“The Anger of the Legions” Meets the Tea Party

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    Thanks to the firing of General McChrystal from his command in Afghanistan, Americans, wittingly or not, find ourselves at a tipping point in the evolution of our society, a point which history tells us is inevitably reached by every large power, after which that society goes down one of several possible different paths, generally without its participants’ expressly realizing what has happened until long after the fact, if ever. The choices made, the threats perceived, the problems forcing the crisis almost always, I believe, bring about unintended consequences quite different from the expected results. The nature of tipping points is such that many different actors in the scenario in some way do sense the revolutionary nature of the moment and try, each of them, to seize and control the opportunity but, however savvy each participant may be, or whatever they believe it is necessary to do, the unintended consequences of their actions in the longer term rarely match their intentions.  

    The Sunday Washington Post for 27 June 2010 has several to-the-point articles touching on the McChrystal matter, by Andrew J. Bacevich (Boston U. history professor, author of upcoming book “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War”), Eliot A. Cohen (professor at School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins U., author of “Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime”), and Thomas E. Ricks (senior fellow at Center for New American Security, author of “The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008). Please bear with me as I now presume to carry their discussions a little further, asking “Now what?” and describing one of those several possible paths down which our society might go….. not the only one, of course, but definitely one before us. The further over the horizon we try to peer, the deeper into the future we project events, the likelier it is we fail to foresee the details, but we may still get the outlines of the looming big picture.

    Professor Bacevich tellingly quotes Marcus Flavius, centurion of classical Rome out on the far-flung reaches of the Empire, who was frustrated much like McChrystal by the petty politics and factions back home in Rome, and wrote to a cousin,

    “…tell me that our fellow citizens understand us, support us and protect us as we ourselves are protecting the glory of the empire. If it should be otherwise, if we should have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain, then beware the anger of the legions!”

    These words could have been written by today’s “Team America,” which is what McChrystal, his immediate staff, and a frighteningly large part of the American officer corps calls itself. Their sentiments are: “smug disdain” and condescension toward civilian leadership, a conviction that they are “bravely holding out against a sea of stupidity and corruption,” that, in other words, only they have the honor, intelligence, and competence to know what to do.  In a nutshell, Team America and others of similar mind set, extending back to Vietnam, have a narrative of civilian betrayal of the military wherein the professional soldiers tried to accomplish an impossible mission without proper support and were hamstrung and humiliated by what Cohen calls “inept civilian counterparts and a president eager to shift the blame to troops.”

    It has been the special mantra of the Republican Party for years that Democrats are peacenik cowards who have no understanding of the uses of, or needs of, the military—- that Democrats are, in fact, traitors (“why do they hate America?”) who foolishly neither understand geopolitics in the real world nor the dangers of not continuously projecting America’s muscle power on the global scene. Given the inherent Republican connection with big banks and big business, dating back to the days the party was originally founded, it is no surprise that what Eisenhower himself called “the military industrial complex” became wedded to the GOP, pouring money into its coffers in exchange for fat defense contracts and a burgeoning military always on alert and fighting “defense” against first Soviet Russian communism and then whatever threat to America could be discerned or even predicted anywhere around the globe.  

    Note that Democrats, contrary to the Republican framing of them as peaceniks, have been quite as ready as Republicans to employ the mighty American military machine, and feed it whatever the Pentagon said it needed to keep rolling along, through one conflict after another in an unbroken string of continuous warfare. Bacevich quotes General George C. Marshall, who said that “a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War,” and shrewdly points out that Vietnam became America’s seven years’ war, after which we replaced our draft-based citizen army with a volunteer professional army.  

    In other words, we now have exactly what our Founding Fathers explicitly feared and despised, a standing army, and, in Afghanistan, a war which has far exceeded General Marshall’s 7-year limit, plus an American civilian populace which is not itself viscerally involved in that war (unlike the draft-based World Wars I and II, Korea, or Vietnam), and a major political party that has completely accepted the neo-con idea of a “Long War” of civilizations, which commits the United States to endless combat with no exit strategy—– does the Republican-military definition of victory mean we do not stop fighting until all Islam is converted to evangelical Christianity? Or, until we have Armageddon and the Second Coming? (Or, haha, perhaps, until we have exhausted ourselves, and China takes advantage of all our efforts and ends up dominating the world after we finish doing their work for them in various resource-rich countries here and there?) Where are we really supposed to be going with this?

    Meanwhile, back in the newly-designated “homeland,” we had the so-called inexorable globalization of business, facilitated by a combination of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Wall Street financiers, the ready muscle-power of the American industrial-military complex as exercised by that standing army, and the Freidman free market capitalism theories which came into dominance under President Reagan. Every president since Reagan, including Clinton, pushed the free market capitalism scenario domestically every bit as hard as the World Bank sought to enforce its precepts on struggling third world countries…. it became the Conventional Wisdom, a kind of secular religion for the political class, cozying up to the wealthy global elite class.

    When free market capitalism so dramatically fulfilled its inherent requirement for “creative destruction” (i.e., a series of ever-greater market collapses resulting in ever-greater recessions) as finally to affect the U.S. and Europe as well as those third world countries, the political class sat up and took notice. So did the heretofore oblivious average voter. The response offered by the political class was not to replace the free market theory, however, as that proved to be sacred.  The response was to patch up the system with timid reforms which basically left the system intact, and the huge power of now massive international business corporations untouched.  After all, they provided the money for political campaigns, controlled the mass media, and were undoubtedly going to have even greater influence on government now that a Supreme Court decision gave corporations (as “persons”) the right to spend unlimited funds in “political speech,” especially during campaigns. Who would have the courage to confront that power? Certainly not the political class, addicted to sucking the teat of corporate cash contributions.

    All the changes of the 20th century, including not only the rise of global corporations who seemed unaccountable to anyone, but also surging changes in demographics that were beginning to marginalize the previously dominant white American male, and the remarkable fervor of another American religious revival fueled by fundamentalist evangelism came together under the final stress of the Great Recession, and produced the phenomenon of The Tea Party. At first, the movement was based on an inchoate anger against the powers-that-be in Washington, the federal government—- everything “wrong” had to be someone’s fault, and what better target than the government, which they felt had become too big, too expensive, too indifferent to common folk, so let’s kick the bums out and get rid of all that bloat.

    The Tea Party movement has always been a Republican item. Its sentiments (“Taxed Enough Already”) meshed perfectly with the long-standing Republican free-market policies of tax cuts and smaller government which would eschew regulation of business, so it was only natural that it found invisible sponsors from among the usual Republican business interests, that saw in the Tea Party a vigorous group they could manipulate to defeat policies by President Obama, who had promised “change” that might threaten their comfortable position of free-wheeling power, change they found it expedient to label “socialism” because it attacked the arrogant power of global corporations.

    Thus, the Tea Party-Republicans were provided with a more or less coherent, unifying philosophy, such as a return to the limited Constitution purportedly set up by our far-seeing Forefathers.  They suddenly treated the Constitution like the Bible: absolutely unchangeable sacred doctrine (as interpreted by specific individuals, of course), but with selected parts ignored (counting three-fifths of a person was to be ignored just as, in the Bible certain inconvenient parts like polygamy were to be ignored). Totally unregulated free market capitalism and the sacredness of profit over everything else was another doctrine, as was reduction of government on every level—- this, when spun out to its conclusion, meant abolishing regulations and most taxes, and ending almost every function of the federal government but defense and foreign policy. Shrewdly, the corporate interests who are the behind-the-screen sponsors of the movement, let the earnest rebels keep their demand that this new, modest government would be all-Christian all the way.

    Compare the various myths of the angry Tea Party—- like abolition of an what is seen as an incompetent, bloated federal government, hatred of taxes, insistence on unregulated free market capitalism, proclamation of personal responsibility versus so-called nanny government, and a flaming Christian evangelism fighting non-believers such as Muslims—- with the narrative of the angry Team America professional military, especially their contempt for what they believe to be an incompetent and corrupt civilian leadership, a demand for more control over their mission and, in many cases, a similar evangelism (a largely unnoticed story has been the assiduous infiltration of the military ranks by whitehot evangelical missionaries intent on forcibly converting all Islam to Christ in “the Long War” of civilizations). The two groups have much in common. The latent Republican ideal of an authoritarian, autocratic Father figure leader meets that of the phallocratic military.

    Will the Republicans connect their own sanctimonious patriotism, their fawning over corporate treasuries, and their furious Tea Party grassroots with the “eroding ethics” and anger of the professional military? It is true that the Republican Party has often chosen a successful military officer for national office (Grant, Eisenhower, even, in a sense, Colonel Teddy Roosevelt). And there has been speculation that McChrystal entertained ideas along these lines for 2012, or that Petraeus is on the Republican short list of dream candidates. What may be even more likely than a general on the GOP ticket is the melding of the complaints of the military with the politics of the Republicans, so that the militarization of our government and the politicization of the military begun under Bush II will come to full flower in a future Republican administration. This wedding will obviously benefit not just the bottom lines of the industrial military complex, who can look forward to continued fat no-bid contracts from the Pentagon, but would put the American military directly in the service of powerful global corporations, who may require assistance in their competition for resources and sales elsewhere in the world.

    Most everyone has at first agreed that President Obama’s sacking of McChrystal was necessary to re-affirm the Constitutional control of our military by the elected civilian political leadership. No doubt those who assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 BC intended to preserve what was left of the republican traditions of Rome, too, but what really happened was to ensure the establishment of imperial rule, which was already well underway.  How our tipping point turns out is also up for grabs.

    In my opinion it is quite possible that the final triumph of corporate feudalism will be the result, with the United States turned one way or another into a military state which preserves the outward form of an old-fashioned republic, while the true reins of power are held by extra-constitutional mega-corporations. Here are some possible results in America from the corporate-sponsored Tea Party’s domination of the nominally Republican Party in such an age of corporate feudalism:

    1) Balkanization of political power through ruthless de-funding of all but the military on a national level so that states become the principal government force. This does not end up meaning smaller government in total (contrary to the hopes of the Tea Party), but government splintered so that corporations can better control what happens, and are freed from any serious regulation, but can still tap into treasuries for any bailouts or other special favors

    2) Disappearance of the middle class as workers in a labor-hostile free market system must compete cruelly for jobs, on a level with the cheaper labor in third world countries; ending pensions, social security, health care reform leaves the average citizen completely at the mercy of corporations, and groveling for jobs

    3) Absorption of the Department of State by the Department of Defense so that, in essence, the Pentagon becomes the national government, since the functions of those two departments pretty much are all that remains of the “constitutional” purposes of the federal government. This gives the military what McChrystal and Team America wanted (control of their mission). This could well work out so that in the longer run we end up with

    4) Two capitals: the military, or “war capital” where the warriors rule, and the “civil capital” where what remains of the federal bureaucracy and an emasculated president holds forth, sponsoring legislation written for him by his corporate masters—- not too unlike the arrangement in feudal Japan, where the Emperor held his ceremonies in Kyoto, while the Shogun was in Tokyo, really ruling the country.

    Impossible in this country? Well, we’ll see.

    • Dan Sullivan

      But a cauldron of possibilities and potential rabbit holes, any or many of which may combine to produce even more tangling snares.

      These certainly are interesting times.

    • Teddy Goodson

      are possible, at any point along the way, but, once there is any sort of understanding between the T.P. wing of the GOP and the frustrated Team America wing of the military, we are in real danger, especially if the corporate moneybags still think they can get more out of that coalition than any other group, because the money and power which becomes available will drown out any opposition—– we would then end up with some of military-society with a distinct theocratic flavor stuck in continuous warfare at the (concealed) behest of global corporations, most of which will eventually not even be actually based in the U.S. at all.

      Not a pretty thought, but it will happen so subtly, within a framework that looks like the traditional Constitution, with the citizenry convinced it is all for protecting our “freedoms” that it will seldom be noticed how we have been snookered.

      OR, maybe the Tea Party will fail, perhaps spectacularly, when faced with the strains of the 21st century, and the inborn resiliency of the American system will re-assert itself. Interesting times, no?