Sunday, 12 February 2012

Politics (boo!) v/s armies (yay!)

A little noticed excerpt from Obama’s State of the Union message signaled another creepy and disturbing trend: fulsome praise of the military for its alleged ‘apolitical’ patriotism in contrast with self-interested ‘politicians’.

This is a favorite trope of the right and consistently deployed by military dictatorships, which habitually describe their defense of the Nation as disinterested loyalty floating far above loathsome partisanship.

Obama spoke dreamily of the Navy SEALs who were at that moment rescuing hostages from Somali pirates. He contrasted their action to the gridlock he faces with the recalcitrant, GOP-dominated Congress:

‘They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together’. Later he suggested that Congress should follow the troops’ example: ‘Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn from the service of our troops’.

But troops in a hierarchical institution obey orders. Navy SEALs do not deliberate over policy and aren’t supposed to. They don’t negotiate their budgets, and they don’t pass laws. Elected representatives, for better or for worse, are supposed to do that, messy as it often is. It’s usually described as ‘democracy’.

Does anyone else experience disquiet when the president appeals to military discipline as a metaphorical way to unite in the name of the national interest? I suspect people in Argentina, Greece, or South Korea—who have watched their armed forces seize power with precisely that excuse—might be a tad uneasy upon hearing it.

Obama had more to say about special forces’ heroism as he bragged about his ownership of the flag that the SEAL team carried on its mission to assassinate bin Laden in Pakistan. ‘No one thought about politics’, said Obama.

It’s certainly true that no one in that operational team was supposed to exercise political judgments, but it’s quite a stretch to think they—and their superiors—have no political thoughts. In fact, Obama had to fire one of them quite recently for mouthing off to a Rolling Stone reporter about what an idiot he thinks his boss is.

As we enjoy the spectacle of our two political parties sinking into dysfunction and the federal government flailing about in the grip of institutionalized venality, no doubt we will hear more and more about the purity of spirit housed in the Pentagon and its uniformed branches, perhaps including the ‘apolitical’ intelligence services, too. Reactionary and anti-democratic forces can be expected to beat this drum; it’s a shame that a former professor of constitutional law has chosen to echo it.

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