Military Rulers

Posted on August 25, 2013


Next year will be half a century since a movie, Seven Days in May, appeared in theaters across the U. S.

Inspired by a decidedly hot Cold War, it reveals a plot by certain high members of the U. S. military to remove the President. In short, a coup d’état, replacing the constitutionally elected leader of the country with a military cabal.

The rationale behind the coup was the deep suspicion that the Soviet Union would not abide by a mutually agreed plan to disarm nuclear weapons. Thinking the President weak and duped, the plot unfolded.

The movie had a star studded cast, including Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and Kirk Douglas and was even looked upon by President Kennedy as a plausible scenario.

In other words, it could happen. It took place in the futurific 1970s, which of course is ancient history to more than half of the population in this country born since then.

But many of us lived through the Cuban Missile crisis of October, 1962, which brought us to the brink of a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the U. S.

In Seven Days in May the generals and admirals decided to take matters into their own hands to save the country.

Does this scenario sound familiar? In Egypt today there is a bloody struggle for power between the military and the Muslim brotherhood to determine that country’s future.

In Pakistan the military may not rule blatantly, but they are the power brokers.

In Syria the military are defending a brutal dictatorship. In Egypt they may even restore military rule which preceded the present regime.

This could never happen in our country we rather smugly assume. Get yourself a copy of Seven Days in May.

Or, even better, read about George Washington and his problems with his own military subordinates in the 1780s, the Society of the Cincinnati.

The military in politics is not just a modern phenomenon in the largely Islamic Middle East.

The military has played an immense role, for example, in Latin American politics over the past two centuries, often stepping in to “restore” something as diffuse as “honor,” or “true democracy,” or institute sweeping social and economic reforms in the face of what many in the military considered political ineptness or resistance by the old political elites.

Furthermore, political corruption among those who governed rankled military establishments who viewed their roles based on honor, integrity, and a selfless devotion to the higher calling of country, rather than self.

The military tends to do that to people. It’s a leveler, a unifier, often the only institution in many countries that instills values of nationalism and patriotism, a sense of being part of a whole.

This can be good and bad. Lee Harvey Oswald served in the Marines. Fidel Castro went to Jesuit schools. No institution is perfect.

Chile, a country which prides itself on adhering to constitutional democracy, was torn apart in the 1970s by a political rupture that is still felt today.

Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970 on a socialist ticket, and his more radical supporters pushed him more and more in the next three years to a radical socialization of the country.

On September 11, 1973, the military, led by Army General Augusto Pinochet, came out of the barracks with a roar and removed Allende from office, reversing many of his initiatives over the next few years.

Allende committed suicide and Pinochet was later elected president.

The military under Pinochet removed Chile, and many Chileans, forcibly from the socialist camp and restored it to the ranks of constitutional democracies.

The process was not pretty, marked by torture, executions, many Chileans going into exile, and the grisly business of shaking socialists and communists loose from the reins of power.

But, in doing so, eventually the historic freedoms and liberties of Chile were restored, a vibrant export-led economy based on private capital and investment was kick started, and Chile now has a prosperous economy and a stable, albeit lively, political structure in place.

In fact, two women, both daughters of generals who opposed each other in the early 1970s, are vying for the presidency this year.

Could Chile have fought its way back to democracy and capitalism without a massive military intervention? Possibly, but given the divisions in Chilean social, economic and political life, the conflict would just have been postponed.

Today Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, still runs Cuba.

Raul is the leading member of the Cuban military establishment, a tough nut who supported his brother ruthlessly in the early 1960s with mass executions, the creation of a superb security system with a rapid stranglehold on the sources of power in Cuba, and the elimination of dissidents.

With the new Cuban revolutionary forces behind him, led conveniently by his brother, Fidel maintained an ironclad control over Cuba for half a century.

Some will argue that it was the power of the communist ideal, the sharing of the country’s resources among the poor, the landless, and the dispossessed, that contributed to the Castros’ success. But, without the revolutionary military establishment, it would have vaporized in a few months or years.

This is not to distract from the charismatic Fidel. But he also knew how to manipulate military power. Once he destroyed the army of the old Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, he replaced it with Raul and his revolutionary military.

So, where are we here? Does power really come out of a gun? Or, as the great historian Crane Brinton once wrote of the French Revolution of 1789, “no ideas, no revolution.”

Guns and military establishments are indeed powerful.

But what drives them—ideas, truth, liberty, conscience, standards, values, religion—is what truly empowers them.

Napoleon Bonaparte and the magnificent French army conquered most of the European world in the early nineteenth century, but the ideas of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, brotherhood—really captured the world’s imagination, not Napoleon.

And the greatest movement in the history of the world was not born in the mind of a military man, but in the life an itinerant Jewish teacher 2000 years ago who taught love, forgiveness and humble service, a most unmilitary agenda.

This essay published as an OpEd Sunday September 1, 2013 in The Tuscaloosa News as “Providing ammo: Ideas could fuel military action, even now in U. S.”

Posted in: History, Politics