In a democracy, no one should be comforted to hear that generals have imposed discipline on an elected head of state. That was never supposed to happen in the United States. Now it has.
Among the most enduring political images of the 20th century was the military junta. It was a group of grim-faced officers — usually three — who rose to control a state. The junta would tolerate civilian institutions that agreed to remain subservient, but in the end enforced its own will. As recently as a few decades ago, military juntas ruled important countries including Chile, Argentina, Turkey, and Greece.
These days the junta system is making a comeback in, of all places, Washington. Ultimate power to shape American foreign and security policy has fallen into the hands of three military men: General James Mattis, the secretary of defense; General John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff; and General H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser. They do not put on their ribbons to review military parades or dispatch death squads to kill opponents, as members of old-style juntas did. Yet their emergence reflects a new stage in the erosion of our political norms and the militarization of our foreign policy. Another veil is dropping.
Given the president’s ignorance of world affairs, the emergence of a military junta in Washington may seem like welcome relief. After all, its three members are mature adults with global experience — unlike Trump and some of the wacky political operatives who surrounded him when he moved into the White House. Already they have exerted a stabilizing influence. Mattis refuses to join the rush to bomb North Korea, Kelly has imposed a measure of order on the White House staff, and McMaster pointedly distanced himself from Trump’s praise for white nationalists after the violence in Charlottesville.
Being ruled by generals seems preferable to the alternative. It isn’t.
Military officers, like all of us, are products of their background and environment. The three members of Trump’s junta have 119 years of uniformed service between them. They naturally see the world from a military perspective and conceive military solutions to its problems. That leads toward a distorted set of national priorities, with military “needs” always rated more important than domestic ones.
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