Mission creep

Sam Smith, 1996 – Just one week after your editor’s views on the increasing militarization of America were featured in a column by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, that paper responded with a major paen to “Generals in Command on the Home Front.” The subhead ran: “In need of discipline, order, honor, polish? Civil institutions find old soliders pass muster.”

The Post momentarily put aside such arduous tasks as defending the CIA and offered a multi-column Style section rebuttal to the notion that there was something wrong with the proliferation of generals in domestic affairs complete with a handsome foot-high photo of Genral Patton pointing his baton in an appropriately imperious fashion.

Although quoting one critic of militarization near the end of the article, the overall tone of the piece was, at best, that these flag officers will shape the country up and, at worse, that they are part of yet another cute social trend for a wise-ass journalist to have some fun with. The idea that democracy might be in peril as a product of the trend was just a jump page after-thought.

Here are some quotes:

From writer Marc Fisher: “A retired general is spit-and-polish. Order and discipline. Expectations and results. Retired general. Two words with such Taoist balance. At once at ease and in charge. Calm yet powerful. Benign yet can-do.”

From General Don Scott, deputy librarian of the Library of Congress: “We’re proven. We know how to take orders, we know how to do more with less. Society wants more order and more structure.”

Charles Moskos, a sociologist who studies the military: “Making the trains run on time is not to be pooh-poohed. In a world of crumbling instituations, the military stands out for its cohesion.”

Fisher ends his piece with a quote from a retired general: “Let those in uniform fight the cold and hot wars. Let those who have retired fight the domestic war.” Fisher is so enthralled by this that he forgets to ask the general just when and why the American people became the enemy.

Columnist Milloy, one of the last progressive writers at the Post, became interested in my article on militarization after a de facto junta selected by GOP congressional leaders to run DC had named General Julius Becton as school czar and wiped out most of the powers of the elected school board.

Becton got the same sort of fawning treatment from the media (including national publications) that General Barry McCaffrey received when he took over as head of federal anti-drug programs. And as with McCaffrey, there was plenty of the Becton story that didn’t come out. Such as the fact that when he was Reagan’s head of the Federal Emergency Managment Agency, FEMA concoted an outragous $1.5 billion plan for 600 bomb shelters to be built for state and local officials. The rest of the population was meant to rely on “voluntary self-help programs and emergency public information” such as low cost radiation detectors and instructional materials. States and localities that failed to cooperate in the plan could lose federal funds for non-nuclear disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Not surprisingly, the plan was laughed out of existence.

Even though the scheme was front-page news in the Washington Post when it occurred, the Post failed to tell readers about it in its glowing coverage of Becton. Nor did it mention that Becton had testified on behalf of Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court, expressing support for Thomas’ views on affirmative action and the like.

Finally, in neither its praise of Becton nor its defense of the generic general did the Post point out that what generals are trained for is to kill, defeat and control people in whatever order seems most practical at the moment.

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