Here’s a quote… have a read then ponder just what images, thoughts and outcomes it brings into your mind.
“By helping to pull Iraq back from the edge, General Petraeus won a reputation as a resourceful, unorthodox commander and has since been mentioned as a candidate for president.”
This is one line from a half-page article on leadership changes in the current version of an Afghan conflict. Where does this little titbit send your thinking to? Here’s a quick overview of where it sent mine…
- Immediate thought : Why does an ability to supervise a military action qualify a person to rule a country?
- What process is going on here that makes such a thought process valid or acceptable, to the point that the idea can be simply dropped into an article as if it meant nothing at all?
- How does the United States system lead to such issues? Is it unique to the US?
- Haven’t we seen this before…?
To prove that anarchy is all-intrusive, we’ll start from the last point. Although this process has been an enduring theme throughout recorded history, it is Roman history that provides us with the most primary examples where military exploits are sufficient in themselves as an avenue for social advancement. Prove that you can win battles and conquer enemies and even the strongest class lines will dissipate, leading to non-Roman, non-patrician class individuals ascending to the highest posts in the land. The fellow named Thrax was the first to wear the mantle but there were a succession of rulers who are given the title of ‘Barracks Emperors’. Whether in the Republic period or the Empire, military accomplishments held great sway in the system and on the mindset of the populace (whether through adulation or fear doesn’t really matter from the point of view of enforcing authority).
As with any line-of-thought, there are as many arguments against the idea as there are for. For example, you could look through Greek classical history and identify individuals who busted their way through their world’s social hierarchy through military prowess. Alciabades is a glaring example of this as his exploits enabled him to hold senior posts among all the major combatants of his time but again, he was of noble class roots, and doesn’t quite highlight the vaguely-identified thoughts prompted by reading this quote.
Napoleon comfortably moved from military exploits to civil authority to absolute command. Perhaps his example is best for establishing a pivot point on which to focus thoughts around the quote?
Are we looking at signs of cracks in the dikes built around US domination of a post Cold War world in its role as the sole Superpower? (although, it would appear to the casual reader that the term “superpower” has not been waved around quite as much in a post Global Financial Crisis world, as the United States borrows from all and sundry to fund its attmpt to reignite its moribund economy) Would the esteemed Edward Gibbon be filling his inkpot and cutting his quill pen in anticipation of commencing “The Rise and Fall of …, Part II”?
Enough of history… let’s consider the present, and so on to the first three points noted above. What line exists or should exist, between civil administration and military administration in a democratic country? At what stage is it approporiate for one to cross over to the other? Simply writing that line brings its own answer, to a point. If we are simply talking administration then what difference is there really between military and civil? Isn’t it just a process of logistics, leadership and problem solving? With such similar underlying concepts, shouldn’t it be completely acceptable (and even logically an expectation) that a competent individual would move from one to the other? Isn’t this simply an efficient allocation of scarce resource (after all, there aren’t that many people with the intelligence, capability, drive and ego to direct thousands or even hundreds of thousands of the Great Unwashed)? Perhaps. And yet, perhaps not. Regardless of how removed from the front battlelines the administration may be, the military remains one of the few institutions in a democracy established for the purpose of, and legislatively empowered to kill people, and to do so methodically, efficiently and “with extreme prejudice”.
The thoughts on reading the quote would most likely not have been as strong, where it not for some vaguely remembered comments in another article scanned in the news feeds a few days ago – one that suggested that US generals at the higher eschelon level, were prone to carrying a bevy of staff and advisers as though they were politicians rather than military people. It’s always a danger to draw too many conclusions from vague references as it can be seen as successfully trying to find something that doesn’t exist. However, the central theme of the idea remains valid with even a single example existing. That is, what role of the military in a democratic world?
The context of the article is refreshing for those worried that history may repeat itself (said with a giggle to think that there could be a time when it wouldn’t..?), in that the democratically elected representative of a nation (that’s President Obama) is comfortably able to bring an errant high-ranking military leader to count over his actions. This is democracy on display for everyone to see. It is leadership being carried out and it should be seen as a ‘good thing’ on the face of the reported circumstances (highlighting that the general who had been removed from his post had belittled his civilian leaders, and that throughout the military and civilian top positions, loyalty and cohesion are important to the extent that they counter-act freedom of speech imperatives).
A bit garbled but these are some of the thoughts that crossed my mind in the seconds immediately following the reading of that quote.
- Quote is from article “Afghan battle lines drawn for Petraeus”, Australian Financial Review newspaper, Friday 25th June 2010. page 65.
- Alcibiades. http://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/people/a/alcibiades.htm
- Edward Gibbon. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Gibbon
- “Barracks Emperors”. Starting with Thrax, the first emperor who achieved the title from purely military prowess and who was not from the patrician or noble class. http://www.paralumun.com/emperors.htm