In this diary’s first entry, on March 3, I recalled my experience as an eyewitness to the coup d’etat in Cambodia in early July 1997 and wrote that it taught me that “military takeovers take place in a country when civilian politics and institutions have broken down.” Today – less than three weeks later – the top headline on the Guardian’s live feed, as of 11:35 a.m. Seattle time, is: “Military preparing to deploy hospitals to New York and Seattle.”
I point this out not to say “I told you so.” It’s not like I enjoy having been right, or as if being right has ever done me much good. One of my most enduring personal grudges is against a magazine editor who positioned himself as a mentor to me when I was young and ambitious and squeaking by in Bangkok on a few hundred dollars a month in freelance income. He praised me for being “ahead of the curve” and advised me: “Don’t dumb down your work in order to place it. It’s only a matter of time.” Well, no it’s not. And if the curve never catches up to you, you can be ahead of it until the cows come home and it won’t do either you or anyone else any material good.
And maybe in this case I won’t turn out to have been right after all – let’s hope I’m not. Then again, which is the point, the glaring failures of the civilian-led dispensation that’s ostensibly running this country – and we can certainly lay a lot of blame on Trump, but here I intend a much wider indictment – is precisely what has led us to begin looking to the military to rescue us.
In Lahore in January 1999, when the coup led by General Pervez Musharraf nine months later was already starting to look plausible, Cecil Chaudhry – a retired Pakistan Air Force fighter pilot, hero of two wars against India – told me:
What is happening now is precisely how a tiger becomes a man-eater. It’s obvious. This is how all our martial laws have happened. It’s not as though there’s Bonapartism in the army. It’s failure of civilians. One institution after another is being destroyed or desecrated. [Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is] opening up too many fronts for himself. The writing is there on the wall, the way the army is being involved.
What was happening at the time in Pakistan? The preceding paragraph in my 2004 book Alive and Well in Pakistan reads:
“He [Nawaz Sharif] seems to be accumulating all of this power, but he’s not using any of this power to deal with the country’s problems,” Maleeha Lodhi, then editor of the English-language daily The News, complained to me in her office in Rawalpindi. Nawaz found himself reduced to using the army to perform a census and read meters for Wapda, the state electricity company. “This prime minister has amassed more powers to himself and is still weaker than any other in history,” a Western diplomat [code for “U.S. Embassy man”] told me. “Having amassed in a formal sense all the powers to himself, to deal with the really harsh issues, he turns to the army. Pakistan is proving that it’s not cut out for parliamentary democracy.”
Three days ago, March 20, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said on the Morning Joe show:
“They [the military] have [an] extraordinary group of medical personnel and material and supplies that they can put on the ground, they know how to do it in a war. I assure you they can do it in their own country. But the order has not been given by the commander-in-chief, because he’s not acting like a commander-in-chief. He doesn’t know how. He should get the hell out of the way and let the military do its job.”
On Saturday the 21st the actor Sean Penn and Ann Lee, the CEO of CORE, the organization founded by Penn after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, wrote in a Guardian op-ed:
To aid Haitians after the earthquake, the United States government deployed the most effective logistical and humanitarian organization the world has ever seen: the U.S. military … This was in Haiti, where public health infrastructure is limited and in some places nonexistent. Imagine what the U.S. military could do here in the U.S., right now, to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
In another Guardian op-ed, three Harvard scientists argued:
We are at war against the coronavirus. … Let’s use one of America’s most valuable national assets – our top-tier military – to dramatically increase our healthcare capacity. They are a dynamic force uniquely positioned to fight this virus, despite it falling outside their traditional scope. Members are trained to handle acute stress, are adaptable and are rapidly deployable. They’re used to being under centralized command and are mentally prepared to be away from their families to protect our country.
That article is the one I sent to my friend David Grantham. David is a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer in Iraq with a Ph.D. in history from Texas Christian University, and a contributor to Voices of America: Veterans and Military Families Tell Their Own Stories, a book I co-edited that’s still, as far as I know, on schedule to be published this fall by TCU Press. David replied:
I read the article and it smacks of the same old trope that the military is capable of soooo much when we are sooo scared. But when we don’t want them, they are overextended or otherwise unhelpful. Reminds me of the movie The Siege where Bruce Willis says, as the general, “The army is a sword, not a scalpel.”
It is a bad idea to rely on the military. They can tacitly support logistics for sure, reroute transportation services. But we are trained for violence – for war. Our doctors train on trauma. Civilian doctors are just as, if not more capable.
Bad actors are watching, and don’t be surprised if Iran or China or Russia see an opportunity to attack us while we are weak. The military must remain focused on the very real threat on the outside.
In a follow-up message, David added:
You are welcome to quote me with the understanding that my comments are not fully explained or fleshed out, although the intent is the same. In fact, Bruce Willis gets arrested at the end of the movie, making the point a little different (and in some ways the same) that the military operates under different circumstances and too much is expected of them. We must make war and be a Walmart greeter – kind and gentle with the ability to cut someone’s throat a second later. Ridiculous. But then again, with the money that the DOD receives, the public can be forgiven for believing we can do it all.
When I asked him to review how I was using his quotes, David added the comment:
Medical assistance may not be bad but it rarely stops there. All Americans should be vigilant about the military’s use.