‘Civilian control of the military is one of the defining innovations and bedrock values of American democracy.’ Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Chaos continues to reign at the White House, with Steve Bannon its latest casualty. Despite the best efforts of the new chief of staff, John Kelly – a retired United States Marine Corps general – to impose order, the real source of the chaos is the president himself.
That’s bad enough for domestic politics, but given the deteriorating situations in Afghanistan and on the Korean peninsula, there’s a wholly reasonable fear that our thin-skinned, egomaniac commander-in-chief just might tweet us into a major shooting war.
In the face of these fears, there has arisen around the White House and among the “wise men” of Washington the comforting idea that responsible grownups are firmly at the helm of America’s national security.
Over the weekend, the former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson made this striking assertion: “Frankly, if … my friend John Kelly or my friend Jim Mattis came to me and said I’m thinking about resigning from this White House, I’d say, ‘Absolutely not. You have to stay,’” Johnson said. “We need people like John Kelly, Jim Mattis, HR McMaster to right the ship.”
Many experienced hands in Washington now believe the Pentagon brass won’t let the president do anything stupid, nor would they follow a suicidal order to launch attacks. After all, they’ve already ignored Trump’s ridiculous “trans-ban”, right? There’s actually talk among establishment insiders about an unofficial “Committee to Save America” made up of the generals, Trump’s New York cabal and a few Republican senators.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Civilian control of the military is one of the defining innovations and bedrock values of American democracy. Ours was the first country since Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon to reject juntas by charismatic generals.
When George Washington resigned his commission as commander of the Continental army, nobody around the world could believe it. They fully expected him to declare himself king. When informed, no less than King George III exclaimed: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” And so he was.
But Donald Trump is no George Washington. So in the second decade of the 21st century, we find ourselves in dangerous waters, far removed from the lessons our founding fathers taught us. Remember, our democracy is still just an exciting experiment, only 241 years old, and more fragile than we may realize.
Only once in American history did the army consider a junta. In winter quarters at Newburgh, New York, with the Continental army once more starving, freezing and unpaid, the officers had finally had enough. They called a meeting on the ides of March 1783 to discuss taking the army to Philadelphia and demanding Congress provide pay and supplies. They did not expect Washington to attend the meeting, but many of them believed he supported their idea.
Imagine their surprise when he appeared and asked to speak. There was a lot of grumbling. He was not an eloquent speaker with those painful false teeth, and besides, they had already made up their minds. He droned on with some boring, academic points about civilian control (you can read the tepid speech here) amid the shuffling feet and whispered impatience of the troops. The speech fell flat.
So Washington took out a letter from a congressman complaining about the deep financial hole Congress was in. The grumbling grew louder. There was a groan or two.
But with his eyes squinting at the small writing, Washington suddenly stopped. He reached into his waistcoat and took out a pair of spectacles. His men were dumbfounded. They had never seen him wear glasses. Peering over the rims of his glasses at their astonished faces, Washington said: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”
Hardened soldiers broke down in tears, shocked at the vulnerability of their beloved, ageing hero. This was the father who had led them through bitter fighting, shared their suffering, privation, disappointments and trials, and finally brought them to glorious victory.
Choked with emotion, nobody really listened as Washington finished the letter. He nodded, folded his spectacles, then quietly left the assembly. The Continental army’s nascent revolt simply melted away, and in its place, civilian rule of the military was forever established as a cornerstone of our democracy.
The only time in American history our military ever considered disobeying civilian government, George Washington quashed the rebellion with a pair of ordinary spectacles.
Today, our military leaders may face an even tougher choice. If given an immoral or suicidal order by a misguided or unbalanced commander-in-chief, would they consider disobeying? And how, given the long bloody sweep of war’s history, could that possibly be reassuring?
Defiance of an elected president, no matter how venal that president, or how justified that defiance, would certainly spark a constitutional crisis. What could Congress do? Or the courts?
There’s not much historical precedent, but in 1832 the US supreme court held Andrew Jackson’s awful Native American removal policy unconstitutional. Jackson scoffed: “Mr Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!” Then he went right ahead with the Trail of Tears.
Would the Pentagon’s refusal to obey the president’s orders constitute a rebellion? Or a military junta? What if some commanders decided to obey the president and ignore orders from the Pentagon chain of command? Would they move against the Pentagon to put down the “rebellion”? Might we devolve into just another banana republic?
This is all theoretical, and highly unlikely, of course. But make no mistake, Trump poses a clear and present danger to our country. In a fit of pique, we elected a bigoted, narcissistic demagogue who even some leaders in his own party think may be dangerously unstable. Still, once you start expecting the generals save the republic, there’s no telling where it leads. Just ask Crassus and Pompey how that worked out with their friend Julius Caesar.
So before you start hoping the generals will deliver us from that guy in the White House, be careful what you wish for.