Thanks, Hollywood. For those of us working here in D.C. on national security issues, Sunday night gave our nation a good dose of reputation rehabilitation: Spain, France, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, Canada (please let me know who I've missed). It reminded the worldwide audience that America is connected in a good way to everyone on the planet. Deployed soldiers via satellite was a great touch, too.
When Taxi to the Dark Side received best documentary, I felt particularly gratified. I had the chance to see this film here in D.C. at a premiere (which garnered a large audience for a cold, snowy night). I thought that, at the very least, it would serve our nation by documenting and witnessing on film the decay and decline of public accountability in the US government. I hoped that the film would inspire the public and our elected leaders to take a cold, hard look at the abysmal polices of the Bush era, but also at how we've harmed one of our most vital public institutions: the US military.
Briefly, the film is about the case of an Afghan taxi driver beaten to death in 2002 while in U.S. military custody and the film goes on to examine the abuses committed during the detainment and interrogation of political prisoners. After receiving his award, producer Alex Gibney mentioned his father, a Navy interrogator, and how he made this film out of respect for his memory and service. I felt a heart-twinge when I heard that. Possibly because his words remind me of the veterans and other military people that I work with on a day to day basis and how they are faced with what must be one of the biggest crises of civil-military relations in recent history.
This film's prize belies months of abuse heaped upon it. The MPAA rejected the film's movie poster as inappropriate (it is of two soldiers flanking a hooded prisoner, leading him away). Then, just a few weeks ago, the Discovery Channel dropped plans to air the film after its current theatrical run.... Discovery decided the topic was "too sensitive" for a company that intended to go public... So this is where the Bush years have landed us. We can't even have a respectful public conversation about an institution that itself belongs to the public. An institution that, in fact, will wither away without well-informed, critical and ongoing public involvement. In academia, this conversation is within the field of civil-military relations -- which refers to the relationship between the armed forces of a nation and the larger society -- how they communicate, how they interact, and how their relationship is ordered and regulated.
What if the two flanking soldiers in the poster were Halliburton contractors? Would that make a difference to Discovery? Sadly, probably not. All of these topics are difficult and politically dangerous and subject to vast public ignorance, so what we have is more and more silence. This hurts all of us, and it devastates the military. There were more private contractors in Iraq in 2007 than American military personnel. This could only happen with a disinterested, uninvolved public.
It is difficult for most people to engage in conversations that even appear to criticize the military. It will get even more difficult this election year, with neo-con and GOP flacks running organizations like this 527, confusing the issue by equating support for the soldiers with support for the war. These accusations are not only false and anti democratic, they are anti-military to the core. Not that the people running such hit operations care, but these ads themselves are offensive to the culture of the military profession -- for its very integrity derives through clear distinctions and boundaries between civilians (who make policy) and military (who carry out these policies). Moreover, these extreme conservative groups exploit public ignorance about basic civics. The reason the United States is a stellar example to the world derives largely because of civilian control over the military. Civilians call the shots, militaries carry out the orders. Military professionals offer expert advice, when asked. But that's the extent of it. By the way, whoever put this watchdog site together, you're awesome.
A couple of years ago, right after the Abu Ghraib prison photos hit the international media, I attended a Senate briefing led by a Colonel, an Army lawyer who was just back from Afghanistan. He had been there for a period of time, setting up a criminal justice system. We could all see how passionate he was about his work, about the values of participation, prevention, international legitimacy and American teamwork. The question and answer session was polite and restrained. I asked him to tell us how the torture scandal was impacting him personally, on the front lines, trying to put forward American values that were contradicted every day on the airwaves. He seemed relieved that someone had brought it up and went ahead to explain that, in fact, it came up quite often and that he and his colleagues used the topic as an example of how the legal system in a democracy works. In other words, bad things happen, but not with impunity. People have rights: human rights, legal rights, prisoner rights. The fact that torture was happening, and that it was in the headlines, and causing considerable consequences left quite an impression on the Afghans. The Q and A became much more animated....and others in the Senate room brought up lots of related topics. The audience-being civilians- roamed into discussions inappropriate for a uniformed officer, but very important for Congressional staff, i.e. failure of elected leadership, policy fumbling, budget mismanagement, thoughtless privatization. The Colonel -- a military professional -- was there to offer expert knowledge only.
My friend Ike Wilson, who is an officer and a professor at West Point, always enlightens me on the topic of civil-military relations. I once griped to him about how progressives were just getting trounced repeatedly on national security issues because the Right flagrantly uses the military as a prop and a bludgeon (and that the military itself has such a reputation for being conservative)
His advice should be heeded by the next president and the new Congress:
"We as a nation need to revisit our tradition of civil-military relations, hold the hard and uncomfortable discussions over what is allowed, what is required and what is prohibited when it comes to when, how, and under what conditions our military is allowed -- and obligated -- to enjoin political debates over war policy and strategy."
We need to make restoring the professionalism of the US military the centerpiece of a new American democracy. Anyone who considers themselves a progressive should include this in a top-10 list for the next president. I'm currently writing a handbook about how to have a civil-military conversation in your own community (my co-author is in Iraq, so its dragging on a bit) but stay tuned for more on the "how" part. Meanwhile, thanks to the Academy for picking Taxi to the Dark Side. Its a great start.
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