BILL WASIK: Let us begin with the most straightforward approach. Would it be possible for a renegade group of military officers, or the officer corps as a whole, to simply plot and carry out a coup d'état in the United States?Trolls can lead to productive conversations. Here is a fun follow-up from our early to and fro about the insubordinate behavior of General McChrystal and his lack of respect for the Office of the President. How we began discussing Mitt Romney's empathy gap, and ended up talking about national security, the military industrial complex, and U.S. foreign policy, I am unsure. But, as you know, I roll with the punches and improvise when appropriate and necessary.
EDWARD LUTTWAK: If somebody asked me to plan such a coup, I wouldn't take on the assignment.
CHARLES DUNLAP: I wouldn't either. [Laughs]
LUTTWAK: I've done it for other countries. But it just wouldn't work here. You could go down the list and take over these headquarters, that headquarters, the White House, the Defense Department, the television, the radio, and so on. You could arrest all the leaders, detain or kill off their families. And you would have accomplished nothing.
ANDREW BACEVICH: That's right. What are you going to seize that, having seized it, gives you control of the country?
LUTTWAK: You would sit in the office of the Secretary of Defense, and the first place where you wouldn't be obeyed would be inside your office. If they did follow orders inside the office, then people in the rest of the Pentagon wouldn't. If everybody in the Pentagon followed orders, people out in the military bases wouldn't. If they did, as well, American citizens would still not accept your legitimacy.
RICHARD KOHN: It's a problem of public opinion. All of the organs of opinion in this country would rise up with one voice: the courts, the media, business leaders, education leaders, the clergy.
I have mentioned this essay from Harper's a few times here on WARN. I assign it in my introductory American Politics courses as a way of getting students to think about our country's cultural, social, and political institutions. Could there be a military coup in the United States? What would it take to be successful? Would the officer class go along with it? What of the average rank-and-file soldiers?
My answer has always been as follows: why does the military need to have a coup when they effectively run the show anyway? Moreover, the United States is a thoroughly militarized society from the bottom up (and has only seen the walls between the military and civilian life become thinner and thinner with the post-Cold War up-gunning of local police departments, and Patriot Act national security era).
Unlike Japan in the Tokugawa era--when the average citizen knew that the country was first and foremost a martial society--Americans are blindly ignorant of this fact. But then again, the average rank and file plebian also thinks that the United States fights wars in order to export "democracy" (as opposed to create "free markets" to exploit, and to maintain exclusive access to resources) and that Al-Qaeda attacked on 9/11 because they hate "the American way of life" and our "values."
Alternatively, a brief and cursory look at American popular culture--from video games, to blockbuster movies, to TV shows--reveals how militarism is valorized, socialized into the body politic.
Operationally, the puzzle is an interesting one. Which units would actually defect? Given how geographically dispersed and forward deployed the U.S. military is, do they actually have the line infantry and other assets to actually conduct operations in a hostile domestic environment? Never mind COIN or MOUT in a major American city.
Here is another wrinkle: most of the Army's forces are based in the South, what if a Turner Diaries style neo-Nazi white nationalist wet dream came to pass?
In all, I would rather war game a zombie outbreak.
The military is one of the United States' most "respected" political and social institutions. Given the right mix of circumstances, a failing State, an exhausted public, and creeping inverted totalitarianism I could envision the American people clamoring for a "soft coup."
To point, here is one particularly tasty passage from Harper's "American coup d'etat: Military thinkers discuss the unthinkable" that seems to echo my sentiment:
WASIK: Let's get back, though, to the subject of crises, whether real or contrived. It seems as though the American public wants to see the military step in during these situations. A poll taken just after Hurricane Katrina found that 69 percent of people wanted to see the military serve as the primary responder to natural disasters.What do you think folks? Could a successful military coup happen here in these good ol' United States? Or did it already happen at the end of World War Two and the public was asleep at the wheel?
DUNLAP: People don't fully appreciate what the military is. By design it is authoritarian, socialistic, undemocratic. Those qualities help the armed forces to serve their very unique purpose in our society: namely, external defense against foreign enemies. In the military we look to destroy threats, not apprehend them for processing through a system that presumes them innocent until proven guilty. And I should add that if you do try to imprint soldiers with the restraint that a police force needs, then you disadvantage them against the ruthless adversaries that real war involves.
WASIK: Then why do so many Americans say they want to see the military get involved in law enforcement, “peacekeeping,” etc.?
DUNLAP: Americans today have an incredible trust in the military. In poll after poll they have much more confidence in the armed forces than they do in other institutions. The most recent poll, just this past spring, had trust in the military at 74 percent, while Congress was at 22 percent and the presidency was at 44 percent. In other words, the armed forces are much more trusted than the civilian institutions that are supposed to control them.