Open University

Democrats And Militarists


By David A. Bell

The new Weekly Standard boasts a cover showing a U.S. soldier in Iraq, over the caption "Does Washington Have His Back?" The implication, of course, is that the politicians in Washington are letting our troops down, keeping them from completing their mission, holding them back from victory, etc. Sentiments of this sort have been commonplace on the pro-war right for years now, ranging in vehemence from the Standard's relatively polite version to the cries of "treason" that splatter continuously out of the loonier radio talk shows. In fact, these sentiments have become so common that few people even notice how deeply pernicious they really are.

It should an obvious point that in democracies, elected governments decide on policy and armed forces implement it. If you believe that armed forces should be doing the deciding--whether because of their greater expertise, or the moral superiority that comes from their greater willingness to sacrifice--then you are not a democrat (small d), but a militarist. In democracies, elected governments can certainly let their armed forces down. They can do so, for instance, by giving them a job and then failing to provide them with sufficient resources to accomplish it, as many argue the Bush administration has done in Iraq. But elected governments--and last I heard, our own included something called the "legislative branch"--cannot by definition let the troops down by debating policy, or changing it. This is the government's job. It can do it unwisely, but the fact remains that the troops' own job is simply to carry the policy out, however misguided it may be.

To say that "Washington" is letting the troops down by debating a change of course in the war comes dangerously close to implying that the troops, rather than "Washington," should be deciding whether the war continues. Of course the expertise and opinions of the armed forces should always be taken into account. But to suggest that the politicians should do more than this--that they should cease debate and let the troops "do their job," "complete their mission," and the like--is not "supporting the troops." It is betraying the spirit of the democratic constitution those troops have sworn to defend.

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