Sunday, October 2, 2011

Freedom of Speech

My cousin, a colonel in the Army, emailed his circle of friends the following article form the Armed Forces Journal, which is a magazine produced by the US military:

Growing Up: Toward a new maturity in civil-military relations

I would recommend reading the whole thing, but you may need some explanation or clarification first. You can tell that the article was written by a military mind and that the article is intended for a military audience. It is long, comprehensive, detailed, and full of the kind of vocabulary that only military people are comfortable with. It is also not obvious at first what issue the article is addressing.

The article is basically arguing that military officers should have a right to free speech, specifically the freedom to publicly oppose policies that they think are wrong. This belief may not seem controversial, but it is. People often claim that if military personnel oppose the civilian administration in any way, this is a threat to democracy. The article argues that the real threat to democracy is the suppression of dissent.

The opening paragraphs look like something you would expect a radical anti-military protestor to write:

What if U.S. troops were used — and acquiesced in being used — to conduct extrajudicial targeted assassinations inside the sovereign territory of another country without prior congressional approval or even consultation?

What if U.S. military personnel, weaponry and munitions similarly were used — again with uniformed acquiescence — to conduct aerial bombing of another sovereign country, with at least the partial intent of killing a head of state, also without prior congressional approval or consultation, and the president then openly flouted the legal reporting and troop-withdrawal requirements of the War Powers Resolution?

What if the dramatically expanded size, use and global presence of U.S. special operations forces — operating as they do in extreme secrecy, blurring the boundaries that normally separate military operations from police, intelligence and internal security operations, and subject to minimal congressional oversight — were to pose unseen and unknown challenges to civilian control of the military?

'Civilian control of the military' is a sacred value among the U.S. armed forces. Officers know that dozens of civilizations, including ancient Rome, have been ruined because their armed forces have started meddling in civilian politics, causing everything to descend into armed savagery and civil war. Among our military personnel, it is a source of professional pride, even a foundation of their very identity, that they are not the kind of soldiers that overthrow lawful authority. Like all sacred values and matters of honor, it must be discussed very carefully, which is one reason for the length and language of this article.

One could say that civil-military relations in this country already are relatively mature — if by relatively, one means compared with others (at least regimes with fewer years of democracy, putative or real, under their belts) and by mature, one means generally stable, predictable and democratically nonthreatening. But if by relatively, one means compared with what we could and should be, and by mature, one means having achieved an ideal state of civil-military relations — a strategically effective military, whose leaders provide strategically sound advice, to civilian officials who are themselves strategically competent and answerable to a strategically aware and civically engaged public, all of this undergirded by a critical free press, a vibrant civil society and a properly subordinated military-industrial complex — then we are a far cry yet from adulthood.

This is the central idea of the article, a statement of what we should be. Everything before it lists the problems, and everything after it lists solutions. The first step to finding solutions is to gain a better understanding of reality.

we live today on what might be considered a global battlefield in which there has been an almost total convergence of the tactical and strategic domains of action. There no longer is anything purely tactical or narrowly military that is without almost instantaneous strategic consequence or ramification. Thus, there no longer exists any meaningful boundary circumscribing the proper purview of the military and demarcating it from a pristine civilian domain of strategy.

Here, the author assumes that the audience appreciates the difference between the strategic and the tactical. Strategic choices are things like "We are going to declare war on Germany" and tactical choices are things like "We are going to call in an artillery strike at coordinates XYZ to provide covering fire while the tanks advance along Route Q to attack the German pillboxes on that hill." As the paragraph implies, the ideal has been that strategic choices should always be made by elected civilians while tactical choices should always be made by well-trained military personnel.

This next bit is one of the author's most important points:

6. Civilian direction isn't inherently constitutional or legal.

Just as there is an implicit quid pro quo that civilian authorities be strategically competent and provide strategically sound direction to the military in return for the military's keeping its advice narrowly military, so too is there a quid pro quo that if the military is to live up to its oath of office — to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic (not least including those within government who seek to subvert or circumvent it) — civilian authorities who expect unquestioning obedience from the military are in turn expected to act constitutionally and legally. The problem — a problem of overriding import — arises when the military assumes, unquestioningly, for reasons good or ill, that civilian authorities are doing so.

Why would the military consent to being deployed to invade another sovereign country without a declaration of war — or, at a minimum, a priori congressional authorization? Why would the military carry out targeted assassinations in violation of domestic and international law, especially without apparent congressional consultation? Why would the military subject a U.S. service member to inhumane treatment for allegedly passing information it itself had classified to a news organization — the democratic free press — before that individual is accorded due process of law? Why would the military torture (or "coercively interrogate") enemy combatants (or "prisoners of war" if we in fact are at war) and imprison them indefinitely while denying them habeas corpus? Why would the military engage in domestic surveillance and secretly infiltrate citizen groups exercising their rights of assembly and free speech? Why would the military suppress or deny public access to information it possesses for the purpose of nothing more elevated than protecting civilian political sensitivities?

These are examples of where the military acts dutifully at the behest of civilians and assumes, often wrongly, often for reasons of convenience or expediency, that the latter are responsible and accountable for the constitutionality and legality of their actions. Such frequently misplaced assumptions by the military exemplify an over-obeisance to civilian authority, represent an abrogation of responsibility for questioning authority and guaranteeing constitutionality and legality, and demonstrate more than a modest measure of civic illiteracy on the part of those in uniform.

This article makes it clear that many people* in the military are not happy about the things they have been told to do recently, and want to be able to air their grievances and dissents.

My personal opinion is that the military should never have the right to initiate things, but they should always have the right to say "No, we are not going to do this." In other words, both the military and civilian authorities should have a veto on any kind of military action.

*Not all of them

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