Any anti-imperialist project must confront the sociopolitical place of the US military and the changing nature of civil-military relations.
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
Joe Biden’s recent announcement that he will appoint retired General Lloyd Austin to the position of secretary of defense has raised critical questions about civil-military relations—i.e., the relationship between military officers and the civilians to whom they are supposed to report—that have long been ignored by the American left.
While the American left has easy access to sophisticated analyses of global capitalism, the relationship of race and gender to class, and myriad other subjects, we don’t generally spend much time thinking about the US military. But understanding the military is crucial to understanding how power works in the United States and is therefore crucial to thinking through the potential avenues of socialist and anti-imperialist transformation.
First, despite the fact that the constitution makes it very clear that “the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy,” in actuality the uniformed military has an enormous impact on the making and direction of US foreign policy. As former president Barack Obama wrote in A Promised Land, his recently released door-stopper of a memoir, during the so-called Global War on Terror “the military [became accustomed] to getting whatever it wanted” as “basic policy decisions—about war and peace, but also about America’s budget priorities, diplomatic goals, and the possible trade-offs between security and other values—had been steadily farmed out to the Pentagon and the CIA.” Though Obama takes pains to affirm that he reversed this trend, it’s likely that, as Queen Gertrude remarked in Hamlet, the president doth protest too much, and that the military continues to have an outsized role in shaping America’s approach to world affairs.
Second, the military’s impact on US foreign policy highlights the undemocratic nature of the postwar American state. Military officers, of course, are not elected, nor are their decisions subject to much democratic accountability in the form of congressional or public oversight. While the US Congress could theoretically defund the military, today this is a political nonstarter. In the summer of 2020, to take the most recent example, Congress refused to reduce the military budget by 10 percent, a very modest amount that would have still left the United States spending vastly more on its military than any other nation on Earth. As this suggests, Congress—whose members, like all of us, are infected by the ambient militarism of American society—has long shown little interest in asserting its constitutional authority in war-making. Indeed, Congress has officially declared war only eleven times, the last time being against Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania in June 1942. Democratizing the American state will thus depend on enacting rules and regulations that subject the military to serious supervision.
Third, charismatic military generals pose a genuine threat to democracy. As scholars have long noted, “presidential democracies are more likely to experience military coups than parliamentary ones.” And though this hasn’t yet happened in the United States, this doesn’t mean that in the future some nouveau Julius Caesar couldn’t cross the proverbial Rubicon (in this case, the Potomac) and seize power. While this seems unrealistic today, perhaps because our current crop of elite-level military officers are on the whole faceless and forgettable, the United States has had its fair share of charismatic generals in the not too distant past, from Douglas MacArthur to George S. Patton. Furthermore, a rapidly disintegrating domestic society like the one that exists in the United States today provides ample opportunities to an ambitious, magnetic, and right-wing general, especially one able to engender loyalty in their troops and the American public. Imagine, for instance, if Donald Trump had not been loathed by the generals, but respected by them—his “coup” attempt might not have looked quite so ridiculous.
Fourth, the endless wars fought by the United States in the last twenty years have had disastrous effects on American soldiers. In addition to killing thousands and wounding tens of thousands more, untold numbers of veterans suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Put another way, soldiers have first-hand experience of the US empire’s failures and may be potential recruits to the anti-imperialist cause. This is particularly important given how respected veterans are in American society. Indeed, the United States has a long and noble tradition of military officers who recognized and spoke out against the brutalities of the system. Smedley Butler, whose 1935 War Is a Racket helped spur decades of left-wing critiques of the capitalist-imperialist-militarist nexus, was himself a retired Marine Corps general and two-time Medal of Honor recipient.
Finally, throughout modern history military forces have played an essential role in fostering revolutionary transformations. For example, in the autumn of 1918, as World War I wound down, angry sailors of the Kaiserliche Marine who were stationed in Kiel (a city in northern Germany) initiated a mutiny that quickly spread throughout the country, engendered the downfall of the Wilhelmine regime, and stimulated the creation of the Weimar Republic. Historical examples like this one indicate that the military can be aligned with left-wing forces and should not be written off as inevitably reactionary.
So, what does this all mean for anti-imperialists?
At minimum, it’s clear that socialists cannot afford to cordon off the military as irrelevant to our political project. Simply put, it’s very unlikely that any anti-imperialist agenda will be implemented absent the at least tacit support of the American military.
But beyond this basic truism, the path forward is unclear. Should groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (which already has a Veterans’ Working Group) focus more intently on recruiting at military bases? As the historian David Parsons has demonstrated, the project of joining with soldiers to participate in antiwar resistance had some success during the Vietnam War and may be repeatable today. Should veterans be given pride of place in left-wing venues like Jacobin or The New Republic? Should socialists themselves attempt to “salt” the military as they do other workplaces? If we socialists take anti-imperialism seriously, these and other questions need to be asked, and worked through, in the coming years. Regardless of what we decide, what’s obvious in 2020 is that the military is a crucial site of socialist struggle that the left can no longer afford to ignore.
The future of anti-imperialism may very well depend on it.