General de Gaulle (l.) in 1962; General Salan who was tried for OAS attempts to kill de Gaulle. (r.)
The ever observant Tom Engelhardt notes that the U.S. military is all set to drag its feet in response to President-elect Obama's plan to get out of Iraq.
Engelhart focuses on the remarkable amount of equipment -- of stuff -- the U.S. military in Iraq have imported and now seek to protect. But it is interesting to read about this military opposition to civilian policy in the light of Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace about which I wrote several days ago. That war between metropolitan France and insurgent nationalist Muslim Algerians led to the overthrow of one democratic, modern European government (France 1958) and its final days severely threatened the successor government of General Charles de Gaulle.
When professional generals find themselves loosing miserable colonial wars, they have sometimes turned against the civilian authorities at home. Such episodes have been fortunately few in U.S. history. But not non-existent. When General Douglas MacArthur challenged President Truman's authority while commanding in the Korean conflict in 1951, if the political class had not rallied strongly behind Presidential authority, MacArthur might have created a dangerous domestic fascist force. Robert A. Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography provides a vivid account of just how threatening these events were to Constitutional rule.
Because of the consistency of this pattern, it is worth looking at what Horne outlines as the circumstances that brought the French Army fighting the doomed war in Algeria into broad, though not universal, terrorist revolt against its own country and leaders.
He documents the mindset that the French Army brought to the Algerian war (1954-1962) in a chapter titled "Why We Must Win". He asserts that there was
But the French army in Algeria, despite terrible carnage, was defeated, if not militarily, in that nothing it could do would destroy the nationalist impulse that underlay the insurgency. In fact, every military "success" won through such means as torture and mass internment made for more Algerians determined to win independence.
In 1958, elements of the army along with the European settlers in Algeria were able to bring down the democratic Fourth French Republic, a dismally incompetent central government. But when the successor so much wanted by the same forces, General Charles de Gaulle who created a president-dominated Fifth Republic, decided in 1962 that France needed to cut its losses in Algeria, segments of the army moved into open revolt. Under the name of the Organisation de l'Armée Secrète (OAS), they bombed civilian targets and assassinated opponents ruthlessly, including numerous attacks on President de Gaulle himself. Horne offers an historical explanation of how such a complete disaffection from civilian rule had come about:
Now no individual had to live through all that messy history, but it does seem unsurprising that some confusion about where authority properly belonged might have developed.
Does any of this have any analogy in contemporary U.S. experience? Yes and no. Some thoughts:
- Since Gulf War I, the U.S. military has been commanded by civilian leadership that did not universally command its respect. Clinton was a disreputable philandering draft dodger. George W. Bush and his minions were cranks who threw out the smartest military thinking (Powell doctrine), outsourced military functions to crony capitalists (the contractors), ground up its vaunted military in a war without a defined end point (Iraq), dishonored officers by ordering them to torture, and can't even run a functional Veterans Administration to serve the survivors.
- Parts of the U.S. military have become infested with right wing Christian fundamentalists who encourage a Crusader mentality in the military.
- The U.S. military not only lost a bitter colonial war in Vietnam three decades ago, it is now losing such a war in Iraq. So far, a pretense of a dignified possibility of withdrawal from Iraq remains; it does seem ironic though that a conqueror has to negotiate with the conquered to get out. The face-saving could collapse.
- And scarcely on the media radar screen yet nonetheless a fact, U.S. forces are enmeshed in an equally hopeless war in Afghanistan, a war which an otherwise more realistic new President now plans to escalate