Militarism and the Breakdown of Constitutional Government

excerpted from the book


The Last Days of the American Republic

by Chalmers Johnson

Holt, 2006, paperback

After 9/11 many Americans began to ask "Why do they hate us?" The answer was not that some countries hate us because of our democracy, wealth, lifestyle, or values but because of things our government did to various peoples around the world.

President George W. Bush at a press conference on October 11

"How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America?" I'll tell you how I respond: I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am-like most Americans, I just can't believe it because I know how good we are."

President George W. Bush a the Air Force Academy 2004 commencement address

"No act of America explains terrorist violence, and no concession of America could appease it. The terrorists who attacked our country on September 11, 2001, were not protesting our policies. They were protesting our existence."

Osama bin Laden made clear why he attacked us. In a video taped statement broadcast by Al Jazeera on October 7, 2001, a few weeks after the attacks, he gave three reasons for his enmity against the United States:

The U.S.-imposed sanctions against Iraq from 1991 to 9/11: "One million Iraqi children have thus far died although they did not do anything wrong"; American policies toward Israel and the occupied territories: "I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine"; the stationing of U.S. troops and the building of military bases in Saudi Arabia: "and before all the army of infidels [American soldiers] depart the land of Muhammad [Saudi Arabia] ". j

The United States no longer manufactures much - with the exception of weaponry.

We now station over half a million U.S. troops, spies, contractors, dependents, and others on more than 737 military bases spread around the world. These bases are located in more than 130 countries, / many of them presided over by dictatorial regimes that have given their citizens no say in the decision to let us in.

The purpose of [our military] bases is "force projection" or the maintenance of American military hegemony over the rest of the world. They facilitate our "policing" of the globe and are meant to ensure that no other nation, friendly or hostile, can ever challenge us militarily.

anonymous young woman who runs the Internet Web site 'Baghdad Burn' wrote on May 7, 2004

"I don't understand the 'shock' Americans claim to feel at the lurid pictures [from Abu Ghraib prison]. You've seen the troops break down doors and terrify women and children... curse, scream, push, pull, and throw people to the ground with a boot over their head. You've seen troops shoot civilians in cold blood. You've seen them bomb cities and towns. You've seen them burn cars and humans using tanks and helicopters .... I sometimes get e-mails asking me to propose solutions or make suggestions. Fine. Today's lesson: don't rape, don't torture, don't kill, and get out while you can-while it still looks like you have a choice .... Chaos? Civil war? We'll take our chances-just take your puppets, your tanks, your smart weapons, your dumb politicians, your lies, your empty promises, your rapists, your sadistic torturers and go."

There are today approximately 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, some 22 percent of the global population. Through our policies, we have turned virtually all of them against the United States.

Given that 40 percent of the defense budget is now secret as is every intelligence agency budget, it is impossible for Congress to provide effective oversight even if its members wanted to.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against the transfer of the war power to the president for the invasion of Afghanistan - San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 2001

Last week, filled with grief and sorrow for those killed and injured and with anger at those who had done this, I confronted the solemn responsibility of voting to authorize the country to go to war. Some believe this resolution was only symbolic, designed to show national resolve. But I could not ignore that it provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war. It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events-anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation's long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration. I could not support such a grant of war-making authority to the president; I believe it would put more innocent lives at risk.

General Tommy Franks, commander of the American assault on Baghdad

[Another serious terror attack on the United States would] begin to unravel the fabric of our Constitution ... the Constitution could be scrapped in favor of a military form of government.

Adam Young, a Canadian political commentator

How did the chief magistrate of a confederated republic [President Bush] degrade into the global tyrant we experience today, part secular pope, part military despot, part pseudo-philosopher-king and full-time overbearing global gangster?

an anonymous foreign service officer to Los Angeles Times reporter Sonni Efron

I just wake up in the morning and tell myself, 'There's been a military coup and then it all makes sense.

I believe that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have led the country into a perilous cul-de-sac, but they did not do it alone and removing them from office will not necessarily solve the problem. The crisis of government in the United States has been building at least since World War II. The emergence of the imperial presidency and the atrophying of the legislative and judicial branches have deep roots in the postwar military-industrial complex, in the way broad sectors of the public have accepted the military as our most effective public institution, and in aberrations in our electoral system. The interesting issue is not the damage done by Bush, Cheney, and their followers but how they were able to get away with it, given the barriers that exist in the Constitution to prevent just the sorts of misuses of power for which they have become notorious.

The intent of the founders was to prevent a recurrence of the tyranny they had endured under Britain's King George III. They bent all their ingenuity and practical experience to preventing tyrannies of one, of the few, of a majority, of the monied classes, or of any other group that might obtain and exercise unchecked power, often adopting institutional precedents from the Roman Republic. Inspired by the French political philosopher Montesquieu's discussion of the "separation of powers" in his On the Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, the drafters of the American Constitution produced a sophisticated scheme to balance power in a republic. The most basic structure they chose was federalism, setting up the states as alternatives to and limitations on the power of the national government. Congress was given that quintessential parliamentary power-control of the budget-without which it would be merely an ornamental body like the "people's congresses" in communist-dominated countries. Congress was also charged with initiating all legislation, making the final decision to go to war, and if necessary getting rid of an unsatisfactory president by impeachment, something also achievable through periodic elections. To moderate the power of Congress somewhat, the Constitution divided it into two quite differently elected and apportioned houses, each capable of vetoing the other's decisions.

Both houses of Congress must ultimately pass all laws, and the president, who is entrusted with implementing them, is given a veto as well. The Congress, in turn, can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds vote, and even when Congress and the president agree on a law, the Supreme Court, exercising the function of interpreting the laws, can still declare it unconstitutional. The president and members of Congress must be re-elected or leave office, but judges serve for life, although Congress can impeach them. The president nominates the heads of the cabinet departments, who serve at his pleasure, as well as all judges, but the Senate must approve them.

Over time, this balance-of-power spirit came to influence other institutions of government that the Constitution did not mention, including the armed forces, where competition among the services-the army, navy, air force, and Marine Corps-dilutes somewhat the enormous coercive power entrusted to them. 12 To prevent a tyranny of the majority, the Constitution authorizes fixed terms and fixed times for elections (borrowed from the Roman Republic) as a way to interfere with the monopolization of power by an individual, an oligarchy, or a political party.

Unfortunately, after more than two centuries (about the same length of time that the Roman Republic was in its prime), this framework has almost completely disintegrated.

The president now dominates the government in a way no ordinary monarch possibly could. He has at his disposal the clandestine services of the CIA, a private army unaccountable to the Congress, the press, or the public because everything it does is secret. No president since Harry Truman, having discovered what unlimited power the CIA affords him, has ever failed to use it. Meanwhile, the "defense" budgets of the Pentagon dwarf those of the rest of the government and have undermined democratic decision making in the process. Funds for military hardware are distributed in as many states as possible to ensure that any member of Congress who might consider voting against a new weapons system would be accused of putting some of his constituents out of work.

philosopher Hannah Arendt at the height of the Cold War

It is no secret that the billions of dollars demanded by the Pentagon for the armaments industry are necessary not for 'national security' but for keeping the economy from collapsing.

James Madison, the chief author of the Constitution

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare .... War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.

Andrew Bacevich a West Point graduate and a Vietnam veteran with twenty-three years of service in the U.S. Army

Americans in our own time have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without precedent in U.S. history, Americans have come to define the nation's strength and well-being in terms of military preparedness, military action, and the fostering of (or nostalgia for) military ideals.

Two new extraconstitutional centers of power are today out of control - the Department of Defense and the fifteen intelligence organizations, the best known of which is the Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1964, Hannah Arendt ... tried to plumb the evil of the Nazi regime. Her book Eichmann in Jerusalem dealt with the trial of the former SS officer Adolf Eichmann, who was charged with organizing the transport of Jews to death camps during World War II. She subtitled her book A Report on the Banality of Evil but used that now famous phrase only once, at book's end, without explaining it further." Long after Arendt's death, Jerome Kohn, a colleague, compiled a volume of her essays entitled Responsibility and Judgment. What made Eichmann both evil and banal, Arendt concluded in one of those essays, was his inability to think for himself.

"Some years ago," she wrote, "reporting the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, I spoke of the 'banality of evil' and meant with this no theory or doctrine but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps an extraordinary shallowness. However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think."

Arendt was trying to locate Eichmann's conscience. She called him a "desk murderer," an equally apt term for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld - for anyone, in fact, who orders remote-control killing of the modern sort-the bombardment of a country that lacks any form of air defense, the firing of cruise missiles from a warship at sea into countries unable to respond, such as Iraq, Sudan, or Afghanistan, or, say, the unleashing of a Hellfire missile from a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle controlled by "pilots" thousands of miles from the prospective target.

How do ordinary people become desk murderers? First, they must lose the ability to think because, according to Arendt, "thinking conditions men against evil doing." Jerome Kohn adds, "With some degree of confidence it may be said that the ability to think, which Eichmann lacked, is the precondition of judging, and that the refusal as well as the inability to judge, to imagine before your eyes the others whom your judgment represents and to whom it responds, invite evil to enter and infect the world." To lack a personal conscience means "never to start the soundless solitary dialogue we call thinking?'

If an individual's thinking is short-circuited and does not rise to the level of making judgments, he or she is able to understand acts, including evil acts, only in terms of following orders, doing one's duty, being loyal to one's "homeland' maintaining solidarity with one's fellow soldiers, or surrendering one's will to that of the group. This phenomenon(is common in some forms of political life, as Arendt demonstrated in her most famous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, but is ubiquitous in military life, where, in order to prevail in battle, soldiers have been conditioned to follow orders instantly and to act as a cohesive group. In such roles, cliches, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence." This is one reason why democratic republics must be particularly vigilant about standing armies and wars of choice if, that is, they intend to retain their liberties.

As a consequence of our half century of devotion to war, we unintentionally abandoned our republican checks on the activities of public officials and elevated the military to a position that places it, in actual practice, beyond the law.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

A new paradigm renders obsolete [the Geneva Conventions'] strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.

Richard Myers, a four-star air force general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared categorically to Fox News

One thing we don't do is we don't torture.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said

With respect to detainees, the United States Government complies with its Constitution, its laws, and its treaty obligations. Acts of physical or mental torture are expressly prohibited. The United States Government does not authorize or condone torture of detainees. Torture, and conspiracy to commit torture, are crimes under U.S. law, wherever they may occur in the world.

former secretary of state Colin Powell said on German TV, about U.S. bombing of Afghanistan

We spent a huge amount of money and we are putting our young men and women on the line, every day, to put in place a form of government that was decided upon by the Afghan people. And we are helping them to rebuild and reconstruct their society. That pattern is the American pattern. We're very proud of it. It's been repeated many times over, and it will be repeated again in Iraq.

Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions

[prohibits] at anytime and in any place whatsoever" violence, including murder, mutilation, cruel treatment, torture, and outrages to human dignity against protected persons-that is, "persons taking no active part in hostilities' such as civilians, the wounded, and prisoners of war. "Such persons are, in all circumstances, entitled to respect for their honor and religion, and must be protected against insults and public curiosity. No physical or moral coercion shall be exercised to obtain information from them or third parties. Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.

[During the Gulf War of 1991] the United States dropped some ninety thousand tons of bombs on Iraq in the space of forty-three days, intentionally destroying the civilian infrastructure, including eighteen of twenty electricity-generating plants and the water-pumping and sanitation systems.

Colonel John A Warden III wrote in Airpower Journal, 1995

[Destruction] of these [electric power] facilities shut down water purification and sewage treatment plants. As a result, epidemics of gastroenteritis, cholera, and typhoid broke out, leading to perhaps as many as 100,000 civilian deaths and a doubling of the infant mortality rate."

The bombing [of Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991] itself violated international humanitarian law and made the United States liable to charges of war crimes. Article 54 (2) of the "Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol 1), June 8, 1977," explicitly states, "It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as food-stuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive."

On August 2, 1990, the United States and Britain obtained U.N. Security Council Resolution 661 freezing all of Iraq's foreign assets and authorizing the cutting off of all trade. This embargo lasted until the Anglo-American invasion of 2003.

... the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) wrote to he Lancet, the journal of the British Medical Society, that 567,000 Iraqi children were estimated to have died as a result of the sanctions.

.... Among the items the United States stopped from entering Iraq in the winter of 2001 were dialysis, dental and firefighting equipment, water tankers, milk and yogurt production equipment, and printing machines for schools.

Anupama Rao Singh the United Nations Children's Fund representative in Baghdad, observed that food shortages were virtually unknown in Iraq before the sanctions, but that from 1991 to 1998, "children under five were dying from malnutrition-related diseases in numbers ranging from a conservative 2,600 per month to a more realistic 5,357 per month.

instructions a Florida newspaper issued to its staff, October 2001 [during the bombing of Afghanistan]]

"DO NOT USE photos on page 1A showing civilian casualties from the war on Afghanistan .... DO NOT USE wire stories that lead with civilian casualties .... They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT.

George W. Bush, meeting with senior officials on the evening of September 11, 2001

I want you all to understand that we are at war and we will stay at war until this is done. Nothing else matters. Everything is available for the pursuit of this war. Any barriers in your way, they're gone. Any money you need, you have it. This is our only agenda.

Brigadier General Martin Lucent, deputy commander of Guantanamo prison, to the press, October 2004

Most of these guys weren't fighting, they were running.

David Brooks, right-wing pundit for Weekly Standard and a columnist for the New York Times

We will care a lot more about ends - winning the war - than we will about means. We will debate whether it is necessary to torture prisoners who have information about future biological attacks. We will destroy innocent villages by accident, shrug our shoulders, and continue fighting. In an age of conflict, bourgeois values like compassion, tolerance, and industriousness are valued less than the classical virtues of courage, steadfastness, and a ruthless desire for victory.

"unitary executive" theory of presidential power

in time of war the president as commander in chief has almost uncontestable powers to do more or less as he pleases, whatever Congress or the courts may say.

After World War II, the United States put Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita, the so-called Tiger of Malaya and subsequently commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines, on trial. A U.S. war crimes tribunal found that he had failed to uphold "command responsibility" for his troops, who had massacred thousands of innocent civilians in Manila in early 1945, even though the defense established that he had no knowledge of the crimes. Because Yamashita was tried by a military court, he appealed his case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction by a vote of 5 to 3, thereby establishing the doctrine of command responsibility in American law. Justice Frank Murphy warned in dissent, "In the sober afterglow will come the realization of the boundless and dangerous implications of the procedure sanctioned today... Indeed, the fate of some future President of the United States and his chief of staff and military advisers may well have been sealed by this decision." In other words, American constitutional law already establishes the grounds on which President Bush could be held accountable for his failure to exercise command responsibility in (cases of torture at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere.

Burton J Lee served for four years, as presidential physician to George H. W. Bush

Today ... it seems as though our government and the military have slipped into Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.' The widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment - frequently based on military and government documents - defy the claim that this abusive behavior is limited to a few noncommissioned officers at Abu Ghraib or isolated incidents at Guantánamo Bay. When it comes to torture, the military's traditional leadership and discipline have been severely compromised up and down the chain of command. Why? I fear it is because the military has bowed to errant civilian leadership.

George Bush and Tony Blair declared, April 2003

We reaffirm our commitment to protect Iraq's natural resources, as the patrimony of the people of Iraq, which should be used only for their benefit.

Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic

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