It is right and fitting that all Americans come together on this day and remember the sacrifices of our men and women in the armed forces, who fought and died on behalf of our country. “All Americans.” The brave men and women who have donned our nation’s uniform did not fight for liberals or for conservatives, nor for Republicans or Democrats. This holiday, like their sacrifice, is a shared moment and it should bind the nation together.
Regrettably, there is one way to make this holiday, and the sacrifices we remember, divisive, albeit unwittingly, and it has been on display lately in a very particular attack on President Obama’s foreign policy, specifically the attack on President Obama’s decision to pull all combat troops out of Iraq. The specific charge is that Mr. Obama was wrong to overrule the recommendations of his military advisors.
It is difficult not to conclude that the president’s foreign policy is inadequate. My friend Peter Berkowitz undertook an especially harsh but largely accurate critique of the “Obama Doctrine” at RealClearPolitics last week. We can all debate until the cows come home whether or not it was a mistake to remove the last combat troops from Iraq, whether their removal squandered the hard won gains or whether their remaining would have prevented the rise of ISIS. But, shame on anyone who employs an argument that undermines one of our nation’s most important, morally defensible and politically judicious principles: Civilian control of the military.
If there were to be a new holiday, Civilian Control of the Military Day, it would be celebrated on April 11. That was the date, in 1951, on which President Harry Truman sacked General Douglas MacArthur. There are many reasons to admire Truman: He was the only president in the twentieth century who did not attend college, he took the reins of government under extraordinarily challenging circumstances, was called upon to make far-reaching decisions, and he made some of the best decisions any president has ever made. None of those decisions, however, required the courage it took to fire MacArthur. Truman’s military advisors were themselves divided at first about taking such a large decision. But, MacArthur was complaining, in public and to Republicans in Congress, that politics was interfering in his military decision-making, failing to understand that, for example, a decision to bomb the mainland of China was both a military and a political decision, and that in our country, such decisions are made by politicians, not by military officers. It is curious that for all the criticism hurled at Truman in the days immediately after the decision, when MacArthur gave his famous speech to Congress and received a ticker tape parade in New York, the criticism died down pretty quickly, not least because members of the military value the principle of civilian control as much, if not more, than most civilians.
It was typical of Truman that before making his decision, he consulted history. In the early years of the Republic, President John Adams, possessed of the generalized fear of a standing army that had existed in British thought since the days of Cromwell and the specific fear that Alexander Hamilton had all the makings of a modern day Caesar, shut down the nascent army Hamilton was gathering around himself during the war scare with France. President Abraham Lincoln was right, on both political and military grounds, to fire General George McClellan, who then challenged Lincoln in the next presidential election. If Truman had been able to look into the future, he would have seen President John Kennedy staring down his military advisors during the Cuban Missile Crisis, averting World War III.
If Republicans wish to criticize Obama’s foreign policy, there is plenty to work with. They do not need to call into question this venerable American principle by suggesting Obama’s decision to withdraw combat troops from Iraq was wrong specifically because he did not take the advice of his military commanders. It is the principle of civilian control of the military that allows us all to celebrate the sacrifices of our soldiers and sailors today without qualification, because we know that they act only at the behest of the politicians we have elected. Keep Memorial Day safe from partisanship. The next time a Republican candidate calls out Obama for not listening to his military advisers, call them out, ask them about MacArthur, and remind them that in this country, we celebrate the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, all of them, on behalf of all of us, because if there is fault, it is with the politicians and with the people who elected them.