Sunday, November 23, 2008

When do generals revolt?

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.

This week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen - the man president-elect Barack Obama plans to call into the Oval Office as soon as he arrives - wheeled it into place and launched it like a missile aimed at the heart of Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan for US combat troops in Iraq. It may not sound like much, but believe me, it is. The chairman simply said, "We have 150,000 troops in Iraq right now. We have lots of bases. We have an awful lot of equipment that's there. And so we would have to look at all of that tied to, obviously, the conditions that are there, literally the security conditions ... Clearly, we'd want to be able to do it safely." Getting it all out safely, he estimated, would take at least "two to three years".

For those who needed further clarification, the Wall Street Journal's Yochi J Dreazen spelled it out, "In recent interviews, two high-ranking officers stated flatly that it would be logistically impossible to dismantle dozens of large US bases there and withdraw the 150,000 troops now in Iraq so quickly. The officers said it would take close to three years for a full withdrawal and could take longer if the fighting resumed as American forces left the country."

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

a certain peculiar determination with the regular French Army that [the war] should not be lost. This determination did not entirely spring from a belief in the sanctity of the presence francaise [continued colonial rule] -- still less from any kindred feeling for the pieds noir [European settler population] -- and to understand it one needs to recall sympathetically the recent history of the French army. ...the 1940 debacle [collapse before the invading German forces] ...a nagging complex about its inferior role alongside the vast British and American war machines imposed on it by 1940. Then followed the catastrophe of Dien Bien Phu [defeat by nationalist Vietnamese forces in 1954]; the most humiliating defeat sufferd by any Western power since the Second World War and, in its context, as humiliating as 1940 to French army sensibilities in that the victors had been despised 'colonials' and 'little yellow men'.

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:

Since the execution of Louis XIV in 1793, the French army had been subject to the First Republic, the Directory, the Consulate, the first Empire, the First and Second Restorations, the "Bourgeois Monarchy" of Louis Phillipe, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, the Commune, the Third Republic, Petain's Vichy and de Gaulle's Free French Committee, the Fourth Republic, and now the Fifth Republic. Each change of regime had contributed fresh divisions within the army, and added new confusion as to where loyalties were ultimately due. ...

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.
  • 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
This catalogue of stresses on the U.S. military does not lead me to predict we'll be seeing any outright turning on the civilian government such as France weathered while losing Algeria. But it doesn't hurt to be aware of the unthinkable.


Darlene said...

This has escaped notice by the media and political junkies. Thank you for bringing it to the attention of those who read your post. I found it most enlightening and firmly believe that Obama will not be suckered into delaying ending the Iraq war. It sure didn't take 3 years to get all that equipment and men to Iraq so it shouldn't take that long to remove them.

Nell said...

Your posts set a very high standard to begin with, but this is one of your most important ones. Thanks for all of them, and please keep blogging. I've burned out.

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