Thomas Sowell Pines for A Military Coup

A “random thought” from Thomas Sowell:

When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.

Steven Taylor, who studies Latin American politics for a living, is not a fan of military coups, although he allows in the comments as to how a Babylon 5 scenario might be an exception.

Having spent a good part of my life in and around the military, I can see as to how a coup might improve the degeneracy situation. (Although I hasten to add, the military is not a degeneracy-free institution.) It would, however, come at the cost of virtually all freedom. Not to mention consent of the governed and various rights deemed “inalienable” by the Founders.

UPDATE: I agree with my colleague Steve Verdon and several other commenters that it is unfair to Sowell to suggest he wants a coup. Sowell has a sufficiently long track record that I’m confident that he’s not a “militant anti-democratic extremist.” This is likely just a one-liner by a frustrated man. Still, it’s a pretty silly thing for a man of his intellectual caliber to write — especially in the context of lamenting “degeneracy.”

Steve Bainbridge, who is firmly anti-coup, is nonetheless intrigued by the “alternate history” feasibility angle. Like me (and I suspect, many of you) he’s seen “Seven Days in May” and thinks the plot far-fetched. Not only would it be logistically problematic because of the separation of the military into numerous Services and Reserve/Guard components but the media would be hostile. And, he hastens to add, it would be anathema to the very culture of the United States military.

I agree completely.

Still, Air Force colonel (and JAG) Charles Dunlap pondered this very question in a classic article for Parameters in 1992 called “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.” The piece is fiction, starting from the perspective of an old War College graduate looking back from a post-coup future and reflecting on the events that led us there. It is a warning against the politicization of the military he saw rising in the early 1990s as well as some social sentiments that are reflected in Sowell’s random thought.

If we’re ever going to get our freedom back, we’ve got to understand how we got into this mess. People need to understand that the armed forces exist to support and defend government, not to be the government. Faced with intractable national problems on one hand, and an energetic and capable military on the other, it can be all too seductive to start viewing the military as a cost-effective solution. We made a terrible mistake when we allowed the armed forces to be diverted from their original purpose.

[…]

Americans became exasperated with democracy. We were disillusioned with the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation’s dilemmas. We were looking for someone or something that could produce workable answers. The one institution of government in which the people retained faith was the military. Buoyed by the military’s obvious competence in the First Gulf War, the public increasingly turned to it for solutions to the country’s problems. Americans called for an acceleration of trends begun in the 1980s: tasking the military with a variety of new, nontraditional missions, and vastly escalating its commitment to formerly ancillary duties.

Though not obvious at the time, the cumulative effect of these new responsibilities was to incorporate the military into the political process to an unprecedented degree. These additional assignments also had the perverse effect of diverting focus and resources from the military’s central mission of combat training and warfighting. Finally, organizational, political, and societal changes served to alter the American military’s culture. Today’s military is not the one we knew when we graduated from the War College.

This, too, is not a stretch:

Furthermore, well-meaning attempts at improving service life led to the unintended insularity of military society, representing a return to the cloistered life of the pre-World War II armed forces. Military bases, complete with schools, churches, stores, child care centers, and recreational areas, became never-to-be-left islands of tranquillity removed from the chaotic, crime-ridden environment outside the gates. As one reporter put it in 1991: “Increasingly isolated from mainstream America, today’s troops tend to view the civilian world with suspicion and sometimes hostility.” Thus, a physically isolated and intellectually alienated officer corps was paired with an enlisted force likewise distanced from the society it was supposed to serve. In short, the military evolved into a force susceptible to manipulation by an authoritarian leader from its own select ranks.

Now, for reasons Bainbridge highlights, I think a coup is vanishingly unlikely. But the isolation of the military from society, the fact that most of our elites, including politicians, have never served, and the military’s sense of itself as a bastion of decency and honor in a country going soft and corrupt is not a welcome trend.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. RJN says:

    Remove the women from the voting rolls.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Smart people sometimes say dumb things. It may be one of the reasons we so rarely elect intellectuals to the presidency.

  3. I’m chalking this one up to age.

  4. jpe says:

    Sowell is an intellectual?

    Ha! Keep ’em coming.

  5. Tlaloc says:

    While a coup seems a pretty far fetched idea I do wonder now and again about an amicable division of the US into two to four smaller states. Sometimes it seems like the ideological differences are so extreme that we’d be better off having a few democracies, each representing their local populous, rather than trying for one huge one.

    Democracy seems to have more inefficiencies when done large, rather than economy of scale effects.

  6. Edgardo says:

    Sowell’s best “random thought”

    I am so old that I can remember a Democrat, at his inauguration as president, say of our enemies: “We dare not tempt them with weakness.”

  7. Edgardo says:

    Reading again the title of your post I think you’re wrong. Sowell is not pining for a military coup. He’s frustrated that one day there will be no choice but to ask the military to take power.

  8. Barry says:

    Edgardo – first, how often is that the situation, as opposed to the military leadership *deciding* to take over. Second, did Sowell throw up even an anecdote to support the argument that a military coup might be necessary (let alone actual evidence or data)?

  9. Barry says:

    James: “I can see as to how a coup might improve the degeneracy situation. (Although I hasten to add, the military is not a degeneracy-free institution.) ”

    LTC Yngling’s famous recent article included the phrase (quote from memory) ‘as the situation stands, a private who loses his rifle faces worse punishment than a general who loses a battle’.

  10. Steve Plunk says:

    Sowell is thinking out loud, not pining for a coup. If you read his “random thoughts” on a regular basis you will see these are no academic papers but simply throwing things out to be discussed.

    If certain people keep undermining our faith in democracy and fair elections we may have to have something like this to keep order. How close were we in 2000? Who decides in close elections or what if a party decides not to accept the results (as many have)?

    This is being overblown.

  11. Steve Verdon says:

    Isn’t everybody assuming that Sowell sees a military coup as a good thing? I don’t see him assuming that.

  12. Michael says:

    Sometimes it seems like the ideological differences are so extreme that we’d be better off having a few democracies, each representing their local populous, rather than trying for one huge one.

    Isn’t that called Federalism?

  13. Steve and Steve:

    Sowell wrote: the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup

    The implication here is not that some day we might fall under the cloud of coup, or that things may degenerate into something terrible like a coup. No, he states that it might take a coup to SAVE the country. That is dangerous thinking no matter how you slice it, and an attitude that has certainly been popular in other places at other times. The Brazilians thought so in the 1960s, and they didn’t get to directly elect a president until 1990. The Turks are flirting (again) with that notion right now.

    The Argentines, the Chileans, the Peruvians and any number other places have thought that a coup could “save” them. They never do.

    The military is a hierarchical organization whose main tool is force. Does that sound like a source of salvation for a democracy?

  14. spencer says:

    He is saying so many people have values so different from his that it might be preferable to have the military use force to impose his values on them.

    Anyone who thinks this clearly does not believe in the concept of democracy that I believe in.

  15. Tlaloc says:

    Isn’t that called Federalism?

    Federalism is just a two tiered system. I’m talking about actually separate nations.

    Steve:

    If certain people keep undermining our faith in democracy and fair elections we may have to have something like this to keep order.

    Hrrrrm. “Certain people.” Like people who politicize our justice system? People who fight time and again for voting systems that are routinely found to be insecure and lack any meaningful audit capabilities? People who relentlessly attack the separation of powers based on which branches they currently hold.

    Yes, there are certain people undermining democracy, fortunately their party just lost control of congress and looks to lose the presidency as well.

  16. Tlaloc says:

    No, he states that it might take a coup to SAVE the country.

    We had to destroy the village to save it.
    -US Army officer in Vietnam

  17. Steve Verdon says:

    The military is a hierarchical organization whose main tool is force. Does that sound like a source of salvation for a democracy?

    Sure seemed to work a little over 200 years ago.

  18. Edgardo says:

    As Sowell, I’m an economist. I´ve been reading Sowell for over 30 years and I know very well his books and articles. So I think I know what he meant with this “random thought” (he has written “random thoughts for many years).

    To Steven Taylor, I’m Argentinian living in Chile and who have worked in many countries over the past 50 years. I’ve lived over many coups and only in one or two cases cases I’d say they saved democracy. But in most cases, before the coup democracy had been lost because of civilians struggling for power and threatening a civil war. As an economist I’ve been trained to think in terms of alternatives, please tell for me any episode of your choice what alternative there was to the military coup.

  19. Spencer, democracy isn’t the end-all, be-all. It is merely a political means to a political end. The end being maximizng human liberty. History has shown democracy has been a mixed bag. An example of freedom without democracy was Hong Kong under British rule.

  20. Steve:

    We had a war for independence–we never had military rule.

    Edgardo–you are correct, in most of the cases in question democracy was already lost (or may not have actually been fully present). But that isn’t the point–the point is that it was unusual in those cases for the cries to be for the military to “save” democracy. However, they never do. Indeed, I can’t think of a case of a coup that directly and quickly led to democratization.

  21. And BTW: I am familiar with Sowell’s “random thoughts” columns. I haven’t been reading them for 30 years, but probably have been off and on for over a decade.

    The fact that Sowell is an economist strikes me as irrelevant to the situation.

  22. I was a bit surprised at the quote myself. I attribute it to being in a snarky mood at a time when he’s getting too old to care any more. It doesn’t seem to reflect Sowell’s considered opinions, as layed out in his voluminous and (listen up, jpe) very scholarly writings.

    Curiously, I think Sowell would consider being called an intellectual an insult. To him, “intellectual” is an economic class whose definition has little to do with actual mental ability, and a class he doesn’t much care for.

    My own fear is that the military is less decadent than the ruling elite — and that this will, someday, tempt them to try to overthrow that ruling elite. Which is rather a different thing from approving of that coup. In a democracy, it’s the voters’ job to overthrow decadent ruling elites, at the ballot box. That this has not happened suggests the voters are themselves growing decadent.

  23. Sean:

    I may be missing your point, but I would challenge you to find an example of military government in which the population was freer than they are under democratic governance.

  24. Spurlee says:

    Speaking as retired military person, I understand what Dr. Sowell was trying to say. IMHO, he was pointing out the disparity between those who are elected to serve the nation but sacrifice the nation’s goals to serve their partisan political ends. The military, being apolitical, could serve to “right the ship.” The fact that there has never been a military coup here is proof of the ethos of our military that civilian leadership trumps all situations. I can see no event that would lead our military to stage a coup. None.

    That said, there is a lot of overheated discussion here from people who seem to think that a) Sowell was hoping for a coup; and b) that we should all fear that event. Neither is true or possible. I suggest that you settle down with a little chamomile and let all those evil thoughts drift away.

  25. Steven,

    My point is we put democracy on a pedestal and treat it as being all good. It’s not holy, just a tool to an end.

    I want to keep my eye on the goal of maximizing liberty while respecting the rights of others. I could write books full of examples of the democratic process in the U.S. stomping on liberty. A volume could be devoted on the New Deal alone.

    Democracy is a useful means, and historically it correlates with liberty. However, it’s not the only way. I’d consider the rule of law to be more important than democracy. I use British-ruled Hong Kong as an example because its people’s level of freedom was astoundingly high, on many levels higher than the U.S. Yet people didn’t vote on rulers.

  26. Tano says:

    As a random thought meant to provoke discussion (the best possible interpretation of the remark, though a stretch), it perhaps has served its purpose. It has brought quite a few authoritarians out of the woodwork, and demonstrates that the committment to democracy is rather weaker in our population than many of us assumed.

    That there are Americans who concieve of liberty as disconnected from democracy, or that “degeneracy” amongst the rabble is something that perhaps should be addressed with force, is a bit mind blowing. Are you guys on some campaign to prove the kossacks right or something?

    Sowell, irrespective of his scholarly efforts, has always been deeply ideological. I imagine that I would have been roundly criticized for ever claiming that these sentiments were probably present at the end of his logical path, or were part of his ideological mindset. I thank him for clearing up the issue.

  27. Edgardo says:

    Steven,
    My previous comment was divided into two parts. Only the second one was addressed to your point. Anyway, many of Sowell’s books and articles are about economics and if you’re an economist you can understand better his logic. Regarding your point, I suggest to other readers, James and you to read the last chapter of his Knowledge and Decisions (first ed. 1980, 2nd. 1996).

    Now your point is that leaders of military coups claim to save democracy but they are lying. Yes, you’re right, but it is irrelevant what people claim as their objective (a point that Sowell has made for the past 40 years). If you knew well LA, you would know that most coup leaders took advantage of a government’s collapse regardless of the nature of this government. So let me ask you again, what’s the alternative to a military coup when democracy collapses?

  28. One might argue that Iraq is currently under a military government right now (or at least one propped up by the US Military), and it is almost certainly freer than it was under Saddam.

    (That ought to keep the thread going a while.)

  29. Tlaloc says:

    One might argue that Iraq is currently under a military government right now (or at least one propped up by the US Military), and it is almost certainly freer than it was under Saddam.

    BARHDAD — A U.S. military brigade is constructing a 3-mile-long concrete wall to cut off one of Baghdad’s most restive Sunni Arab districts from the Shiite Muslim neighborhoods that surround it, raising concern about the further Balkanization of Iraq’s capital.

    LINK

    Go Freer-dom!

  30. In regards to James’ update: I agree that Sowell isn’t wishing for a coup, but I still maintain that his inclusion of the notion that a coup might be needed to “save” the country to be disturbingly dangerous one.

    Edgardo,

    I don’t mean to dodge your question, but that strikes me as a far more complicated question than can be answered in the comments section of a blog–indeed, it would depend on the case. I would say that in Chile it would have been far better to have allowed Allende to finish his term–that was a case where the military did, in fact, break democracy. A little electoral reform to eliminate plurality winners would have been a good idea as well…

    Sean,

    Just as a point of clarification–democracy is more than just choosing one’s rulers (although I take your point about the separation of personal liberty from elections). When I am talking about democracy, I am meaning not just the mechanism of leader-choosing, but also the presence of substantive rights for the population.

    And, for that matter, Hong Kong aside, one is hard pressed to find examples of substantive rights sans basic democracy.

  31. Steven, I agree fully that Hong Kong is one of the few exceptions. Makes me wonder why.

    As for defining democracy I worry that too many take democracy as simply voting for one’s rulers. Such lazy thinking leads to populism which I find abhorrent. I prefer a term like “democratic republic” so one understands a limited government respecting human rights is what I as a conservative strive for.

  32. Edgardo says:

    Steven,
    Indeed this is not the place to discuss in detail any past coup, but your idea that Allende could have finished his term (three more years to complete his 6-year term) indicates that you really don’t know Chile’s situation at that time. I moved into Santiago, Chile, as a professor in January 1973 and I can tell you that I still don’t understand how a civil war didn’t break up after the Congressional election of March 4. Anyway, you should read all Chilean newspapers of the first 8 months of 1973 to have an idea of how democracy had collapsed well before the military decided to intervene. In particular I suggest that you read El Siglo, the Communist Party’s newspaper, and the many statements made during that period by Carlos Altamirano and other UP leaders.
    Let me say that you have chosen the worst example to make your case. Your argument could have made some sense in Argentina, at least for some of the coups (in particular the one of March 1962).

  33. ron says:

    After looking at excepts for the Sowell column, the initial discussion about a military coup being the only way to save the country, I put that aside as one response to an ever increasing problem of people using the general principles of the United States against it and what can/will be done about it in the future.
    During the 90’s, it was the Neo-Nazi/White Supremest as well as fringe Judeo-Christian groups people felt were a threat to the United States, however the Gov put them down with little significant backlash. Up to that point, they had operated with relative impunity hiding behind the constitution.
    We now see the threat of certain sects from some religions taking advantage of the constitution to potentially do very bad things to this country in the long run. However, they are not Nazi’s, or Christians, which are about the only groups one can get away with vilifying in this country with out being called a bigot As they continue to use the laws of this land to their advantage; what will be done? We may very well turn back the clock to the Jim Crow days except it will be the rot of a religion which erodes civil rights. What if roving gangs of religious fanatics enforce their religious law counter to secular law? But actual prosecution brings with it the threat of more and greater violence on jury, judge , etc. Juries simply vote “not guilty” so they can survive another day. When, how and who affects a change? At some point, does a military coup become the last remaining option to a frightening theocracy? Not saying it will happen, hopefully assimilation happens instead, just a few more “Random Thoughts”

  34. Bithead says:

    As to the issue of Sowell thinking such a coup good or bad, I supose that to be a question of what you consider worse.

    I find the varied reactions reactions to Sowell’s comment… when tracked to their sources, (And the worldview of the speakers, particularly,) to be interesting.

    Yglesias, for example, seems all worried about the loss of rights, never considering the loss of rights imposed routinely by the government such a coup would replace.

    We all have our blind spots, I guess… and I suppose we’ve just been witness to the exposure of that of Yglesias, and other leftists.

  35. Bandit says:

    Go Freer-dom!

    Building a 3 mile wall – running a totalitarian concentration camp for 30 years – same diff –

  36. Edgardo,

    Again, comment sections and complex debates do not necessarily mix. I do understand that Allende may not have been able to actually finish the term, but bombing the presidential palace wasn’t the right solution, either. Even if we want to argue that Pinochet had to take over (an issue I would contest), the fact that Pinochet governed, and brutally at times, for 16 years, underscores the notion that military coups don’t save democracies.

    I question, by the way, the notion that rhetoric in partisan papers would necessarily be good measures of what would have happened.

  37. Tlaloc says:

    Building a 3 mile wall – running a totalitarian concentration camp for 30 years – same diff –

    Note that those mass graves from 30 years of totalitarian rule hold less people than have been killed in our little four year experiment in freedom in Iraq.

  38. Bandit says:

    First they don’t and second we didn’t kill them – it must be tough when you can’t get beyond ignorant hatred.

  39. Tlaloc says:

    First they don’t and second we didn’t kill them – it must be tough when you can’t get beyond ignorant hatred.

    I’m sorry Bandit but I trust the well respected studies over your personal opinion of how many deaths have occured. I’m funny that way.

    As for your second contention, We certainly killed a lot of them, though not all by any means. But that doesn’t matter. Hussein didn’t personally kill the people in that mass grave either. We created the conditions under which some 600,000+ people have died.

    I find it ironic that you accuse the person relying upon hard data of “not getting beyond ignorant hatred” while you base your own views on unfounded optimism. It makes me giggle.

  40. Steve Verdon says:

    We had a war for independence–we never had military rule.

    Yes I know, but it shows that your statement was inaccurate.

    And, I agree with Edgardo,

    Reading again the title of your post I think you’re wrong. Sowell is not pining for a military coup. He’s frustrated that one day there will be no choice but to ask the military to take power.

    That is exactly the right way to read that statement, IMO. Not that he sees it as a good thing, but that it is the only possible hope after things get really, really bad. That there isn’t much hope there highlights the frustration and dismay that Sowell is expressing.

  41. Mike says:

    Sowell was not longing for a military coup.

    He’s an observer of history. If you read his article, the “degeneracy” he laments is the way in which our domestic political factions have lost the ability to engage in dialogue, negotiation, and compromise. Instead we are presented with a list of irresoluble issues over which two highly polarized groups shout slogans at each other. Taking the place of dialogue about real issues is the politics of personal destruction, in which the minutiae of a politician’s life, whether public or private, are raked through by those who oppose him, with the aim of finding some occasion to discredit him and remove him from office. The archetye of this was the attack of the Puritans upon Strafford and Laud, culminating in the passage of attainders against them and their subsequent executions in the period preceding the English civil war. In recent years, both of our political parties have used such tactics against their opponents; we saw it during the Clinton administration, and we see it in this one.

    If I take Sowell’s meaning correctly, he fears that our domestic politics now approach the point that Athenian politics did in the time of Demosthenes and Eubulus; the point that Roman politics did in the days of Marius and Sulla; or the point that English politics did late in the reign of Charles I. In other words, irresoluble political differences between highly polarized factions precede the collapse of the old order. Then the time is right for an Alexander, a Sulla, or a Cromwell to take charge.

    Such events never really “save” a country, but do impose order for the time being, and the lesson of history is that ordinary people acquiesce in authoritarianism because it is preferable to anarchy and disorder. Sowell is warning that we may be on the path towards having to choose between these disagreeable alternatives. This is hardly the same as wishing that it happen.

  42. floyd says:

    Mr.Verdon; You clearly have it right!

    Mr.Joyner; Well done again!

  43. Willie says:

    Oh come on. Why are people letting Sowell off the hook?

    He is obviously ADVOCATING the idea, since he says it would “save” the country. He could have said something more neutral, such as “there might be a military coup”, but he did not.

    Further, he isn’t saying this might be necessary because of terrorism or a Fifth Column or a strong communist underground movement, or anything like that which threatens our liberties, safety, etc.

    He’s saying it might be the only solution because we’re becoming too degenerate! Which to him means we’re having too much sex, allowing women to choose reproductive freedom, or whatever…

    In other words, he might advocate a military coup because most Americans don’t share his social values.

    He’s saying that if we exercise our freedoms too much, to his distaste, the only thing left to do would be to take our liberties away.

    Come on people, that’s disgraceful.