidential campaigns, threaten one of the most cherished principles of the U.S. military: its independence from partisan politics."

An excellent study by Urben reinforced the concern that military officers’ ideology sometimes spills over into areas vital to healthy civil-military relations. In general, she found, distrust of civilian leadership runs high among Army officers: 55 percent report, for instance, that they believe civilian decision-makers are motivated by "domestic partisan politics" rather than national security concerns. But Urben also found a dismaying partisan gap in Army officers’ attitudes towards civilian leadership and attitudes towards military participation in politics: "Republican-leaning officers were more likely to display lower trust levels in the government compared to Democrats. For example, 62% of Republicans felt that when civilians gave orders to the military, domestic partisan politics were the motivation compared to 53% of Democrats. Forty-one percent of Republicans believed that during wartime civilians should let the military run the war, compared to 31% of Democrats. And … 46% of Republicans felt the president should have served in the military [in order to be respected as commander in chief], compared to just 18% of Democrats."

Urben also found that the Army is a less comfortable place for those who lean to the left. Army officers who self-identified as Democrats were substantially more likely than Republican or independent officers to report discomfort in discussing political views with their colleagues, and junior officers who were Democrats are somewhat more likely to leave the military than their Republican and independent peers.

We don’t need a military that mirrors the politics of the nation as a whole, but it’s worrying to think that military culture makes some Americans feel less welcome, or that ideology affects officers’ commitments to civilian control over the military.

The military isn’t solely to blame for these trends. In the age of the all-volunteer military, less than one-half of 1 percent of Americans serves at any given time. If the military is more Southern, less urban, and more politically conservative than the population as a whole, it’s in part a reflection of who volunteers (though it also has something to do with recruiting patterns and base relocation decisions).

The wide cultural and demographic gaps between the military and the civilian population make some of the military’s distrust of civilian officials unsurprising. A 2011 Pew survey found that "84% of post-9/11 veterans say the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families," and the 2012 annual Military Times poll found that more than 75 percent of active duty and reserve respondents agreed with the statement, "The military community has little in common with the rest of the country and most civilians do not understand the military."

This doesn’t stop the general public from claiming to love the military: The military is, by far, the most highly respected public institution in the United States. But the public offers the military a remarkably shallow form of respect, characterized more by a pro forma "God bless our troops" than by anything approaching clarity on what the military is or does. Thank you for your service, and have a nice day.

For a chillingly high number of Americans, this combination of ignorance and reflexive respect translates into an astounding lack of interest in civilian control of the military: A 2010 Rasmussen poll found that only 44 percent of Americans favor civilian control of the military. Another 28 percent of our fellow citizens "don’t know" how they feel about the subject, while an additional 28 percent of our fellow citizens assert that "civilian control of the military is bad for the country." Way to go, America!

Tocqueville famously quipped that in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve. It’s a good thing we don’t yet have the military we deserve: If we did, we might be seeing tanks in our own public squares.

Happy 4th of July.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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