Okay, so I had planned on following my look at the state of conservatism immediately with the same take on modern liberalism. That’s still coming soon, but I find myself needing more time to get my thoughts in order before tackling that. In lieu of a follow-up on that, I’ll be doing a quick reprise of my deep state discussion from a little while back, mostly because I came across an article that mirrors a lot of my concerns about this growing trend.
Writing in The Atlantic, Andrew Exum looks at some recent cases of generals speaking out against Trump Administration policies, namely torture and Trump’s attacks on the press. Although Exum welcomes any pushback Trump gets on some decidedly illiberal policies, he’s also aware of the dangers that come when the military, rather than remaining apolitical, take on the task of safeguarding institutional liberalism. An astute reader will probably make the connection to the Turkish military, which has traditionally justified its periodic coups of civilian government as part of its charge in enforcing the secular Constitution laid down by Ataturk. Instead, though, he makes an unexpected connection to Israeli politics, which probably doesn’t get enough exposure in Western media outside of the interminably stalled peace process. In particular, he singles out a case in which an 18 year-old IDF sergeant was found guilty of manslaughter for summarily executing a disarmed Palestinian terrorist. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot resisted right-wing calls for leniency on the sergeant, which has led to protesters saying that he’ll suffer the same fate as former Prime Minister Rabin if he continues on his “leftist” path.
Now, I think there are two distinct developments worth looking at here: first, we may be seeing a trend of more politicization in military leaders in the United States and Israel (if not other places, too), and also, that we may find ourselves looking to the military for moral or even political guidance. To the extent that the latter is true, it’s easy enough to explain, I think: in an age of disillusionment with our institutions, the military retains a great deal of trust in American society. Back when I talked about social faith, I brought up a Gallup poll showing abysmally low levels of public confidence in many key institutions in the country, but I didn’t mention that one big exception to this trend is the military, which still commanded “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence from 72 percent of Americans. The army has the legitimacy that our political leaders don’t, so why not look to the last people in Washington that we still think have a moral compass for moral guidance?
There are some troubling implications behind this thinking, and not just the obvious ones about a populace that might not be too repulsed by the prospect of military government. First of all, we need to ask ourselves if the military deserves the esteem that the public gives them, especially compared with how little other branches of government get from the same respondents. I suspect there are a couple of reasons why there’s such a large trust gap between military and civilian leadership: first, the familiar transparency problem. I’ve mentioned before that the more transparent a government organization is, the more we see its foibles and failures, and the less we respect them for it, which is why we trust the Supreme Court more than the President more than Congress. The military’s internal decisionmaking is definitely not going on C-Span any time soon, so they’re another logical beneficiary of this rewarding of secrecy. Another is that I think we absolve them of the abuses that are associated with them, pinning most of the blame on civilian leaders instead. Take Abu Ghraib, where critics raised all sorts of criticisms of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and John Yoo for ordering or coming up with legal justifications for the torture that went on there. In all of the high-level recriminations, maybe we didn’t reserve enough blame for the army soldiers and CIA agents who did the actual dirty work, simply because they weren’t considered the ones who came up with the policies. But following orders is no defense, so that was an oversight on our part. Lastly, I think, just like with the Right and its regrets over abandoning Nixon during Watergate, we’re still nursing a wound from the 70’s, specifically, the (apocryphal) idea the anti-war movement back then turned on and spat at our veterans returning home, and we’re resolved as a society never to dishonor our soldiers like that again. By all means, we’re allowed to question the missions that they’re sent on and how wise they are, but the men and women in uniform aren’t to be questioned. These cultural biases and blind spots protect the military now, but the question is whether they’ll continue to do the same should generals become more politicized, just like Eisenkot has been turned into a right-wing bogeyman in Israel.
Andrew Exum sees this risk of politicization (and sees it as a farther advanced phenomenon than I’d realized, with the Parties trotting out retired Generals as partisan cheerleaders with some regularity), and the dangers in it, but ultimately decides that it’s more important that the generals, and everyone else of a similar mind, stand up for what they see as right. I am more skeptical, in part because I’ve talked at length about how standing up for what’s right isn’t good enough when everybody’s doing it and yet we still find ourselves taking different stands. That said, soldiers have their freedom of conscience like the rest of us, and when the question is whether it’s moral for our society to engage in torture or to attack its own press, the dissenters will always have an ally in me.