Militia movements pose a danger to democracy

OPINION - I am deeply distressed when a group of organized, active-duty personnel seem to suggest that a coup is a legitimate way to express their grievance...

On Tuesday evening I had an opportunity to talk with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC’s Countdown about new and distressing developments with Tea Party sympathizers in the military and militias backed by elected officials.

You can see the segment here.
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I want to follow up on one brief point I made early in the segment.

Civilian control of the military is a core element of a stable democracy. There are few things more important to ensuring fair elections, peaceful transition of leadership, and freedom of political expression than the assurance that trained, armed fellow citizens will not interfere with civilian political choices or enforce their own political desires of the population. Military coups and repressive regimes are the hallmark of countries where the military does not submit to civilian political control and instead takes governing into its own hands.

For a democratic republic with an all volunteer army, submission to the duly elected commander in chief is a non-negotiable requirement.

However, I think it is important for progressive political voices to pause and take seriously the concerns of military women and men. Yes, we must have civilian control of the military, but we also want soldiers who have latitude for expressing their personal conscience and morality.

During Vietnam many liberals supported soldiers who spoke out against the war or who citizens who conscientiously objected to the draft. American citizens were outraged by the 1968 murder of 109 civilians in My Lai, a village in South Vietnam, by US soldiers. The American public called out for troops who would use their conscience, hearts, and minds to discern right from wrong, blatant cruelty from necessary engagement, and evil from good. Progressives made an argument forty years ago that the country should listen carefully to what our soldiers tell us because they too are citizens. We cannot simply reject that position now that some military personnel are organizing on the Right instead of the Left.

I believe that the Tea Party sympathizers in the US military are wrong. I believe that they have a strangely misguided idea of what it means to protect American interests if they believe that challenging the authority of President Obama is part of that call.

I also believe that as Americans we all bear some responsibility to the sense of frustration, anger and even desperation that many active duty personnel feel. We have allowed a tiny population to carry the full burden of wars fought on multiple fronts for nearly a decade. We have sent mothers and father, sons and daughters, over and over again into war zones. Many are languishing, suffering, separated from loved ones and finding that the goals of their deployment are unclear. The billions we have spent on these war efforts have drained our national resources, driven up our debt, and stretched our social and moral fabric thin.

I am deeply distressed when a group of organized, active-duty personnel seem to suggest that a coup is a legitimate way to express their grievance. At the same time, I believe that as a nation we have a responsibility to addresses the substantive grievances that they may have.

Here are suggestions of a few classic and contemporary texts that address complex issues of military power and civilian authority.

Sam Huntington’s The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations

Peter Feaver’s Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations

Bruneau and Tollefson’s edited volume Who Guards the Guardians and How: Democratic Civil-Military Relations (Paperback)

P.S. At the end of the segment Keith sent his regards to Pierre. In case you are wondering, Pierre is a the beloved stuffed worm who has accompanied my 8-year-old daughter everywhere for her entire life. Pierre was inadvertently left behind on a family trip to North Carolina and his adventures in returning home safely have been the subject of intense conversation on Twitter. You have to love a national, political, media personality who is concerned with the safe return of a stuffed worm.