Military Encroachment On Civilian Authority & Seven Days In May

Via Digby comes this unsettling article by David Wood in Politics Daily about the growing militant contempt among military leadership for civilian authority and control.

The military officer corps is rumbling with dissatisfaction and dissent, and there are suggestions from some that if officers disagree with policy decisions by Congress and the White House, they should vigorously resist.

Officers have a moral responsibility, some argue, to sway a policy debate by going public with their objections or leaking information to the media, and even to sabotage policy decisions by deliberate foot-dragging.

This could spell trouble ahead as Washington grapples with at least two highly contentious issues: changing the policy on gays and lesbians in the military, and extricating U.S. forces from Afghanistan. In both cases, senior officers already have disagreed sharply and publicly with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Barack Obama, and in some cases officers have leaked documents to bolster their case.


“The military officer belongs to a profession upon whose members are conferred great responsibility, a code of ethics, and an oath of office. These grant him moral autonomy and obligate him to disobey an order he deems immoral,” writes Marine Lt. Col. Andrew R. Milburn in Joint Forces Quarterly, an official journal published by the National Defense University under the aegis of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

That is especially true if his civilian leaders are incompetent, writes Milburn, who currently is assigned to the U.S. Special Operations Command in Stuttgart, Germany.


“When the results of bad decision-making are wasted lives and damage to the Nation; when the customary checks laid down in the Constitution — the electoral voice of the people, Congress, or the Supreme Court — are powerless to act in time; and when the military professional alone is in a position to prevent calamity, it makes little sense to argue that he should not exercise his discretion,” Milburn writes.

Read the entire article; please.

Now, there is no sense of any direct coup type of trend afoot in all this so much as an accelerating trend to the militarization of government and resigned acceptance by the proletariat. Digby touched on this:

This coincides with our new fetish for everything military, including the president of the United States announcing over and over again that he would “listen to the commanders on the ground” which likely gave more than a few of them the idea that they were the ones in charge. When you add that to the canonizing of the The Man Called Petraeus during the Bush years, this seems like a logical outcome. (I would also add that more than a few of them may be part of the religious “crusade” that some of the evangelical military brass are involved with.)

But the paradigm goes much deeper than the relative autonomy granted Petraeus in Afghanistan and the lionization of the US military. That is now; the question is where the trend heads in the future, and that is the even more troublesome thought. The concern is not so much one man such as David Petraeus (although I remain convinced he is the strongest and most worrisome politician the political right could coalesce around, not Sarah Palin). To me, the bigger problem is the militarization of the civilian government itself; the merging of military thought with command and control of civilian modalities.

One of the movies and books that has always stuck deep with me since my days as a child in the 60s was Fletcher Knebel’s Seven Days In May. The story takes place in a deeply divided country, after a stalemated war in Iran that has left the country depleted financially and devastated economically, causing despair, frustration, sense of powerlessness and unrest in the citizenry. The President is seen as weak and increasingly feckless. Into this dynamic steps a military establishment that surreptitiously built up the ability to exercise complete command and control of the communications and electronic media distribution capabilities via a program known as ECOMCON. And a larger than life narcissistic hero General named James Mattoon Scott decides he is the one to lead.

Hey, wait a minute, actually there is at least some similarity between Petraeus and Gen. James Mattoon Scott. The only difference is in reality, the civilian government has authorized the communications and surveillance capability that makes ECOMCON look quaint. And a disillusioned public may be close to being ripe for a daddy figure like The Man Called Petraeus. Leave it to a Brit paper, the Telegraph, to point out the obvious while the craven Yank press twiddles with Palin and O’Donnell:

In this toxic climate, perhaps the only public institution that has increased in prestige in recent years is the American military. Its officers are looked upon, as General George Patton once noted, as “the modern representatives of the demi-gods and heroes of antiquity”.

Where better to look for Obama’s successor, therefore, than in the uniformed ranks? Not since 1952, when a certain Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War, was elected President, have the chances of a military man winning the White House been more propitious.

Within those ranks, no one stands out like General David Petraeus, head of United States Central Command, leader of 230,000 troops and commander of United States forces in two wars. Having masterminded the Iraq surge, the stunning military gambit that seized victory from the jaws of defeat, he is now directing an equally daunting undertaking in Afghanistan.

Petraeus, 57, has survived the collapse of his parachute 60 feet above the ground. After he was shot in the chest during a training exercise and endured five hours surgery, the then battalion commander refused to lie in hospital recuperating. Demanding that the tubes be removed from his arm, he declared: “I am not the norm.”

The Constitution has been systematically hollowed out by the unitary executive power grab geared up in full by the Republican Bush/Cheney regime and ingrained and, in many regards not just ratified, but accelerated by the supposedly more enlightened Democratic Administration of Barack Obama. There is economic desperation in the streets with more and more homeless and unemployed citizens. It all adds to a toxic, stewing unease and detachment from governance, preached by the noisy Tea Partiers and long bought by the ill educated rural “real Americans”. The conditions are ripe for a military hero daddy to “save us”.

Think corporations and the capitalists on Wall Street will object to a military savior? Heck no, not so long as they are left free by the new paradigm to run free and pillage as they have grown accustomed to. And that is not in the least inconsistent with a more militarized rule. Not at all. In fact, the military and corporations are aligned and both worried about the populists, egalitarians and environmentalists, so they are a natural fit.

If the public malaise from tepid and ineffectual governance is not remedied by the Democratic leaders in charge, the electoral upshot may not be the cackling ineptness of Sarah Palin, but the polished narcissism of Gen. James Mattoon Scott Gen. David Petraeus.

  1. scory says:

    Bmaz – this is extremely well done. There has been an incremental militarization of the civilian Federal government since the 1950’s, at which time President Eisenhower first warned us of as the “Military-Industrial Complex.” During the 1960’s and 1970’s, one of the requirements to achieve flag rank became the “successful” development and deployment of a weapons system, further bonding officers, Congress, and industry. The military’s “rehabilitation” following Vietnam, aided and abetted by the Reagan Administration, has lead to public opinion of the military and its role in civil society to be radically changed. The military has become a “fair broker” and “efficient and effective” — which are both demonstrably false.

    The problem is, given the current boundaries on public discourse, statements against the role and practices of the U.S. military are considered “unpatriotic”, “seditious”, and “treasonous”. Which opens up the political space for the military to assert itself in civilian politics, and to resist the direct intention of civilian control.

    Shorter Bmaz and Scott – we’re in deep trouble here with the military.

  2. TomThumb says:

    When a trillion dollar a year budget is not even mentionable and that debt is payable through stealing from Social Security, without a quibble, the coup d’etat is complete.

  3. BayStateLibrul says:

    Good analysis.

    We will know more in November with the elections.

    How about Obama/Clinton in 2012?

    • bobschacht says:

      How about Obama/Clinton in 2012?

      From the military’s POV, it’s bad enough that we have a “Black” President, even if we have had Colin Powell as SoS. Worse, Obama was never in the military. But to compound those negatives with a woman as VP?

      bmaz, I think what you’re touching on is a reaction in the military that is similar to the reaction among civilians (among birthers, etc) is that Obama Is Not One Of Us.

      Your thesis is also shown in Woodward’s depiction of Obama’s search for options in Afghanistan. He asked for three, but of the three that he got, two were obviously not viable, so they were obviously trying to force him to adopt the option they wanted. And when confronted by Obama, they refused to give him 3 viable options. So he had to cobble together an option out of bits and pieces of other options. He’s in a rough place here.

      Bob in AZ

  4. jackie says:

    Those same Generals who stood by while BushCo lied their way into War, They said nothing failure after failure, death after death?? But now they are afraid for the Country and talk of Treason??
    And, if ‘The Military’ launches a ‘coup’ to Protect US from our ‘duly elected officials’ just how many of our young men and women are stuck in other countries and would not be here to defend their families?
    Sadly serious questions…..

    • bmaz says:

      Actually, much of the main thrust of the article in Politics Daily is by a chap named Milburn, and if you look at what he was talking about, the focus was on exactly what you are talking about – i.e. saying there should have been pushback against the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld bungled war orders. Thing is, whether it fits what we want or not, that is not appropriate either. It simply is not a good thing when the military subverts civilian authority. It would have been wrong for the military to undermine Bush. The overall principle is more important than the particular specific instant.

      • jackie says:

        I agree to a point, but they seem to already subverted ‘Civilian authority’.. so why stay quiet then but not now??
        Why move now??

        ‘It simply is not a good thing when the military subverts civilian authority. It would have been wrong for the military to undermine Bush. The overall principle is more important than the particular specific instant.’

        • jackie says:

          OK.. I agree more than just to a point…:)
          But ‘They’ haven’t been playing by the same rules/moral law as us for a really long time and ‘our rules’ don’t seem to mean much to ‘Them’….

      • brendanx says:

        I think there should be caveats. I welcomed Fallon’s open opposition to Cheney, despite the fact that it undermined this iron principle of civilian control; he took the oblique route of resigning as a consequence of his own premeditated indiscretion in voicing his criticsms of the press. Even though most of these generals are right wing, and many extremist, I think there has to be some room for them to voice their views; they all know the consequence may be that they are cashiered.

        Obama could have exercised civilian authority and fired Petraeus, a Bush loyalist. He didn’t, because he’s either a weakling or a genuine warmonger, or both, or merely a cipher. It remains the failure of him and his civilian administration and the increasing encroachments of the military are a symptom of that.

        With the Cheney/Bush administration, on the other hand, what you saw was strong civilian control — by a neoconservative cabal — and it was arguably worse than what the military on its own would have dictated; the military, indeed, was a check on them. I like the principle of civilian control okay, but in practice these days it’s not obviously better than what civilian politicians will come up with, such as “keeping all options on the table” (i.e., dropping nuclear weapons on) as regards Iran. If given a choice between Cheney-Rumsfeld-Feith-Wurmser-Wolfowitz again and a military junta, I’m agnostic.

        • Sara says:

          “Obama could have exercised civilian authority and fired Petraeus, a Bush loyalist. He didn’t, because he’s either a weakling or a genuine warmonger, or both, or merely a cipher. It remains the failure of him and his civilian administration and the increasing encroachments of the military are a symptom of that.”

          I think the words of Lyndon Johnson probably sum up much of Obama’s attitude toward Petraeus, “Would rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”

          Woodward details how Petraeus tried to box in and capture Hillary a few days after Obama took office. Get her committed in public his way, and yes, with Bushie types with their own agenda. Fascinating. Hillary figured it out pretty well, and set her own agenda.

          Petraeus pretty much worked through Lindsey Graham, Graham was trying to push McCain even three months after the election. He details all their little huddles with the Press, all the various OP/ED’s they managed to get dropped into the major media.

          There is so much about who would get to manage Intelligence twill make your head spin. I doubt it if Woodward got it all, but he sure got quite a bit. (Never forget all the Contractors $$$ that are behind all this.)

          One sorta surprise — One reason Gates stayed on with Obama was that when Bush appointed him in 2006, he found that the whole weight of Pentagon Work was on what kind of war we would fight in 2020, or 2030, not the then current wars. A lot of what Gates has done was to minimize those “future missions,” and focus on the here and now, For instance force the Pentagon to buy what is needed for now, and stop trying to save the futuristic high tech stuff of the Military Dream.

          And Oh Yea, the Military and Intelligence tried to play the old Cheney Game on Obama. Just after the election they tried to force him into briefings without his own staff, so as to structure what he could and could not know and discuss. Just like the act with Jay Rockefeller. It is all in the book — in most cases names and sources attached.

          And yes, George C. Marshall would have ordered up a Firing Squad. The closest he ever came to something like this was in the British American Combined Chiefs Meetings between Pearl Harbor, and late spring 1942, and for the most part, he got what he wanted. North Africa is an interesting debating point — but so minor compared to what confronted Obama.

          In Architectual Terms, Until the Pentagon was finished late in 1942, the US War Department was half of the current State Department Building. That was then known as “The New War Department”, and Marshall did much of his World War II planning in that building — well just the older half. The Expansion came late Ike, early Kennedy. Just to set your image of it all properly for comparative purposes. Of course they built temps on every bit of free land, but the brains were in a pretty small space.

      • cregan says:

        Civilian control of the military is a very important cornerstone of our system.

        From one point of view, I can understand the frustration some military people may feel.

        1. the dumb “we’re leaving” date in Afghanistan, which accomplishes nothing except giving the other side the date they need to wait until–something they are actually talking among themselves about. Better to have just gotten out than waste people in a fight you have given the other side the keys to winning totally.

        2. leaving Iraq before the election results there were settled and the new government formed. If they needed incentive to form the government, what better incentive than Obama saying, “We’re halting all withdrawal until you form the new government–would have been formed in a few weeks, pronto. Now, anything gained is in jeopardy of being totally lost.

        Of course, any gain made would provide some reason for the fight, so I am sure some feel a total defeat would be better so as not to provide any cover to Bush.

        These things could get some people worked up.

        Even so, the civilian control of the military is more important.

        • TarheelDem says:

          On item 1, wars are not won they are settled by political negotiation. Even the “unconditional surrender” of Germany was settled with a political settlement with the remaining Wehrmacht. The “unconditional surrender” of Japan involved a condition that the emperor remain the symbolic head of state. Providing a target date is not the same as providing a date certain. A target date provides for negotiation of a political settlement, which seems to be happening. The only question in doubt is whether the “foreign fighters” in Pakistan that the US originally sought will be indeed removed from Pakistan.

          On item 2, the US had a Status of Forces Agreement with the government of Iraq. Breaking that agreement would have caused even more chaos than the contested election. What seems to be happening is Iran is negotiating a political agreement among the Shi’ite political parties for the naming of a prime minister, probably Maliki. Awlawi suffered from the perception that he was a US puppet.

          Now, if US troops are upset about these two events, they have not been properly trained in how wars start and how they end. Treating war as a sports event has gotten the US in trouble in the past. Yes, the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq are difficult, but the general staff had the responsibility to understand those difficulties before they engaged in war. And Petraeus has the unenviable task of making real what he claimed to Obama was possible (when McChrystal was the commander who had to make it happen).

          The politicization of the armed forces by the Republican Party is getting out of hand; that is what is going on.

        • bmaz says:

          Exactly. Even where i wish they could just say no, like to the asinine Iraq war; you just cannot have that. The military gets to advise and give them input, but once the civilian leaders have spoken, that is it.

    • tejanarusa says:

      Those same Generals who stood by while BushCo lied their way into War, They said nothing failure after failure, death after death?? But now that a black man has been elected their commander-in-chief they are afraid for the Country and talk of Treason??

      Fixed/edited for ya.

  5. klynn says:


    Thank you for a great piece of writing.

    You might be interested in watching Bob Woodward’s interview by Charlie Rose last night.

    Woodward was trying to make these points over and over. Woodward said he felt he was, “Sounding an alarm”.

    Rose and Woodward struggled for words to explain what was happening. All they needed to do was talk to you.

    And we all wonder why DoD backs tracking pacifists as criminal?

  6. Frank33 says:

    If Woodward’s book is to be believed, Obama is a puppet to the generals and the neo-cons. The military coup has happened. The biggest failure in US military history is Gen. Betrayus. He failed in Iraq and and he is losing the Afghan War. But he could be our next President/Dictator appointed by the corporations, as he wages Endless War.

    Obama has made it easy for the fascists, by giving them everything they want, including bashing peaceniks and persecuting antiwar protesters. Plus Obama is weak, lazy and a liar, as he wages a war he claims he does not want.

    The military wants the 40,000 troops with no strings attached, no promise that this will be the last request and no fixing of a date when Obama can begin withdrawing them. The president sees the pit opening before him. “This is not what I’m looking for,” he says. “I’m not doing 10 years, I’m not doing a long-term nation-building effort. I’m not spending a trillion dollars.” He wants another, more flexible option with fewer troops and a built-in date to start withdrawals. But the military won’t give it to him. Gates, Mullen and Petraeus hold fast to the original request and put additional pressure on Obama through their supporters in Congress and the media.

    By the way, Woodward obviously had access to classified formation. So how about prosecuting him under Homeland Security anti-terrorism laws. Woodward release of classified information endanger lives. His book will certainly endanger lives since as usual it is a pack of lies to support the Endless Wars that Woodward profits from.

    • bmaz says:

      The long time suspicion by many is that Woodward has some level of security clearance. He certainly did at one point as a Naval intelligence officer, but that was long ago. I don’t have any clue, but is possible.

  7. Ruth Calvo says:

    The Pentagon budget is routinely approved without particulars being revealed. No wonder that there’s a takeover, there are always rising authoritarians looking for their kingdom.

  8. harpie says:

    We live in a very right-wing authoritarian society.

    Congress [the only voice of The People], instead of performing their Constitutional duty of checks and balances, actually grants the military and the executive branch the power to override the very laws they are meant to obey. For instance:

    The DoD Appropriations Act for 2010 [PL111-118; 12/19/09]:

    From the summary:

    (Sec. 8061) Prohibits the use of appropriated funds to support a unit of the security forces of a foreign country if credible information exists that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights, unless all necessary corrective steps have been taken. Requires the monitoring of such information. Authorizes the Secretary to waive such prohibition under extraordinary circumstances (requiring a report to the defense committees on any such waiver).

    Here is one response to Milburn’s article:

    Richard Kohn fires a warning flare about a Joint Force Quarterly article; Thomas E. Ricks; 9/29/10

    I wonder if Pat Lang will say [or has said] anything about this.

    A photo of Milburn:

  9. tjbs says:

    Two thoughts,

    How has it reversed the military serves us to we serve the military?

    Pat Tillman was the true hero, a man’s man who would have kicked patraius’ as from here to hell and back in a Presidential match-up. A true truth warrior who had to go, for the show to go on.
    They read and listened to his every conversation until it became clear that he was a liability and had to have an accident before he would ever be allowed to step foot back in the country he loved and served.

  10. bobInpacifica says:

    Frank33, Woodward was ONI before he became a cub reporter for the WaPo.

    As far as the danger of coups, there was a coup in the U.S. in 1963. In an alleged democracy they don’t announce it to the public.

    • bmaz says:

      Knebel’s Seven Days in May was supposedly loosely based on the antics of Curtis LeMay and another general during the Cubam Missile crisis with Kennedy – exactly the time you mention.

  11. Frank33 says:

    I recall Woodward claimed we had won the war in Irak. That was because of a new super secret weapon which Woodward revealed existed. After almost eight years we continue to win in Irak. Woodward says we will win in Afghanistan, at least the generals say that. Woodward does make flattering narratives of US war leaders. He diligently records their great successes. Book after book and year after year. It is OK to release classified information if it protects war profiteering.

  12. klynn says:


    My comment @6 is not an endorsement of Woodward. I happened to catch the interview unexpectedly and was taken by how the interview tracked with this post.

    Despite my negative conclusions about Woodward, the interview is interesting to watch. Note the repeated phrases. He and Rose repeat phrases over and over. It almost feels like the interview is caught in a loop — on purpose.

  13. nolo says:

    O/T — but Judge Kaplan, the extremely able federal District Court judge in Manhattan, on the has held that the exclusionary rule still has life in terror trials, like Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani’s — even if the poisoned fruit was obtained in secret jails, and secret interrogations (per the NYT):

    . . .[I]n a three-page ruling, Judge Kaplan wrote that “the government has failed to prove that Abebe’s testimony is sufficiently attenuated from Ghailani’s coerced statements to permit its receipt in evidence.”

    The judge said that he would issue a fuller opinion later. . . .

    Namaste to all. . .

  14. brendanx says:

    After reading Milburn’s essay, he writes, “I fear the Rubicon may be closer than we think.”

    I like this very apt use of the expression.

    • john in sacramento says:

      You stole my thunder

      That paper is actually a warning. I ran across that paper years ago and have been pointing people to it at various links ever since

      Everybody, click the link

  15. Sara says:

    I am about 2/3rds through the Woodward Book, and while I have put aside for a day or so now, I do think people should actually look at the real thing, and not Judge by what you think of the various other things the author has done.

    Steve Coll at the New Yorker has a good one page review.

    Yes, Obama’s War does describe in detail how the Military tried to put Obama in a box on Afghanistan long before the policy review process was underway, let alone complete. But the point of the Policy Review was to get all the parts of Government on board — State, AID, Agriculture, CIA and retired “intelligence” types, and much else, and then yes, what is the Military Part? (Remind, the book is also about Pakistan.)

    Woodward claims at the end that when the review process was done, Obama sat down and typed out his own “principles of way forward” on his own stationary, and tabled them. Who knows whether the consensus achieved in the process can hold — so many independent agendas show up, get lost, and then suddenly re-appear.

    But please try to look a little at the content of a book before you decide whether the story it tells holds weight.

  16. TarheelDem says:

    Excellent analysis, bmaz.

    It’s been creeping up since World War II. James Carroll’s House of War is an excellent history of up to 2005. This just continues the trend.

    In some respects, the situation has become a form of extortion.

  17. lysias says:

    Civilian government in the U.S. is increasingly proving itself disfunctional.

    When civilian rule in the French Fourth Republic broke down, a semi-coup brought De Gaulle to power, and he reformed the French polity and established the Fifth Republic.

  18. prostratedragon says:

    Marine Lt. Col. Andrew R. Milburn:

    The military officer belongs to a profession upon whose members are conferred great responsibility, a code of ethics, and an oath of office.

    And the President of the United States is utterly unlike this?

    He continues:

    These grant him moral autonomy and obligate him to disobey an order he deems immoral.

    And there is no qualification prescribed to his “deeming?”

    No distinction between conduct allowed, or even required, of an officer as such, and sedition? This man sounds like he has been blinded by a bit of gold braid.

    • bmaz says:

      Interestingly, if you click through links and fully read Milburn, it becomes clear he was predominantly discussing the Bush/Cheney crew starting an unjust and illegal war and sending our troops into it against the supposed precepts and principles of the US foundation, law and constitution as well as international law. That may not have been the total of his posture, but sure seemed to be the predominant genesis of it. That is pretty tough, because the theory about it being all wrong for the civilian leadership to do that is incredibly sound and correct – all the way up to the thought the military can properly recoil and subvert the civilian leadership.

  19. Mary says:

    You have to wonder, though, about something like trying to sway policy or delay it by foot dragging if the policy involves things like attacking Iran (which could have disastrous consequences) or invading Pakistan or Yemen (ditto and ditto) or reluctance to send Special Forces on “let’s kill Americans worldwide on just Obama’s thumbs up, etc.

    I think civilian control of the military is crucial, but military responsiblity for commission of war crimes even when they are framed as being civilian policy also has a place.