Today a conservative commentator for Newsmax called for a coup:
There is a remote, although gaining, possibility America’s military will intervene as a last resort to resolve the “Obama problem.” ... Imagine a bloodless coup to restore and defend the Constitution through an interim administration that would do the serious business of governing and defending the nation. Skilled, military-trained, nation-builders would replace accountability-challenged, radical-left commissars ... Military intervention is what Obama’s exponentially accelerating agenda for “fundamental change” toward a Marxist state is inviting upon America. A coup is not an ideal option, but Obama’s radical ideal is not acceptable or reversible. Unthinkable? Then think up an alternative, non-violent solution to the Obama problem.
The failure of the military to accept civilian authority was the second of Carlos’s proposed failure modes. So let’s ask: could it happen here? We won’t be the first. Back in 1993, then-Lieutenant Colonel Charles Dunlap published an essay titled “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.”
In the scenario, the U.S. increasingly turns to the military, first to aid with domestic law enforcement and then, increasingly, to provide other services when the civilians deadlock. (It’s too bad that the author missed the possibility that a collapsing private health insurance system might cause the government to mobilize domestic Medcaps.) The military gains the experience to cheaply carry out governmental functions by becoming “the de facto government in many” places abroad where regimes had collapsed or been removed. Finally, Dunlap postulates that a combination of the end of conscription, the exclusion of ROTC from liberal campuses, long overseas deployments, and attempts to improve on-post service life cause the military to continue to become ever more distinct from American society. In 2007, Congress unifies the armed forces. In 2010, the U.S. is soundly defeated in the “Second Gulf War.” Dunlap doesn’t list the events that finally provoke the coup (a dolchstoßlegende is hinted at) but that wasn’t of course his purpose.
Another deliberately vague treatment of an American military coup is in Starfarers, by Poul Anderson. The book implies that the postulated coup occurs long after the elected parts of the United States government have become hollow shells, with a presidential “Advisory Council” calling most of the shots. Anderson’s coup leader uses the military to oust the current crop of advisors and take their place, leaving intact the titular offices of President and Congress. (Which is quite similar to what our conservative friend fantasized about today: “Having bonded with his twin teleprompters, the president would be detailed for ceremonial speech-making.”)
Needless to say, there is no sign of any of this happening in the United States. Discussion below the fold.
There is a worrisome disconnect between the military and the civilian elite. That disconnect, however, has a long tradition in American history. There has always been a strong streak of antimilitarism among one portion of the American “elite,” particularly in the northeastern states. Its brief eclipse in 1941-65 was the product of an odd set of circumstances.
In addition, there has also always been a strong disinclination to make any sacrifices on behalf of the society among the nouveau riche of the United States. Teddy Roosevelt may have tried, but he never managed to replace the knee-jerk economic libertarianism of the American wealthy with a European-style dedication to militarism and other “manly virtues,” as he called it.
The disconnects between the elite and the military is, in my opinion, mildly problematic for the nation. Liberal antimilitarism and conservative libertarianism cause the children of the well-educated and the wealthy to be underrepresented inside military institutions. That said, neither disconnect is anywhere near strong enough to make it likely that the military will disrespect civilian authority.
Nor is the military sufficiently cohesive to really believe itself separate from the rest of the polity. The experience of the Bush Administration has served, if anything, to make the officer corps less partisan. In addition, the importance of the Reserves and National Guard to the Total Force system has kept the U.S. military fairly well-linked to the civilian world, even if not as well-linked to the richest or best-educated part of it as I would prefer.
Finally, while there is an unhealthy degree of surface deference granted the military in our public discourse, I do not think that said deference runs particularly deep.
In other words, there just isn't any there there to give the military the legitimacy it would need to act as an effective veto actor in the American polity. Edward Luttwak said it well:
You would sit in the office of the Secretary of Defense, and the first place where you wouldn’t be obeyed would be inside your office. If they did follow orders inside the office, then people in the rest of the Pentagon wouldn’t. If everybody in the Pentagon followed orders, people out in the military bases wouldn’t. If they did, as well, American citizens would still not accept your legitimacy.
That could change, but it would be a slow process, and there are really no signs of American society moving in the direction laid out in Dunlap’s paper. As it stands, it is unlikely in the extreme that the military would intervene even in the face of an economic or political catastrophe. The Army won’t mobilize itself to squash rioting in a major city or prevent China from invading Taiwan, let alone to seize control of Congress in order to raise taxes and head off an inflationary spiral.
Poul Anderson, in his own depressing way, laid out a scenario that differs from Dunlap’s in one significant way: in it, the U.S. had already failed, well before the coup, not because the military disobeyed orders but because an apathetic public allowed authority to leech away from its elected representatives. That is a subset of Carlos’s fourth failure mode, which deserves more thought than I can currently muster.
Am I missing some set of circumstances in which the U.S. military could cease to respect civilian authority? Is there another governmental institution (besides the judiciary, which we already discussed) that could potentially subvert the democratic system? Am I wrong to be so sanguine about the effects of the relative disconnect between our civilian elite and the military?
Many questions, few answers, thoughts desired.