This is a guest post by Carrie A. Lee, an Assistant Professor at the US Air War College. The opinions and recommendations offered in this piece are those of the author do not represent the official policy or positions of the U.S. Government, U.S. Air Force, or Air War College.
On the first evening of June 2020, President Donald Trump used National Guard military police units to fire tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful demonstrators in front of St. John’s Episcopal church in Washington, DC. The move, which was largely perceived to be an intentional and excessive show of force to clear the way for a photo-op, sparked outcry amongst observers from across the political spectrum, including those of us who study civil-military relations and remain concerned about the increasing use of the military for partisan political purposes.
In under two weeks, Brazil will have the second round of its presidential election. Former military officer and fan of fascists Jair Bolsonaro looks set after a strong first-round showing to defeat Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad. If he wins, Bolsonaro will have strong party backing in Congress, though he does not care much for the legislature—in 1999, Bolsonaro said Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship “should have killed 30,000 people more, starting with Congress and [then-President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso.” Bolsonaro’s running mate is retired General Hamilton Mourão, his planning adviser and likely Minister of Transport is General Oswaldo Ferreira, an anti-environmentalist who looks for inspiration to infrastructure projects enacted by Brazil’s military government, and Bolsonaro has promised to stack his cabinet with generals. Current and retired military officers have been prominent backers of Bolsonaro, and Bolsonaro announced that he would not accept any result other than victory, menacingly saying “I cannot speak for military” but that there “could be a reaction by the Armed Forces” if he lost and deemed it due to PT fraud (never mind that the PT is not currently in power).
As Michael Albertus highlighted, the military is returning to Brazilian politics in a big way. While the military in Argentina was punished for its dictatorial Dirty War, elites with ties to dictatorship never faced sanctions or fully left the political scene in countries like Brazil and Chile. In Brazil, civilian leaders managed to weaken the military during the transition to democracy, but it retained a broad scope of activities, including internal security and development, especially in combating the drug trade, a mission with which current President Michel Temer tasked the military earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro spent his time as a representative in Congress “interested in helping the military above all else,” and his message that he will restore law and order both resonates with a Brazilian public fed up with high rates of violent crime and with a military keen to reassert itself. Continue reading
I hinted at some politics when discussing the longest recorded sniper shot in history. That the Canadian government might not love this news because it would remind folks that there are Canadians engaged in combat in Iraq. And now, ta da:
In a letter Friday to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, [NDP leader Thomas] Mulcair says the incident “seriously calls into question your government’s claim that Canadian forces are not involved in direct combat in Iraq.”
“Will you now confirm that Canadian troops have engaged in ground combat since your government took office?” he wrote. “Why have you not declared that the current military operation is now a combat mission? Why has there been no debate in the House of Commons regarding this change of mission?”
The following is a guest post by Jahara W. Matisek. Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek is a Major in the U.S. Air Force, with plenty of combat experience flying the C-17 and an instructor pilot tour in the T-6. He is an AFIT Ph.D. Student in Political Science at Northwestern University, a recent Summer Seminar participant in the Clements Center for National Security, and Coordinator for the War & Society Working Group at the Buffett Institute. Upon completion of his doctoral studies, Major Matisek will be Assistant Professor in the Military & Strategic Studies department at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The opinions espoused in the essay do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.
How bad would the Russian cyber-hack have to be in your mind to make you reconsider Trump being allowed to become President on the 20th of January?
I posed this provocative question to 28 individuals that are currently serving in the U.S. military, or had served at some point.
Depending on where you fall along the political spectrum and level of engagement, this question came off as a genuine question to some, and to others, it was perceived as a loaded/slanted question. Thing is, I intentionally asked this, not because I wanted a direct answer to the question, but because I wanted to understand the current sociological state of civil-military relations (CMR) relative to this incredibly divisive political election season. Understanding these answers can provide greater clarity to Peter Feaver’s civil-military problematique, where “the very institution created to protect the polity is given sufficient power to become a threat to the polity.” Indeed, it is right to openly wonder military attitudes concerning civilian control of the military under the pretext of political leadership that might be perceived as illegitimate.
Nonetheless, I was greatly surprised with the incredibly high percentage of responses from such an opening question directed at military personnel – given the contentious election and continued controversy. Even as a mid-level military officer, I was able to start with this type of question, and many opened up immediately – regardless of rank and position – telling me much more than I anticipated, to include about half of the respondents – on their own accord – admitting who they voted for. Continue reading
The joy of blogging is that one can come up with whatever title one wants. An agony of academic publishing is that one cannot do the same for articles published in academic journals. However, getting published is the thing, so I am mighty pleased that the first piece of the Phil/Dave/Steve project on legislatures and oversight over the armed forces of the world’s democracies is now published: “Public critic or secretive monitor: party objectives and legislative oversight of the military in Canada.”* The big question, of course, is how did a paper on Canada get into West European Politics? The answer: tis part of a special issue on executive-legislative relations and foreign/defence policy.
LTG (retired) Mike Flynn has become a Trump advocate and appeared at the Republican National Convention. General (retired) John Allen surprised many by not just speaking at the Democratic National Convention but giving such enthusiastic support to Clinton. The big question is: is this problematic to have recently retired military officers take such public positions in the middle of a national election? Yes. But what can you do?
Every time I think I am out, they pull me back in. No, not leading the mafia. Principal-agent theory. Yep, and I blame Stan Lee. How so? I saw the new Captain America: Civil Wars movie… explanation below the break:
Over the past week, in reaction to the reports about the gender-integrated Marine study, I have seen plenty of pushback mostly against women who tweet but also some male tweeps that basically say: “civ? Of course.” Which basically says that if you are civilian, you will have dumb opinions about the military. Kind of like today’s NYPD message to the media that they cannot understand policing because they are not police.
This is so wrong in so many ways. I will focus on the military side of things, but the problem is the same for police and other folks who think that only members of the particular profession can understand their profession:
The following is a guest post by Kirstin J.H. Brathwaite, Postdoctoral Fellow at James Madison College, Michigan State University.
The graduation of two women from Army Ranger school last month along with the apparent intention of the Marine Corps to request an exemption to the Department of Defense’s plan to lift the combat exclusion policy has led to an outpouring of opinion pieces regarding the advisability of allowing women to participate in combat operations. Some argue that Capt. Greist and Lt. Haver’s success in one of the most demanding military training courses in the world proves that women are physically able to do the job. Others suggest that a few exceptions should not overthrow the rule. But a large number of those arguing against the inclusion of women in combat units accept that while some women may be physically capable of combat, their sex is a disruption to the most sacred of military institutions – the socially cohesive Band of Brothers.
One of the constant refrains one will hear in civil-military relations is that there is a gap between the civilians and the military–a deep, wide gap in values, perceptions and so on. Well, here is some proof (not great video) that the gap is over-rated:
Robert’s review of The American Culture of War yesterday was both extremely funny and informative. It also mentioned a problem I’ve seen in a lot of the civil-military relations literature: too much over-identification with a political leaning or ideology. This area of scholarship reminds me sometimes of Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” – if I’m walking around the annual conference of the Inter-University Seminar at Armed Forces and Society without a uniform on, I’m immediately put in a category by some scholars. That’s unfortunate – understanding the determinants of civil-military relations and its influence on international relations is a really important area of research. Thankfully, not all scholarship in this area is that way. In the interest of providing an example of research that could serve as a counterpoint to the work outlined in Robert’s review, let me highlight some additional scholarship that my former colleague/advisor/buddy, Dale Herspring and I have done on the subject.
I was asked by a participating member of the H-Diplo/ISSF network to review The American Culture of War. Here is the original link to my review, but it’s off in some far corner of the internet, so I thought I’d repost it here. In brief, I found the book a pretty disturbing rehearsal of right-wing tropes about the military in a democracy, especially from an academic, and there’s no way I’d ever use it with undergrads as Routledge suggests. The underlying moral driver is the ‘chicken hawk’ principle – that those without military experience are not morally qualified to lead DoD and should otherwise defer to uniformed military. At one point the author actually says that, because the US Army ‘distrusts’ Congress, the Army should ‘guide’ Congress. Yikes. Do Americans (and the author) really need to be told civilian authority runs the other way, and that that’s in the Constitution? I find that sort of military elitism democratically terrifying and reflective of the post-9/11 militarization of America that is now the single most important reason, IMO, to end the war on terror.
Today is Memorial Day in this U.S., which leads to all kinds of silly debates about whether this holiday celebrates just the dead killed in America’s wars or the Veterans as well since there is Veteran’s Day in November (which is Armistice Day everywhere else).
The other silly debate that seems to occur around this time is about the draft. Karl Eikenberry (former US general and then Ambassador to Afghanistan) and David Kennedy (retired history prof) wrote a NYT op-ed about the state of US civ-mil and what to do about it, including … bring back the draft. Oy.
I guess I should not be surprised at this news that the Pentagon did not cooperate with Marvel Studios to make The Avengers movie (h/t to Jacob Levy for pointing this piece out to me). After all, immediately after seeing the movie, I enumerated the many principal-agent problems illustrated in the movie, and the military abhors P-A problems. It turns out that the Pentagon found unrealistic not the part about the Norse Gods, the large green rage-machine (best depiction yet by Ruffalo and Whedon), nor the un-icing of a Super-soldier. Nope, the unrealistic part was:
“We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it,” Phil Strub, the Defense Department’s Hollywood liaison, tells Danger Room. “To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything” with the film.
Luckily, I have been training for years to answer precisely this question. Well, I have been working on a book project on NATO and Afghanistan with David Auerswald that contains the seeds of an answer to this challenge. See below the break where there might be spoilers:
Let’s start with today’s reality and then extrapolate to a world with SHIELD [Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division]. The US and other countries are quite accustomed to working with international organizations. There are two basic processes that can potentially be in play here since the military operation ends up on US soil.
The first is a status of forces agreement [SOFA]. The US, when it wants to work in another country, negotiates an agreement that specify the conditions of its presence–can the US forces use force? Under what conditions? Are they immune from prosecution?* The US signed a SOFA with Iraq that ultimately led to the American withdrawal but also established the conditions for the American presence in Iraq before that happened. The recent US agreement with Afghanistan may not officially be a SOFA (I am not a legal expert) but seems to approximate one or is the basis to negotiate one–what will the US (and NATO) role be in Afghanistan post-ISAF.
*In the last month or two in my year in the Pentagon in 2002, one of the tasks we were assigned on the Joint Staff was to get exceptions from International Criminal Court prosecution written into the mandates of the various missions in which the US was participating, including SFOR in Bosnia (my desk).
So, in a hypothetical reality with SHIELD, one can imagine that the US has signed an agreement that allows SHIELD to operate in and over the US under various rules. Now, one of them may actually be that SHIELD can nuke an American city if the stakes are high enough (this is where the “realism” does fail but we had to have a moment where Tony Stark plays the Kobiyashi Maru test since Captain America raised that scenario earlier in the movie).
The second process is a transfer of authority. See the NATO jargon:
Transfer of authority of forces is the formal transfer of a specified degree of authority over designated forces both between nations and NATO Commanders, and between any two NATO Commanders.
This is really what the Pentagon means by “our place in it.” In NATO and in other multilateral endeavors, countries transfer operational control (but not complete authority) of a unit to the commanders of the multilateral endeavor. Countries will maintain influence over how that unit is operated, however, via a variety of means that are the subject of the aforementioned book project. Among these means are surprise and fear the careful selection of senior leadership for the units being transferred, limits on what the units can and cannot do (caveats! more below), the requirement to call home for permission, the enabling of one’s personnel to invoke red cards which means they can say no to a command, oversight, and incentives (such as promotion or demotion) for the officers running the operation.
This transfer of authority process happens all the time and is not new at all and not new to the US. However, one of the traditional American caveats when it participates in a multilateral endeavor is to insist that the top of the chain of command is an American. So, Commander of ISAF is an American–General John Allen, who replaced General Petraeus, who replaced General McChrystal who replaced General McKiernan who replaced General McNeill who replaced General Richards. Ah, but Richards was/is a Brit and his predecessors were Italians, Canadians, Germans and Turks. The fudge that the US used prior to to McNeil was that COMISAF was a Brit but the commander of all NATO forces–SACEUR was/is always an American. Similarly, in Kosovo, COMKFOR has never been an American (unlike COMSFOR in Bosnia), so Americans in Kosovo operated under an American general in the American sector but under a non-American general running ISAF.
So, again in alt reality with SHIELD, one could easily imagine an international organization dedicated to unconventional threats (aliens, superpowered folks, whatever) would have worked out agreements where countries would put their troops under SHIELD command. Countries would still retain some control over these troops via caveats (Americans will not launch nukes on American territory), red cards (any American commander might refuse to obey an order to nuke an American city as an illegal or unwise command or at least call to his or her national command authority NORTHCOM-> SecDef-> President for permission), and so on.
Of course, another way to influence an international organization, as mentioned above, is to make sure that you have a countryman/woman in charge of the organization. Nick Fury in the comic books and in the movie is very clearly an American. His deputy, Maria Hill, is also clearly an American (and not Ted’s kids’s mother). Having two hats, as an American officer and as a SHIELD officer, Fury would then be less likely to follow policies that would be against American interests, such as nuking Manhattan. Indeed, this is precisely what happens: Fury defies his multinational chain as he prevents one plane from taking off and assists Iron Man and the Avengers in preventing the missile from hitting Manhattan.
The movie does not make clear what the governing council’s relationship is to the US. It does seem fairly clear that the US is not just a member but a vocal powerful member, as portrayed by Powers Boothe. The Council clearly included representatives from Russia, China, and Britain** at the very least, looking quite UN-ish (in the comic book source material, SHIELD was sometimes conceived as a UN organization). Now, this might make SHIELD appear to be the black helicopter folks that various conspiracy theorists fear today, but that is not the claim the military folks told Wired.
** The British woman was played by Jenny Agutter of Logan’s Run and American Werewolf in London, which I believe was a Whedon nod to some of the key movies of his childhood, but I might just be projecting.
My extended treatise here really leaves only one question:*** Why did the folks who have the authority in the Pentagon on movie clearances not call or walk over to the folks in the NATO division of the Joint Staff to ponder how operations with international organizations work. It is a big building but still coordination among different pieces of the Pentagon is what the folks in the building do every day.
*** We had to add a Libya chapter to our book on NATO and Afghanistan. I don’t think my co-author will let me add an Avengers paragraph to our conclusion.
I have never really paid attention to shoes, my own or those of the opposite sex. But the past year has taught me that one form of footwear seems to be most important: boots. Boots on the ground vs no boots on the ground. Politicians making promises about no boots on the ground were all the rage last year at this time–that the US, Canada, and the rest of NATO would meet the language of non-occupation in the UN resolution governing the Libyan intervention by not putting any boots on the ground.
What is lovely about this is that we now have essentially termed all ground-pounders (soldiers, marines) as a form of footwear. The irony is that these boots are made for, well, not walking in peace-keeping missions and actually draw a line in the sand (sorry, cannot help myself) between the less risky forms of intervention–naval embargoes, no fly zones, air strikes–and ground combat.
Of course, the idea of no boots on the ground would then set a clear distinction, right? Oh, but the Brits and the French (and perhaps the uncharacteristically quieter Americans) taught us a lesson in Libya: Special Operations Forces do not wear boots. Or at least, our image of them as bare-footed ninjas (thanks @cdacdai for that) or perhaps their use of secret sauce makes them an acceptable exception. Boots we cannot see or hear do not count against the “no boots on the ground” promise. Of course, that is one of the key reasons to use SOF–to cut corners in existing promises, regulations and even legislation. In Afghanistan, more than a few countries had SOF doing what their caveated conventional forces could not do.
Why the focus on the bare-footed folks tonight? Because the US has asked the Aussies and Canadians to stick around in Afghanistan past 2014 in a military capacity, something that the Canadians have foresworn. But the US request is chock full of guile–asking these two allies to deploy SOF. In the Canadian case, as my twitter-conversation partner Phil Lagassé is tweeting now, there are different norms for parliamentary involvement in deployments. With large conventional forces, there is a contested norm about submitting to parliament such decisions. With small SOF, there is not–they can come and go as they please. With the parliamentarians on the defence committee lacking security clearnances, the SOF and their management by the Minister of National Defence are even more invisible than the latest cloak of invisibility.
It will be interesting to see what Stephen Harper decides. Given the minimal risks (especially if these boots are only for training Afghans), that his current majority continues, and that Canadian customs and parliamentary limitations means that he can control news about the SOF pretty damned tightly, my guess is that Harper goes ahead with the US request.
Peter Singer has an op-ed in the Times which carefully makes the case against drones by carefully putting forth the proposition that their use undermines democracy:
What troubles me, though, is how a new technology is short-circuiting the decision-making process for what used to be the most important choice a democracy could make… We must now accept that technologies that remove humans from the battlefield, from unmanned systems like the Predator to cyberweapons like the Stuxnet computer worm, are becoming the new normal in war. And like it or not, the new standard we’ve established for them is that presidents need to seek approval only for operations that send people into harm’s way — not for those that involve waging war by other means… WITHOUT any actual political debate, we have set an enormous precedent, blurring the civilian and military roles in war and circumventing the Constitution’s mandate for authorizing it.
Well, as least this is a better argument than the other barbs against drones – the ones that focus on the weapons themselves as somehow uniquely offensive in terms of war law. (Last year, Lina Shakhouni and I bombed that set of arguments back to the stone age.)
But Singer narrows in on a different thread in this debate: that certain weapons are a game-changer not because they are useful, but because of how the conditions under which they are used affect our sense of how war is to be conducted, what it is, and who decides. It’s an interesting set of arguments.
But is it any better in terms of the causal claims on which it rests? Dissenting views are rolling in. The Atlantic’s Joshua Foust writes:
We should be criticizing Congress, not remote-controlled airplanes, for limitless militarism. Congress ceding all authority on lethal operations to the president is indeed a grave threat to democracy, but drones are only one tool the president uses to kill people. The bigger problem is that he was given the authority to do that.
Indeed, at Wings Over Iraq, Starbuck points out that the argument is older than the weapons system – the claim that remote-control weaponry facilitated devil-may-care foreign policy is at least as old as the Tomahawk Missile:
Though much ink has been spilled on “drone ethics“, these strikes are little removed from 1990s-era “Tomahawk diplomacy”. Though modern drones can loiter over the battlefield for hours–even days–at a time, and can hit small, mobile targets, they’re just another precision stand-off weapon. P.W. Singer’s op-ed might specifically target drones, he’s making a broader point that standoff weapons–missiles, drones, even computer viruses–might make warfare more common in the 21st Century.
As I’ve already written, I agree with Foust and Burke that “drones” are not problems in themselves but have become a synechdoche for a broader tension between the current security environment and the legal frameworks through which we’re accustomed to thinking about and legitimizing war. And I also agree with Singer that that tension is genuine and needs to be addressed (for example, by updating the War Power Act – something within Congressional control).
But is this mismatch between norms and policy bringing about the specific political outcomes he (and others) claim – especially the idea that drones cause a democratic deficit? As a social scientist I remain unconvinced, and want to see more than rhetorical arguments. In fact besides the claim Burke identifies above, I think Singer posits a number of additional causal claims about the political impact of stand-off weapons in his piece, all plausible but insufficiently backed up. He also posits some perhaps unsustainable claims about the relationship of democracy to war (though one might hope that democracy might stand on its own as a value to be preserved)… and especially, I think it’s a little fuzzy in his argument what aspect of “democracy” is really most at stake here and why.
Let’s think through the claims, and I’ll return in future posts to assessing them:
1) Proposition #1: Stand-off weapons make armed conflict easier and therefore likelier. For one thing this is a different dependent variable – war may be a public bad, but more more war doesn’t by itself undermine democracy. Also, I want someone to show me that on balance the number of militarized interstate disputes is increasing as a result of stand-off technologies, or that countries with access to these technologies are likelier to be involved in MIDs, controlling for other factors.
2) Proposition #2: Stand-off weapons are likelier to be used in ways that lead to a blurring of civilian/military roles. Civilian supremacy is a cornerstone of democracy as we know it, and certainly there has been some fudging of the civ-mil divide in recent decades, and certainly the use of CIA drone operatives is a good example of that, but can the blame really be rested at the doorstep of these weapon systems? And how would we know? Among other things, Singer’s own earlier writing on private military firms suggests this problem is not limited to stand-off weaponry…
3) Proposition #3: The availability of stand-off weapons increases the likelihood that democratic leaders will circumvent democratic deliberation about the use of armed force. It does seem to be happening in this case, but again is the technology causing this problem or simply making an old trend especially obvious?
4) Proposition #4: Democratic deliberation reduces the likelihood of militarized interstate disputes. Again, please, let’s treat this as a hypothesis rather than an assumption. I will have more to say about how convincing it is after I revisit the more recent democratic peace literature with my doctoral students this term but my sense as a political scientist is that this was always simplistic at best and has been problematized further by some new studies.
5) Proposition #5: Citizens’ and policymakers’ estimate of physical risk from war to the nation’s own citizens is a moderating influence over war initiation decisions. Makes intuitive sense, but I know too much about the strategies nations use to trick citizens into war to take this at face value. How true is this proposition in broad terms? If I wanted to find out, I’d probably look to compare democracies that did and did not have a conscription policy to find out whether institutionalized risks of war to citizens lead countries to be more risk-prone internationally, other things being equal. But I find myself doubting it, since historically war has declined along with conscription as a practice, so I wonder how this is presumed to work…
Point is, none of these propositions are obviously true or uncontroversial. I expect to explore several of them in more detail on the basis of the empirical studies I dig up in the next weeks. Readers: can you suggest sources, studies or other ways of testing these hypotheses to guide me as I dig? Or other testable propositions underlying the drone debate?
In particular Costelloe argues Egypt can learn from the flaws in Colonel Saul Tigh‘s character and the absence of civilian supremacy it represents:
Let’s break it down. He shows hesitance when handed some responsibility during a crisis, at the cost of lives (mini-series). He displays open contempt of the government in public (Colonial Day). He is the lead officer in the actual coup of the government (Kobal’s Last Gleaming). When he is thrust into command, he loses the fleet (Scattered), nearly loses the Galactica to a Cylon boarding party (Valley of Darkness), utterly botches a crowd control operation resulting in civilian deaths (Resistance), openly taunts the imprisoned President in front of the government (Fragged) and basically takes orders from his wife.
He assaults a member of the media who is interviewing him (Final Cut). He later attempts to rig the Presidential Election in favour of Roslin (Lay Down Your Burdens). He takes the lead in a Kangaroo court that murders several people in the aftermath of the New Caprica escape (Collaborators). He begins to stir discontent among the crew (Torn). Despite being the XO, he ends up secluding himself in a drunken stupor that borders on a mental breakdown (Hero). He gives evidence at the trial of Baltar in a clearly drunk state (Crossroads). He hides his true nature as a Cylon from Adama and the government (“He That Belivith In Me”). He engages in an extremely inappropriate relationship with a Cylon prisoner, resulting in her pregnancy (Sine Que Non).
Oh, and of course, the drinking. Tigh is frequently drunk on duty and openly drunk off duty, resulting in a snappish attitude and disrespect towards fellow officers and crewmen.
Now, anyone of those things should be a dealbreaker. Tigh is a fairly appalling officer, his brief moments of competence not really making up for all of the above.
But the problem is that the Fleet is a sham-democracy, one that is fully under the thrall of the military. Roslin, despite being the Commander-in-Chief (unelected), hasn’t anywhere near the power to actually effect any change aboard the Galactica. When it comes to military matters, she is, by and large, a rubber stamp. William Gladstone said, on being a state leader “One must be a good butcher”. Perhaps the most well regarded President in history, Abraham Lincoln, was famous for replacing incompetent and ineffectual commanding officers. Laura Roslin is not Lincoln, and does not have the power to be.
…The Fleet is not a free society, it’s a military oligarchy.
Now I agree with nearly everything in his description of Tigh, and I agree Egypt has much to figure out as it configures its unique brand of civil-military relations, but I don’t agree this means the show as a whole argues for a military oligarchy rather than civilian rule. In fact, I’ve argued the opposite in a recent working paper. But what’s really interesting is that David Costelloe himself implicitly argues the opposite in an earlier post, accurately casting the Pegasus as a narrative device to illustrate the counter-factual in which Adama abandons Roslin and the fleet at Ragnar – the pivotal moment in the mini-series that I argue lays the foundation for the civilian-protection narrative that underpins the entire show:
It all goes back to the Ragnar choice. In the mini-series, Adama faces the choice of staying and fighting a hopeless war against the Cylons or running with what little of humanity is left. Pegasus, under Cain, faces the same choice. Adama chooses to run and Cain stays.
The difference is the presence of a civilian authority, in the form of Laura Roslin, who steers Adama away from the military choice. She doesn’t order him, it should be noted, but she convinces him the fight isn’t worth fighting. Galactica runs.
Pegasus stays and is an authority unto itself, lacking any kind of civilian control. In that way, Cain becomes God – in the fleet, the command is split, while in Pegasus it becomes committed to one person.
This dictator becomes anathema to the ideals of the Colonies (more or less the ideals of the United States) by running her ship like a madhouse with no responsibility: launching crazy attacks, executing her XO in front of the crew, abusing a prisoner. Galactica, on the other hand, has a civilian authority and the responsibility of a civilian fleet, to be a check and balance on any of its activities.
Well, which is it? I suspect that part of the problem is here is the narrative of civilian supremacy that Costelloe has bought into, one which assumes that civilian power unexercised signals civilian powerlessness. In his post, Costelloe repeatedly mentions the sack of McChrystal (and drubbing of generals by Lincoln) as examples of civilian supremacy rightly executed, but there’s an important difference between those events: Lincoln fired generals for incompetence, Obama fired a competent general for allowing his subordinates to vent about the civilian administration. I continue to believe this act was not only unnecessary but also a sign of Obama’s weakness, not strength, as a Commander-in-Chief.
By contrast, the civilian government on BSG stands up to military convention when necessary to protect the civilian fleet (what better example than the decision to assassinate Cain?) but doesn’t sweat the small stuff. This is consistent with the particular civil-military bargain struck between Roslin and Adama at the start of the series. I don’t agree with each decision or indecision myself, but I am not convinced that because the civilian government treats the military as a partner rather than a true subordinate on the show that this means BSG portrays a ‘military oligarchy.’
Instead, we may need to think past the civilian supremacy / military rule dichotomy to look at the variety of civil-military governance structures possible given the different circumstances in which states find themselves. In fact some of the more recent scholarship on civil-military relations argues precisely this.
2011 has already energized much thought and scholarship about contentious politics, R2P, the efficacy of force, and, zombies. Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya (and the other countries in the region) are also bringing civil-military relations back into fashion. When we speak of civ-mil relations, we can think of:
The most classic question: who guards the guardians (Janowitz, Huntington, Finer)? Will the army support the government and perhaps shoot at the citizens? Will the army join the revolt? Or will it splinter? How do governments coup-proof (Quinlivan)?
This developed into a second stream of research: how do stable democracies manage their militaries? Avant, Feaver, Zegart and others have considered the problem of how civilian authorities deploy force, purchase equipment and develop doctrine when the folks with the guns have significant advantages in understanding the issues and the facts on the ground.
The focus here is on the second–the balance of decision-making between civilians and uniformed personnel. Peter Feaver was blasted yesterday by Tom Ricks, former Washington post military correspondent, author and blogger at foreignpolicy.com, in reaction to Feaver’s new piece in International Security. Feaver served on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council at the time of the surge, and he has written this piece to apply his scholarly work to this experience and vice versa. The article is essentially about who gets credit for the surge and a consideration of the big question in this area: who should make the big decisions? The elected civilians or the uniformed experts?
‘The “professional supremacists” argue that the primary problem for civil-military relations in wartime is ensuring the military an adequate voice and keeping civilians from micromanaging and mismanaging matters. “Civilian supremacists,” in contrast, argue that the primary problem is ensuring that well-informed civilian strategic guidance is authoritatively directing key decisions, even when the military disagrees with that direction.’ (Feaver 89-90)
Feaver argues that the surge decision does not fall into either camp. Ricks takes issue with Feaver for giving too much credit to Bush and his people and not enough to elements of the military (Generals Petreaus and Odierno). This debate reanimates the question of how much civilian involvement is correct.
While my work of late (with David Auerswald) has been on the why–why do countries manage their military operations as they have in Afghanistan (revised version appearing in International Studies Quarterly in 2012)–the normative question of how much involvement is appropriate cannot be avoided. I have always believed that war was too important to be left to the Generals. Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means has many implications, including that politicians do not suspend their responsibilities when the fighting starts as the strategies and tactics of the battles have implications beyond the battlefield. I was also influenced by Eliot Cohen’s book Supreme Command, which documented how Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion intervened significantly in military planning, making a huge difference in the success of their respective war efforts.
I received a fellowship that put me on the US Joint Staff’s Directorate of Strategic Planning and Policy (J-5)* on the Bosnia desk from September 2001 to August 2002, which provoked a crisis of confidence in my own views on these matters. I worked on a daily basis with people directly under Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and found myself developing a great deal of contempt for the civilians that were imposing their will on the military. Sure, part of this was identification with the uniformed folks around me, but most of it was watching a SecDef who was unwilling to listen to the advice of the military and being blind to the consequences. He viewed the military as having been empowered by the Clinton Administration (indeed, the military folks expressed much nostalgia for that bygone era). Long before the invasion of Iraq, I witnessed Rumsfeld’s efforts to ask questions until the respondent submitted to his will. I was on the receiving end of the same snowflake (memo from Rumsfeld needing an immediate response) three times because the responses the first two times did not produce the desired answer (nor did the third).
After my year on the Joint Staff, I got to watch from afar Rumsfeld micromanage the invasion of Iraq into the failure of postwar planning.** So, I began to feel as if war was too important to be left to the civilians. My beliefs were also shaken by Cohen’s involvement in the Bush Administration as a cheerleader for the war and his role on the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee. It seems like Cohen’s work was being applied too much–that the civilians thought they had all of the answers and even chose leading military officials according to how, ahem, supple they were (that would be Generals Myers and Pace, Bush’s Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff).
So, where do I stand now? Surely, war is still too important to be left to the Generals. But it is now much clearer that the battles are too complicated to be left to the folks back home. The advent of technology means that leaders in their offices can monitor the efforts of corporals and privates on the ground, but they should not. Yes, there is now the strategic private or corporal: a low level grunt who can cause the entire mission to collapse because of a single bad decision (think Canada in Somalia in 1993 more so than Gitmo or Abu Ghraib). But the tactical President or Prime Minister is even more likely to cause problems since they lack the expertise and attention to command every single unit in the field. Rumsfeld cutting the numbers of military police units being sent to Iraq in 2003 stands out here. Civilians should be choosing the strategies–COIN or not; invading Africa in 1942 or not; surging or not; but how these are carried out on the ground should remain in the military’s hands.
More importantly, we need to recognize that there is no perfect formula because the civilians are imperfect and the military leaders are imperfect. It is easy to pick on Rumsfeld, who was probably the worst Secretary of Defense in American history. Churchill, who is often seen as the epitome of the wartime leader, thought that the Balkans were the soft underbelly of Europe and had a pretty mixed track record overall. There is a tendency to conflate strong with smart (the strong state debate in the 1980s)–that strong civilian leadership will make the right choices.
The funny thing about hanging out with the military folks for a year is that I developed an appreciation not just that individuals matter, but that trust and relationships matter when it comes to war. The key is not so much having a perfect division of labor between President, SecDef, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and operational commanders, but that they have good relationships with each other. The decision-makers need listen to the advice, even especially if they do not want to hear it. They do not have to follow it, but they ought to take it seriously. The military needs to give its unvarnished views so that the President and SecDef can make informed decisions.
This may all seem obvious, but the debate between Feaver and Ricks suggests otherwise. The quest for the perfect mix of professional and civilian supremacism is a chimera. Feaver is probably wrong in giving heaps of credit to the Bush Administration, but he is right that better policy is likely to emerge when the focus is on the policy and less on one side or the other dominating the process.
The book editors for whom we’re developing this working paper asked us to look at the “intertext” between the series and political understandings in the actual world, so for our paper it was sufficient to acknowledge this phenomena.
But as a qualitative analyst I decided to take a closer, more systematic look at a sample of these comments and tweets. I was interested in the extent to which BSG metaphors engendered useful political commentary on civil-military relations – precisely what you would hope if Jutta Weldes is correct in arguing that “state action is made common-sensical through popular culture.”
I discovered something more nuanced: the answer to that question seems to depend greatly on which new media tool the data came from.
The pie charts you see below are the results of myself and a student assistant coding tweets and comments for these attributes, disaggregated by source. We analyzed comments from three sources: Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. The Reddit and Facebook comments were easy enough to capture with a little technical help – thanks Alex.
Tweets were trickier because Google doesn’t index them. Luckily my partner Stuart Shulman has invented a tool for capturing live Twitter feeds, and he happens to be sitting on a searchable archive of over a million tweets from #Cairo and #Egypt. We used his tool, DiscoverText, to search those tweets for the keywords “BSG” “Battlestar” “Galactica” and “Adama” and got back a small but interesting set of results to combine with the Reddit and Facebook comments.
DiscoverText also allows you to tag and sift through text data you gather, so last weekend we went through a total of 77 tweets, 383 Reddit comments and 966 unique Facebook comments. (The FB page says there are 1800 or so, but a lot of them are duplicates. Fortunately DiscoverText also contains a de-duping tool so we were able to eliminate those entirely.)
You can see a couple of things right away. First, you find less diversity among the tweets: they basically fall into just four code categories, whereas the range of commentary in the FB and Redidt threads is wider. But secondly, the tweets and FB comments share something in common: they are primarily composed of mindless validations of the original quote, whereas the Reddit thread contains many more original, substantive comments and even discussion.
In other words, as this bar chart makes a little clearer, the social media reaction to this quote was to retweets or write “so say we all” – similar to the practice of clicking on a form letter to a Congressperson rather than writing an original substantive remark about a political issue. However, on the Reddit thread, commenters were not only more likely to point out that it’s not clear how applicable the quote is to Egypt, but also more likely to use the quote as a jumping off point to broader discussions of Egypt, of civil-military relations, of the nuances of Adama’s messaging – in other words, far more of these were “original comments” generating discussion among commenters, rather than simple validations of the original poster’s argument. That’s pretty interesting, especially given recent claims that blogs and blog commenting are going the way of the dinosaur in favor of social media as a platform for deliberative discourse.
DiscoverText also makes it easy to drill down into specific categories of text. Of the truly original, deliberative comments (for example), you can see some interesting conversations develop. As noted, in contrast to the mindless re-tweeters, the more critical thinkers argued over the applicability of the quote to the situation in Egypt.
Not sure how this applies to Egypt since they have a separate military and police. Which, coincidentally, the military has sided with the people while the police remain loyal to Mubarak. Cool quote but nothing to do with Egypt
This quote doesn’t apply to Egypt in any way. The military forces in Egypt are mostly staffed by conscription, with mandatory service of 1-3 years for citizens (3 if you’re uneducated, 2 w/ high school degree, 1 with college degree).The protesters are cheering “We want the Army! We want the Army!” because, guess what, they are the Army.
I suggest you re-read what Adama is saying. If you think this is about “hailing the police” you are way off. Adama’s point is that there has to be a balance in the state separation of forces. That is the only thing saving the egyptians as the military appear to be unwilling to crack down on the protesters.
This led to two sets of wider conversations, one about Egypt:
The people distrust, resent and hate the police due to decades of corruption, violence and abuse of power. They have no such feelings about the military and largely regard them to be impartial, helpful and for the people. Unfortunately since Mubarak’s inflammatory speech it seems the military are actually still backing him and have also managed to position themselves very well amongst the crowds.
I think the top military commanders are being very cautious at this point just like all the Western governments because so much is up in the air. If they choose the losing side, they might pay with their lives. If the western governments choose the losing side, they might make an enemy of a very powerful player in their regional interests (Israel, Iran, etc.) and with control over the flow of oil (Suez Canal).
Better the devil we know in the current regime, a transition to full democracy will allow the popular fundamentalist Brotherhood terror group to take power. ‘I prefer to deal with the probable’ (Commander Helena Cain). This is not clear cut….. don’t be fooled like the 12 colonies.
… and one about civil-military relations.
It’s very poetic, but I think the real distinction isn’t so much about between fighting enemies and serving the people. Both in theory are actually doing that. The difference is more in the nature of the enemy: The military fights external enemies, the police, the internal enemies.
The purpose of the police has never been to serve or protect the people. They are and have always been a means by which the state can impose its will on the people. This is clear simply by reading the writings of the elites who control the state â€” they admit it freely. The modern myth that the police are somehow the noble champions of justice for the little man can be shattered by merely being black, or a woman, or transexual, or gay, or any other minority.
The military is expected to protect the physical borders, the police to protect agreed upon immaterial borders within the physical borders. When these rather orthogonal causes are mixed, then it’s likely you will hit a border whatever you do, then the state has become your enemy, despite both the military and the police are employed by you, the citizen.
Alternatively, some commenters discussed the origin of the quote itself, and some got off on tangents about the nature of Cylon resurrection, the value of BSG relative to Star Trek or Firefly, or how to quantify the exact nerd quotient on display in the comment thread. But the most interesting arguments to me (and perhaps to Iver Neumann and Nicholas Kiersey, who are running the BSG project) were the ones where people bickered over whether the notion of BSG as an “intertext” was valid at all: do science fiction shows as parables really help us understand real-world politics or do they merely distract?
Some quotes that received the code “It’s Just A Show”:
CLEARLY some of you losers desperately need to get a life…. or at the very least serious help from a mental health professional….. HE IS A FICTIONAL CHARACTER IN A TELEVISION SERIES NOTHING MORE..
What a load of absolute horseshit. Go and actually read about what is happening in Egypt instead of wasting your time with stuff like this.
Battlestar Galactica quotes are inappropriate for deadly-serious, real life sitatuations.
It’s must easier to accept platitudes and pop culture references than it is to think critically.
Some quotes that received the code “BSG <> World Politics”:
This is why the series was so great. It was one of the few sci-fi shows that truly reflected and touched on relevant ideas and issues of our day.
Almost every good scifi I’ve known takes real-world problems, and puts them into another light so you can look at them differently, and possibly see something entirely new. It can offer an incredible commentary on many aspects of society.
So Say We All :) … It doesn’t matter what genre or if this statement is from a real world instance- it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold truth! And to one of the above posters- if you cannot see Cmdr. Adama’s words (however fictious) is a perfect example of what is happening in the real world- then YOU need to get a life!
I’m not sure where readers come down in this debate, but I will say that in the paper we describe a variety of ways in which shows like BSG function to mediate real-world socio-political relations: drawing on, reflecting and structuring civil-military debates, serving as a social lubricant for human security discussions across the civil-military divide, and even problematizing certain sacred cows in human security discourse. [H/T to Jason Sigger for pointing me to this exchange and this one, for example.] As we ended up arguing in the article:
“These real-world conversations – whether about US military affairs, Middle Eastern revolutions, or just warrioring – are at times infused with Battlestar Galactica references, demonstrating the show’s relevance to deliberative discourse about the civil-military relationship…”
But just how deliberative may depend on the context.