Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Military Oversight

According to the New York Times, the head of US Special Forces Command -- the military combatant command that led the Osama bin Laden raid -- wants to secure greater autonomy for special forces (SOF) to “expand their presence in regions where they have not operated in large numbers” and to “position his forces and their war-fighting equipment where intelligence and global events indicate they are most needed.”  Despite whatever military advantages might accrue, from the standpoint of democratic self-governance this is a capital-letters Bad Idea: our military already has too much power and is already too independent from Congressional and other public oversight.  We need to keep the principle of civilian control over the military vital, primary, and effective at all times.  I say this as an Army veteran who served in Iraq, and who respects and honors public service, especially those who serve the public at great risk.
History shows that a professional military is a long-term danger to any sort of self-government, classically expressed as a distrust of "standing armies."  Ever since World War II maintaining a large military apparatus has resulted in increasing militarization of American politics and culture.  We can see its effects in how the military-industrial complex became such a large part of the economy, in the expansion of the security surveillance state, and in when, where, and how we go to war (too often, in too many places, and without enough deliberation and foresight).  Maintaining a large standing military was a precondition for the catastrophic misadventures of Vietnam and Iraq, and ultimately for the shift, for all intents and purposes, of the Constitutional war-making power from Congress to the Presidency.
Militarization, and military professionalization, only increased after 9/11.  Special Forces are very highly trained people who’s only purpose in life is to train and exercise the use of force against other people in order to coerce or kill them.  There may be valid arguments that such professionals are necessary.  However, greater autonomy for special forces is highly imprudent: do we really want a highly trained force of professional soldiers with the latest equipment running around autonomously?  Especially now that the war on terror has led to the executive branch claiming the power to kill US citizens, anywhere in the world and without due process, that it believes to be terrorists?  Shouldn’t they, rather, be on a very short leash?
There is no sign that the state, with its military and police forces, is withering away anytime in the foreseeable future, and most people wouldn’t want, upon deliberation, to be totally free of security forces.  A classic solution is apt for the age-old tension between democracy and the standing military: if we are then to have a military, then we ought to go back to a conscripted military, along with a much greater reliance on the National Guard and Reserves -- the classic well-regulated "militia" with strong roots in the common people suitable to defense of a democratic republic but with limited power-projection capability.  (Analogous solutions are apt for espionage agencies and the police, too).  Until such time as world peace breaks out, that is the only way to have a people-based military compatible with any degree of democracy, representative or otherwise.  With technology now demanding a highly skilled force the days of an army based on the common rifleman are probably gone.  But if complex military technology demands some degree of professionalization, we'd probably construct a mixed military of regulars working side-by-side with lots of militia.  Greater autonomy for exclusive special forces ought to be completely off the table(and also police and espionage agencies.

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