Three recent developments are just the latest examples of the increasing militarization of American life: 1) The National Guard will now assist in the cleanup of the oil spill created in the aftermath of the explosion and subsequent sinking of a deepwater drilling platform off the Louisiana coast. 2) Several members of Congress are asking for a deployment of the National Guard along the U.S.-Mexican border. 3) Two Chicago area state legislators are now calling for the Illinois National Guard to assist Chicago police to quell a supposed wave of violent crime.
At first blush readers might accept that these problems are all worthy of military intervention and perhaps beyond the capability of civil authorities to handle on their own. The response to the growing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico now includes U. S. Coast Guard vessels and equipment and two cargo planes provided by the U. S. Department of Defense. BP, the oil giant that operated the rig, seems overwhelmed. The damage to Gulf Coast habitat, fisheries and tourism seems potentially catastrophic. And, the accident itself raises serious questions about the safety of offshore oil exploration, especially in deep waters. No wonder Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared the spill to be of "national significance." The spill seems a natural candidate for military intervention. And, after all, the military has personnel and equipment that no other entity, public or private, has.
As for border security, there have been periodic calls for a National Guard presence at the Mexican border. Few people will deny that the borders of the United States are very easy to cross and therefore an invitation to those wishing to come into the country. Whether the National Guard could be effective in doing anything about this is an open question. A guardsman commenting on the most recent call doubts it. (See Havoc29 from Kansas.) Nevertheless, policing the borders is essentially a federal responsibility, so why not involve soldiers?
Less clear cut is the case for involving National Guard units in the policing of the nation's communities. The Illinois state legislators who are calling for National Guard intervention on the streets of Chicago failed to mention that deaths from violent crime this year are running only slightly ahead of last year. And yet, with municipalities facing increasing budget pressures, it seems inevitable that police officers and patrols will be cut, perhaps significantly in the coming years.
I'm skeptical that we are now in a sustained economic recovery, and fully expect a second leg down that will leave the world economy in perhaps a decade-long funk. If I'm right, that would mean continuing cuts at all levels of government leading to further problems which will then lead to increasing calls for military assistance for a variety of tasks including those related to public safety and infrastructure repair.
Along the border the National Guard has, in fact, been providing support for a long time as the Guard proudly declares on its website: "The National Guard has provided engineering, counterdrug and other support to [U. S. Customs and Border Patrol] for more than 20 years and will continue to do so." The military's Joint Task Force North founded in 1989 has been helping to interdict drugs and fight terrorism as well. The Army Corps of Engineers has long been party to many projects that are clearly civilian in nature. Abroad, the U. S. military has often performed tasks not directly related to combat such as humanitarian and peacekeeping missions.
The involvement of the military in many of these missions seems in some ways logical. But that is just the problem. We are shaping public policies and priorities so that the resources to perform these tasks are increasingly unavailable to the civilian federal agencies or to the state and municipal governments responsible for those tasks. Starved of tax revenue or congressional appropriations, these entities have turned to the military for help. In part, this is because the country's politicians have convinced the public that much of government is wasteful and even useless with one very important exception: the military. The lavish funding heaped on the military is not, however, a reflection of the return American society is getting from that funding. Rather it is a consequence of the powerful military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned the country against in 1960.
The dangers of this mission creep were evident as far back as 1992 when a prescient U. S. Air Force lieutenent colonel, Charles J. Dunlap Jr., wrote an essay entitled, "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012."(PDF) Dunlap foretold that U. S. military involvement in the kinds of activities discussed above would expand with deleterious effects on the ability of the military to fight effectively. The involvement of military personnel in civilian activities, he warned, would also lead to their increasing politicization. Military officers are not used to taking orders from seemingly inefficient, democratically elected bodies which are often slow to act to address even urgent problems. Those officers may seek to circumvent such bodies when they appear to be impeding action on challenges that seem to call out for quick responses. Dunlap even predicted a second, but this time disastrous engagement in the Middle East, the result of a military scattered in its focus and mission. (He guessed the confrontation would be with Iran rather than Iraq, but results are roughly what I think he foresaw.)
With the dangers to the world economy increasing yearly from oil depletion, climate change, mountainous public and private debt and myriad other challenges, it seems likely the United States (and the world) will face continuing economic difficulties including declining or stagnant revenues for government at all levels. With economic difficulties ongoing and the needs of public intensifying, it will be all too tempting to ask the institution likely to suffer the least from funding cuts, namely, the U. S. military, to step in and address problems that overwhelmed local, state and federal governments and agencies cannot.
This is why Dunlap imagined that there will ultimately be little opposition to a military coup if it arrives. After all, by then the military will be performing so many tasks in civilian life that taking direct command of government may well seem the next logical and necessary step to the save the nation.