Military operations on native soil

There's a really, really good reason for why we created a National Guard to deal with domestic defense and natural disasters and a standing army to conduct wars abroad. That's because you never want your standing army to think of fighting civilians in any circumstance, god forbid establish institutional norms that deploying troops on native soil is anything close to acceptable practice.

If you look back on the 20th century, practically every overthrow of a democratically elected government was undertaken by the commanding officers in the standing army. In some countries, like Pakistan, this happened every three or four years over a stretch of decades. What do you think "President" Musharraf was before he was president, and how do you think he got the job? In a country like ours it's a slow-ish process, but we are well into it.

A major ingredient of it is to teach standing forces to think of shooting their fellow citizens as fair game, of being "deployed" on U.S. soil as reasonable -- even in circumstances of search and rescue.

To repeat, the breakdown of civilian/military relations is the greatest threat to any democracy -- perhaps with the exception of a politically apathetic populace. And of course that's what's been going on for decades. In small ways and big ways. The biggest I have seen until New Orleans is the establishment of a troop force in Colorado that is training with the thought of U.S. soil as a battlefield. Important to note that this was created by White House fiat just three years ago. That is no small deal. It's a major departure from about 125 years of military doctrine.

Part of why the military seems so indispensible in emergencies like the one in New Orleans is that the Pentagon is the only agency that's received funding for the equipment and crisis centers. FEMA ought to have its own tools for the job, but it's been downsized and underfunded for 25 years at the expense of the holy defense complex. Don't get the Pentagon wrong, the brass is plum pleased to show Congress just how well it can do The Job.

But to bring this to New Orleans, we are in a complete blur of civilian/military relations:

-Newspapers exhorted that the Pentagon become more involved in central planning for disaster recovery, when in fact, much of the central planning for it was already going on there (The Washington Post has been a serial offender in this regard). Here's a typical implied exhortation with Posse Comitatus way out of the equation: "Lieutenant General Russel Honore, who's been at the forefront of the military relief effort, was asked about criticism that the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't call the military soon enough."

-The AP, Reuters, and everyone else touted repeatedly that "battle-hardened" troops were on their way from Iraq, and that they would shoot to kill. Who were those troops? Guardsmen, who never should have been in Iraq. When you blur roles, all military activity begins to look the same. I've seen a few references to "insurgents" in New Orleans.

-Take a look at this Army Times article, which contains so much that is bad for the notion of civilian command over our armed forces. So much. Start with the headline: "Troops begin combat operations in New Orleans." To be sure, those troops were National Guard, but it doesn't really make a difference, because who was providing equipment, and marching orders?

The entire armed services, working in tandem as one force: "Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and police helicopters filled the city sky Friday morning. Most had armed soldiers manning the doors. According to Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeremy Grishamn, a spokesman for the amphibious assault ship Bataan, the vessel kept its helicopters at sea Thursday night after several military helicopters reported being shot at from the ground." A military operation was conducted on U.S. soil. You have to wonder why 3,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne are in New Orleans, when there are thousands of National Guard from New Hampshire to New Mexico just sitting around.

Reactions in the same article by Guardsmen were utterly appropriate; they felt weird being shot at by fellow citizens, and it was odd for them to return fire. "'I never thought that at a National Guardsman I would be shot at by other Americans,' said Spc. Philip Baccus of the 527th Engineer Battalion. 'And I never thought I’d have to carry a rifle when on a hurricane relief mission. This is a disgrace.'" The truth is that dealing with armed civilians on U.S. soil -- in a circumstance like New Orleans is a matter of law enforcement, not the military.

-I could pile on five or six dozen other elements, but here's the cherry on top. The highest military ranking official, and the ranking civilian commander below the president toured the battle zone in New Orleans, exactly as if it were one, with commensurate quotes fitting of the commander-in-chief and no one batted an eyelid. Worse still, the highest-ranking civilian, George Bush, hadn't yet shown his face there. Where in the world did Richard Myers get off speaking as though he were the head of FEMA? "I mean the scope is just huge and I think that the federal officials, state and local that have responded to this have done a, actually a pretty remarkable job given the hand they were dealt which evolved over time. It all didn't occur on one day. It evolved as time went on." I'll tell you where -- in the same alleys of the mind that dozens of military commanders the world over have had about their civilian leadership.

In 1992, then-Joint Chief of Staff Colin Powell picked among dozens of entries in an essay competition at the National Defense University an imagined military coup of 2012 scenario. It starts with the growing dependence of the U.S. government on the Pentagon for civilian rescue operations and institutional assumptions that the military should partake in nation-building in foreign countries. Read it, if you have the time.

Here's a snip from the scenario:

It wasn't too long before 21st-century legislators were calling for more military involvement in police work. Crime seemed out of control. Most disturbing, the incidence of violent crime continued to climb. Americans were horrified and desperate: a third even believed vigilantism could be justified. Rising lawlessness was seen as but another example of the civilian political leadership's inability to fulfill government's most basic duty to ensure public safety. People once again wanted the military to help.
Hints of an expanded police function were starting to surface while we were still at the War College. For example, District of Columbia National Guardsmen established a regular military presence in high-crime areas. Eventually, people became acclimated to seeing uniformed military personnel patrolling their neighborhood. Now troops are an adjunct to almost all police forces in the country....


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