Monday, May 14, 2012

Matters of Insubordination: Could a Military Coup d'etat Happen in the United States?

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?

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.
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.

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.

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.
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?


Comrade Physioprof said...

I have discussed this question in great detail independently with two friends with long-term military service. They both think it is impossible for an overt coup to occur that goes outside the normal chain of command and openly defies civilian authority. Their support for this conclusion is the same: that rank-and-file will never go along, and that they will disobey illegal orders.

Dunno if I am as sanguine as them. Enough guys around like Ollie North, and who knows what could happen?

sledge said...

Sorry if I wrecked the other thread. CNu's response caught my interest and before I knew it I was typing away.

Your Question if a coup is even possible. My opinion is:

Under a certain, specific situation.

The answer to this question depends on the political and economic situation. And the degree to which an unpopular Government has put it's boots on it's citizenry's throats in an attempt to maintain control and order. The same as anywhere else in the world.

Although, more medicated and better armed, we're not that different from people anywhere else.

It is possible for a coup d'état to take place if and only if the populous demands it. It is possible for a military that has decided the Constitution has been scraped by insurgent forces in Government to take control and hold control and territory.

The military has the weapons, means and training, as well as an Officer Corp that has taken an oath to do just that should the need ever arise.

In America today, due to the wide divide in opposing views and aspirations held by the populous, it would probably end in a second civil war.

I will say that I think before it got to that point some states would attempt to succeed the union.

As to using the military for police duties, that is nothing short of lunacy. Anyone who thinks that is a good idea hasn't served in the military. That is not what the military does. The military isn't in the business of respecting citizen rights.

That is why it is so worrisome that Northcom has drawn up plans and trains to assist and assume police control in the case of mass civil unrest. If it occurs it will be a disaster.

sledge said...

Just a note for those who may not know. Military officers do not take an oath to a person or a government. They take an oath to a piece of paper. The concept that they work for a government or for civilians is incorrect.

They are instructed by that piece of paper, to to follow orders approved by that piece of paper, from a limited number of civilians who serve at the CIC's pleasure with the approval of congress.

The military has no obligation to follow any orders from civilians not approved by the Constitution.

They fact that they have from time to time, although disturbing, does not change the relationship between civilians and the military.

chaunceydevega said...

@Sledge. Didn't mean that you thread jacked. I like interesting conversations. I was referring to Colorbind's new "alter" ego.

CNu said...

CDV - I'm firmly convinced that a soft coup comprised of dominionist/conservative types embedded in the officer corps, going all the way up the chain of command to the Joint Chiefs - was recognized and systematically dismantled over the past 6 years or so.

One of my homies got tapped to take that fustercluck of idiocy apart, and now that the reins have been handed over to Leon Panetta, I think we can all rest much, much easier wrt the knuckledragging parasite within the Pentagon having been effectively declawed and defanged.

CNu said...

As for the rest, the Constitution was thoroughly and permanently trashed during WW-II - when the U.S. economy was transformed into a warsocialist economy and U.S. national security and foreign policy was permanently pegged to parasitic militarism.

The U.S. has been making up enemies and provoking confrontations worldwide ever since - starting with Truman's profound betrayal of Stalin on the nuclear weapons issue.

Fred J. Cook's The Warfare State should be required reading for anyone interested in a close examination of the rise of warsocialism in the U.S.

fred c said...

Since the Reagan era we've had a political party bent on reducing the Federal Government to something "small enough to drown in a bathtub." Creating huge deficits etc to force the destruction of social programs etc, etc, etc. Who benefits? The corporations, of course. If I were slightly more paranoid I might call it a "soft coup."

This question about the military is interesting. Mightn't they benefit too? Worth pondering.

It would be nice to think that the military would act to protect the constitution, but watch out what you wish for. Any coup plotters would be wrapped in the constitution, and they wouldn't act until most people, and the military, believed them.

fred c said...

Great stuff CNu (for the last couple of weeks actually, thanks). Sounds like we were lucky that the Dominionist thing wasn't broadly enough based to be a real problem.

The military, though. Well, we have had seventy-one years now of permanent state of emergency, along with the astronomical growth of the national security apparatus in all of its forms. Maybe the Professor's last question has it right: maybe it's happened already.

Anonymous said...

Enough already of this fiction . In America most of the military enjoys being patriotic welfare workers killing aboard and posturing here with great benefits.
Truth is our military is a mercenarie force and to have a coup requires a political organic base which is never present in a volunteer military

nomad said...

Could a Military Coup d'etat Happen in the United States?

No. Not as long as the CIA runs the government.

Anonymous said...

The military is and has been co-opted by the money-changers and bears only minute traces of the Constitution. Who really thinks that we are spreading democracy as opposed to shoring up oil resources? The average Joe clutching the Constitution will never be able to course correct what has already been infiltrated at the top, short of world destruction.

D. said...

I agree with CDV. It doesn't have to pull a coup any time soon. Even if we get a pres. that wants to dismantle the military industrial complex, he'd be voted out of office faster than you can say "Support the Troops!"

fred c said...

Read "Entangled Giant," by Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books. Google "Entangled Giant" and it's on top. Maybe it is a fait accompli (sp).

The only politician who talks about this stuff is the cute old man in the borrowed suit. (I'm no friend to him, but there it is.)

CNu said...

The only politician who talks about this stuff is the cute old man in the borrowed suit.

lol, fred, you KNOW that emotional negroes must reject any and all pronouncements emanating from that pathologically racist source...,

Anonymous said...

"The only politician who talks about this stuff is the cute old man in the borrowed suit. (I'm no friend to him, but there it is.)"

This is true and a shame to boot. He's not even a liberal.

nomad said...


This part I found particularly interesting:
"Perhaps it should come as no surprise that turning around the huge secret empire built by the National Security State is a hard, perhaps impossible, task. After most of the wars in US history there was a return to the constitutional condition of the pre-war world. But after those wars there was no lasting institutional security apparatus of the sort that was laboriously assembled in the 1940s and 1950s. After World War I, for instance, there was no CIA, no NSA, no mountain of secret documents to be guarded from unauthorized readers, no atomic bomb to guard, develop, deploy, and maintain in readiness on land, in the air, and on (or in) the sea."

As I said. The government has been usurped already by the CIA. A military coup against them is not possible. Increasingly, the military, along with the presidency apparently, is under its control.

fred c said...

That article is like the headlight on the streamliner, it throws a lot of light. All of that security apparatus is in the executive branch, which most people usually think of as "the president." Now we have a permanent executive branch while presidents come and go, and do what they're told. Some would say that the legislative and judicial branches have lined up with the permanent executive too, and that the corporations sleep in the same bed. It's a problem.

Sure, I might be paranoid, but that don't mean that something ain't chasing me.

nomad said...

'Some would say that the legislative and judicial branches have lined up with the permanent executive too, and that the corporations sleep in the same bed.'

i think they call that fascism