Military in politics: a cause for concern?

By Arthur I. Cyr

“America has two fundamental powers. One is the power of intimidation … the other … is the power of inspiration.” That statement by retired Marine Corps General James Mattis indicates a perspective that emphasizes discipline, discretion and awareness of the limits of military force alone.

In our democracy, military discipline includes respect for the ultimate authority of elected civilian officials over the military. That discipline also includes not playing self-interested political games with defense. Media anxiety about having a former career flag officer serve in the top Pentagon post is quite understandable. Concern over this matter led Congress to require a seven-year waiting period before a military veteran could be considered for the job. Consequently, Mattis required a special waiver from Congress. He received this in an overwhelming 81-17 vote in the Senate, following a vote of 24 to 3 by the Senate Armed Services Committee. The waiver for Mattis passed the House by a vote of 268-151. Such a waiver was provided once before, in 1950 for George C. Marshall to become secretary of defense. Marshall’s career and style are highly germane in the current climate. Recent secretaries of defense have gone public with criticism. In 2014, former secretary Leon Panetta brought forth memoirs. He bluntly criticizes many others, including President Barack Obama. This imitates Robert Gates, Panetta’s immediate predecessor at the Pentagon. Marshall as U.S. Army chief of staff was vital to World War II victory. He then led the state and defense departments, where he became a target of Senator Joseph McCarthy and associates in the anti-communist hysteria of the time. When Marshall died, I was working after school as an office clerk for a Pacific war veteran who ran a small business. Mr. Henricks survived horrific combat on Bougainville, but with disturbing physical and emotional scars apparent to a young boy.

He usually tried fiercely to focus on the business but took a break to discuss Marshall with reverence, uncharacteristic sentimentality from a usually restless, tormented man.