Monday, October 03, 2005

"Come and rule over us" (Reposted with comment)

Here is part of a story from the time when Russian history fades backward into tale-telling.

The Northmen usually went to Constantinople by launching their boats in the headwaters of the Dnie'per River and floating down to the Black Sea. They had seen a good deal of the world, and they were bright and keen. They succeeded in making the people of central Russia pay them tribute. According to the old story, there came a time when the people determined not to pay it any longer. They united and drove the Northmen away. But they did not stay united. They quarreled among themselves, for each man did whatever he chose and no one cared for the rights of his neighbor. It is said that one among them who was wiser than the rest saw that they needed some power to govern them. He knew how much more civilized the Northmen were, and he persuaded several of the tribes about him to send envoys to the Russ, a tribe of Northmen, to say, "Our country is large and rich, but we have no order. Do you come and rule over us." A Northman named Ru'rik and his two brothers said, "We will come;" and the three set out with their followers, all well armed, as were those who had come as envoys.
"Come and rule over us," they said. Thus the coming of the Varangians becomes the foundation of imperial authority in Russia. The origin of Russian history finds autocratic roots that later become the basis of legitimacy for kings and patriarchs of the Orthodox Church whose connection with political leaders was part of one of history's most tragic dramas. In a historic sense, the Soviet Union was nothing new. Whether or not this is factual is beside the point. The survival of the story tells more about the story tellers than the origins of the tale. According to this legend there was a population of successful people so disorderly in community affairs that collectively they actually invited a foreign prince to come and rule over them.

I thought of this story when I read this morning's essay by Donald Sensing in which he quotes from an essay by Charles Dunlap, Jr. that he remembered from thirteen years ago. The essay, called The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012, is a futuresque treatment of what could very well take place in the decades following its writing (remember, it was written in 1992) barring unforeseen circumstances.

Americans became exasperated with democracy. We were disillusioned with the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation's dilemmas. We were looking for someone or something that could produce workable answers. The one institution of government in which the people retained faith was the military. Buoyed by the military's obvious competence in the First Gulf War, the public increasingly turned to it for solutions to the country's problems. Americans called for an acceleration of trends begun in the 1980s: tasking the military with a variety of new, nontraditional missions, and vastly escalating its commitment to formerly ancillary duties.

I will not insult the reader with the obvious implications of these two pieces, one from the dawn of myth, the other from a futuristic fantasy. I cite both to poke the imagination, to get the reader to look at a big picture. This is not a discussion of facts but possibilities.

In the absence of leadership on the part of elected officials the role of the military continues to expand in our national affairs. The recent catastrophic damage of Hurricane Katrina begs the question. In the absence of local and state leadership, how and when should the military intervene (or be used - there is a difference, you know) to bring about a speedy and efficient recovery in the aftermath of a natural disaster?

After last year's tsunami brought wholesale tragedy to the Indian Ocean, the military response was swift and impressive. This was an example of swords into plowshares in the best sense of the phrase. Following the Katrina disaster with all those people penned up in the Superdome, an Australian caller to a talk show asked an obvious question.

"Where," he asked incredulously, "are your amphibious vehicles???"

Where, indeed? For this observer, watching from the other side of the world, it was a no-brainer. The military has hovercraft capable of delivering tanks and trucks to battlefields with no highways. Amphibious vehicles from World War Two are being used to taxi sight-seers over both water and city streets in Boston, Detroit and other places. Why not load up water, food and other supplies, take them to where they can be used, load up a crowd of people to be evacuated, and keep it up until the situation is safer and better organized?

Why? mainly because we are locked into a mindset of "that ain't my job." In the face of a threat, too many people in positions of leadership are more interested in covering their tails than taking action to repair damage. The Houston evacuation was a model of excellence, a credit to all who took part. It is not possible to know how much the Katrina debacle contributed to that success, but I imagine no one in Texas wanted to have cameras rolling in the aftermath of a similar disaster so they insured that whatever the costs, political, financial or administrative, they could remove the largest number of people in history from harm's way.

Back to Sensing's essay. He also refers to another source, a conversation with Col. Harry Summers in 1996.
Although I served in the Army I was not a warrior in the strict sense of that term. But that doesn't mean that I have no use for warriors. They are as essential to our well-being as scientists or physicians. (I almost said lawyers, but I felt the need for too many qualifiers, so I didn't.) Problems arise, however, when warriors are asked to become something else. I recall my wife saying once that so-and-so was "hurt" by something her husband had said because he seemed so hard-hearted. I had to point out to her that the man in question was a trained professional warrior. Sensitivity in all things is not part of his persona, nor should it be. That's why he has a wife.

Col. Summers quotes William Perry, former Secretary of Defense.

...he turned to what had been the cornerstone of the Clinton defense policy, humanitarian assistance, and he boldly stated that that's not our business: "Humanitarian assistance is not the business of the Defense Department. There are other agencies in the government that are responsible for it. We can help, but it's not our business." And the clinching line was "We field an army, not a Salvation Army." That's pretty boldly stated. Of course, since then the situation changed to the point where we have become involved in Bosnia.

Sensing's essay concludes with these words.

In light of events since Sept. 11, 2001, I think we can safely dispense with the idea that commanders have forgotten how to fight. Indeed, the major missteps in Iraq are properly laid squarely atop the civilian desk of Donald Rumsfeld, as I explained here and here. Nonetheless, forgetting how to fight has not been an effect of civilian-mission creep in the armed forces.

But the broader point remains, succinctly stated by Prisoner 222305759: “People need to understand that the armed forces exist to support and defend government, not to be the government. Faced with intractable national problems on one hand, and an energetic and capable military on the other, it can be all too seductive to start viewing the military as a cost-effective solution.” And that needs to be remembered strongly by our civilian leaders.

This thoughtful essay should be required reading for everyone, both civilian and military.

I might add that by combining the roles of President and Commander-in-Chief in one individual, the founders opened the door to allow one person in authority - and that one is elected, incidentally- selectively, wisely and quickly to use the resources at his command for either civilian or military purposes.

That is why the buck stops there.

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