Optimistic About the Military

by , May 20, 2008

Pardon me if I have, at least for the moment, a certain amount of hope that the abiding institutions and attitudes in the United States just might be able to weather the sustained and systematic assault on our liberties and our better traditions that has characterized the Bush administration since 9/11.

Undoubtedly some of the more outrageous actions the administration has undertaken and the opportunistic and specious arguments that have sustained them, including the unwarranted surveillance of Americans and the expansion of the Homeland Security state, will outlive this administration, and perhaps even be embraced by the next president. Once in office presidents who proclaimed their devotion to liberty and constitutional standards tend to become enamored of power, especially executive power, as Gene Healy explains in his new book, The Cult of the Presidency.

But some of those power-grabs will look so brazen in retrospect that they will be rescinded or amended. And some pushback is already coming.

What puts me in an uncharacteristically optimistic mood this week is the fact that the Pentagon has dropped charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, who could have been the 20th hijacker (or 21st or 22nd; there are other candidates) if he hadn’t been kept out of the country, and who is being held at Guantanamo. This is the latest blow to the military commission system that was finally supposed to deliver a bit of credible justice to those detained at Guantanamo.

Susan Crawford, who decides which cases will come to trial, didn’t explain why the charges against Qahtani were dropped (five other detainees still face possible charges). Emily Bazelon, writing at Slate.com, figures that "Something in the unsavory history of al-Qahtani’s interrogation (featuring sexual humiliation, attack fogs, stress positions, and sleep deprivation) must have proved too much for Crawford, which may reveal that Crawford has some filament of legal integrity or simply that she knows when to cut her losses." Qahtani’s lawyer, Army Lt. Col. Bryan Broyles, was not shy about saying that it was because the only evidence they had against him was the result of torture. "In six-plus years, the evidence comes down to what they beat out of him," he said.

The virtual collapse of the Guantanamo military commission process, which was supposed to get convictions and validate maintaining the prison, is largely due to something not many had expected — stubborn integrity from military lawyers and judges. As Bazelon puts it, "since the inception of the commissions, the brakes have almost always been applied when some member of the military has balked, even when going along would have been the far easier course."

Charles Swift, the Navy JAG defense lawyer for Salim Hamdan, reputedly Osama bin Laden’s driver, took his client’s case to the Supreme Court and won the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case that sent the military commissions back to the drawing board. Col. Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor for the tribunals, who had defended them in articles, resigned last October when his bosses pushed him to try "sexy" cases rather than meritorious ones and has become a critic of a system he now believes is hopelessly politicized. Four other Gitmo prosecutors have resigned because of micromanagement and politicization

Make no mistake. As a former colleague and ex-Marine (or, as he put it, "once a Marine, always a Marine") never tired of telling me, the fundamental mission of the military is to "break things and kill people." That is understandable in a time of war, although it is also one of the reasons we should be cautious and perhaps even fearful of what Andrew Bacevich described in a recent book as the increasing militarization of society. Killing people and breaking things may sometimes be necessary, but they are hardly the fundamental pillars of a peaceful and productive society, which is just one more reason to regret the increasing use of the war metaphor as the way to approach various societal problems, as in a "war" on drugs, on cancer, on poverty – and on terrorism.

While there is an undeniably destructive aspect to the basic mission of the military, however, it is also the case that military discipline and training tend to imbue a certain sense of honor and integrity. Perhaps because those in the military live more closely than most of us to the possibility of death and just might have an appreciation, if only instinctive, of how fragile life can be in extreme circumstances, they just might have an enhanced appreciation of the importance of a life well lived, of a life that reflects integrity and honor rather than taking the easy way and cutting corners. There may also be a feeling that if the fundamental mission is destruction, it should be carried out honorably rather than haphazardly or brutally, as would be the case with an overtly criminal gang.

Whatever the reasons, the military in the United States – most of it, and especially the officer corps (though perhaps an exception can be made for some of the climbers and politically minded who claw their way up to the rank of general officer) – still has a code of honor that emphasizes integrity and personal ethics. Of course, being human, not all military people act honorably, and hardly any act with complete integrity all the time. But the stubborn sense of honor remains, and although it may not always be rewarded it is still valued.

It is significant to note that most of the cheerleaders for the Iraq war, while the administration was dancing the deceptive minuet designed to fool people into thinking that the process leading up to the war was deliberative rather than headlong and unthinking, were civilians, people who had never served in the military (Bush’s National Guard experience hardly counts as serious military service). And Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle, Kristol, Frum, and countless other neocons were notably innocent of anything resembling serious military experience.

Many of the voices trying to induce caution at that time were people with military experience. One can regret that Colin Powell (perhaps the very model of a modern political general) was not as effective or as persistent as he might have been – and allowed himself to be used at the UN – but he seems to have been almost the only voice in the upper reaches of the administration urging anything like looking before one leapt. Andrew Bacevich had a full career in the military before becoming a professor. Numerous generals tried to stress the importance of more boots on the ground and proper planning for the aftermath, even as the civilians were anticipating being greeted by flowers and the flowering of democracy.

Some of the most trenchant critiques of the war have come from the Army War College and other military educational institutions, and much of the work was done by active-duty officers as well as retired people. Much of the criticism of torture has also come from people with military backgrounds, while most of the advocacy was done by people with no military experience and no interrogation experience but only theories or the experience of watching 24. Even John McCain, as awful as he is on so many levels, has been (mostly) commendably forthright about ruling out torture, and it is largely because of his own military experience.

I’m far from an uncritical cheerleader for the military, but I do believe this country is fortunate to have a military with deeply rooted traditions and an abiding sense of honor. May it outlast the ignorant and arrogant civilians and theorists who were so instrumental in starting this unfortunate war in which so many honorable people have been killed and maimed.

Read more by Alan Bock