President Lyman: All right, Colonel. Let’s sum it up, shall we? You’re suggesting what?
Colonel Casey: I’m not sure, Mr. President, just some possibilities, what we call, uh “capabilities” in military intelligence …
Lyman: You got something against the English language, Colonel?
Casey: No, Sir.
Lyman: Then speak it plainly, if you will.
Casey: I’m suggesting, Mr. President, there’s a military plot to take over the government. This may occur some time this coming Sunday.
Let’s be honest, what classic-movie fan hasn’t thought once or twice about the 1964 film Seven Days in May, a brilliantly paranoid gem exploring the anatomy of an American military coup during the Cold War, since President-elect Donald Trump started announcing his plans to nominate one recently retired general after another to the highest positions of his administration?
One could argue that many elements of the movie’s plot are present today: a military infrastructure bred and fed on decades of war is suddenly threatened by a peacetime posture, defense cuts, and a deal with a rival power that’s unpopular with many in the ranks. In the movie, one general, played forbiddingly by Burt Lancaster, believes it is his duty to right the wrongs of the civilian leadership (a peace deal with the Russians) and, thanks to the size and autonomy lavished upon the post-WWII military-industrial complex, can marshal the makings of an elaborate coup right under the noses of official Washington.
Getting from real-world Trump to celluloid Seven Days is, of course, a fun exercise in hyperbole. But critics say that movies like that exist for a reason—the nation was founded on the healthy fear that unbalanced power in the hands of the military could eventually lead to dictatorship, that the military as an institution is not wired for democratic policymaking, governing, or statecraft. Its coding, rather, is to defend, deter, or kill.
In a post-Kennedy world, where Vietnam was fast becoming much more than a few advisers dropped in to help the French, war seemed an inevitable reality directed from behind the curtain of the political and military establishment. Mixed in with paranoia over fascism and a growing cultural divide, you had the makings of a great movie (writer Rod Serling took great advantage).
Today’s reality is quite different, but no less vulnerable to political manipulations and constitutional crises. It is for that reason that some political scientists and former members of the military who spoke with TAC warn against an overreliance on recently retired “military men” at the top level of the new Trump administration. While they don’t believe we are on the brink of a military takeover, they are invariably concerned with the global optics, how a brass-heavy inner circle would influence decision-making, and whether that could pave the way for a darker turn in the future.
At question: Gen. James Mattis, picked to head the Department of Defense, who will need a congressional waiver to serve; Gen. John Kelly, selected to head of Department of Homeland Security; and retired General Mike Flynn, chosen as Trump’s national-security advisor. Trump has also tapped Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander who served in the Iraq War, for the position of interior secretary.
Taken separately, nearly all engender enthusiastic respect for their skills and intellectual capabilities, especially Mattis, who by all reports is well-loved in the military community, particularly by veterans who fought under him in Iraq. Outside, he is described as a man of a forthright nature who is well-read, a good listener, and more than capable of handling the leviathan bureaucracy that is the Pentagon.
While Kelly evokes similar strains of confidence, there are rising questions over a retired four-star heading a domestic security post. And with Flynn comes a much cloudier picture: while he’s viewed as a brilliant tactician, there are growing doubts about his temperament and fitness, owing to his personal politics, as well as his reputation as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan and Iraq and as head of Defense Intelligence Agency. Unlike the others, he does not have to be confirmed by the Senate.
As a whole, experts say the problems posed by these selections are—unlike those posed by the fictional Gen. Mattoon Scott of Seven Days in May—more nuanced echos of alarm that could become full-on sirens for future administrations if left unchecked.
Loss of Civilian Control?
While these men are currently civilians, the fact they just retired from the military (where they served in combat commissions in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars) has evoked some powerful appeals to the long-held doctrine of civilian control of the military.
The commonly held idea is that the founders did not want to replicate England’s monarchical control of the military. Chuck Cushman, a veteran and now dean of academics at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs, insists the American resistance to military control dates back even further. He points to Oliver Cromwell, the successful British commander who won the English Civil War for the Parliamentarians and subsequently brought about the execution of King Charles I. Cromwell’s culminating power led to the overthrow of the ruling party, and with help from his supporters he became “Lord Protector of England” in 1653, after which he led a brutal purge of Catholics across the British Isles.
“I blame Oliver Cromwell. He is why the founders were dedicated to building the [American] constitutional structure this way”—keeping powers diluted, with the president as commander-in-chief but Congress in charge of raising, governing, and supporting the country’s defenses and declaring war, said Cushman. George Washington could have been Cromwell, having just won the Revolution, but resigned his commission, knowing full well the history, Cushman insists. The “founders looked at each other and said, he is the only one among us who is strong enough to not fall into that trap. They built this structure to avoid that trap.”
So what of the “trap” today?
“[The country] is not at risk of a military coup; it is what I call the ‘velvet militarization’ of American foreign and national security policy over the next four years,” writes Gordon Adams, professor emeritus at American University’s School of International Service and co-editor of Mission Creep: The Militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy.
Military officers, he says, “view the world differently,” in the “structured, hierarchical, strategic and operational way” that “focuses on the uses of military force.” Meanwhile, civilian analysts, strategists, and diplomats focus on statecraft, broader strategy, nuance, and knowing when to set “one sticky problem aside to make progress on another,” opined Adams. Both are needed in balance for the president to navigate the shoals of today’s security policies.
The federal government has become increasingly militarized already. Trump’s sudden reliance on these men is swinging the pendulum further in that direction, risking “cementing in place ‘the military-industrial complex’ that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of,” Adams charged.
“It’s not automatically dangerous, but, boy, I can see the red lights are turning on my warning panels, saying we got to watch this,” said Cushman, who is more concerned about the lack of foreign-policy and national-security experience among Trump’s other nominees—and Trump himself, who may too easily defer to the “can do” generals more popular with the American public. “I don’t think it would be malicious, no one is going to wake up and say, ‘This is dictator day,’ but the [military guys] may just look around and say, ‘This is not being done correctly and I know what to do.’”
“So many people that Trump’s picking who are not retired generals are not experienced in government, and they are not going to have the weight. Are they capable of looking at General Mattis and saying, ‘I disagree’? You need need someone of similar heft and similar gravitas who can serve as a civilian counterweight to what might be a very military approach to problem solving,” said Cushman.
This would not be the first time a general served so close to the president in recent times. Colin Powell was still a commissioned lieutenant general in the Army when he served as Reagan’s national-security advisor from 1987 to 1989. He retired as a four-star in 1993 and served as President Bush’s secretary of state in 2001.
Michael Desch, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, says he is less concerned about what Trump’s generals say about the future of civilian control of the military than he is about what it says about Trump’s attitude toward the non-military talent pool.
“What I’m uncomfortable with, is the implication that that we don’t have the depth in the civilian world, in national-security experience, to fill those positions,” Desch said. Moreover, the president-elect appears to reinforcing public opinion that the military is the only branch of government that can be trusted. “What does that say about the rest of us, that only the military can save us? Then we are in more trouble than I imagine.”
“There is a degree of being star-struck by generals, not just with Trump, but with America,” points out Sean McFate, a former paratrooper and National Defense University professor who believes the four-stars will be more easily confirmed by the Senate than anyone else. With Mattis, Trump gets to bolster his own lack of military and foreign-policy experience, and position someone in the Pentagon’s plush E-Ring who won’t be swallowed whole.
“[Trump] doesn’t want to get hoodwinked, and Mattis won’t get hoodwinked by the bureaucracy. This gives Trump street cred by association,” McFate offered.
That’s good for Trump, but McFate believes stacking his inner circle with combat generals makes for “horrible” foreign-policy optics. “These are all combat-veteran military men. They have spent the last decade and a half at war. It’s not impossible that other countries make look at this in a very threatening manner, particularly the appointment of Flynn, who once called Islamism ‘a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people’ that ‘has to be excised.’”
Is Civilian Control Any Better?
Still, McFate, Desch, and others acknowledge that civilian policymakers haven’t exactly wrapped themselves in glory over the last 15 years, throwing into question whether the civilian-control doctrine, as Georgetown University professor Rosa Brooks puts it, “has become unmoored from its original purpose.”
For one thing, today’s U.S. military has elaborate internal checks and balances and a deeply ingrained respect for democracy and the rule of law. It’s difficult to imagine any active-duty general or group of officers, no matter how popular, persuading the troops to ignore or overturn the results of an election or a properly passed law. (That’s even truer for retired military officers. Technically, they are civilians. They can still give orders if they want to, but even the lowliest private is free to tell a retired general to take a hike, subject only to the constraints of courtesy.)
Brooks goes further, saying that in these modern times with blurred lines, when civilians are prosecuting wars and the military doing civilian work, “civilian control of the military” has “become a rule of aesthetics, not ethics, and its invocation is a soothing ritual that makes us feel better without accomplishing anything of value.”
“What bad things do we imagine would be more likely to happen if retired generals make up half of the next president’s cabinet?”
It was Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993, who unsuccessfully attempted to put some brakes on military force in Bosnia. He was outnumbered by President Clinton’s civilian national-security team. Later, as secretary of state, he admitted he was railroaded into using bad intelligence screened by Vice President Dick Cheney’s office to justify invading Iraq.
“I’m much more comfortable with General Mattis for secretary of defense than I would be with a Paul Wolfowitz or some other neoconservative who certainly would continue the same sort of policies that have unfortunately come to characterize our national security strategy for the last 20 years at least,” said Desch.
Sure, says McFate, “there are problems with civilian control as a sort of religious dogma,” with the the civilian drive to war in Iraq as the perfect example. But there must be a balance. “You don’t want to set a precedent that is going to haunt you in years to come.”
Still, as some remember, in Seven Days in May, it was Col. Jiggs Casey (played by Kirk Douglas)—not a civilian—who risked everything to drop the dime on a rogue general, thwarting a coup and saving country from constitutional crisis. If reality follows fiction, such courage will be welcome, whether the official exhibiting it has stripes on their sleeve or not.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.