During the Civil War, President Lincoln, exasperated at Gen. George McClellan’s chronic reluctance to attack the enemy, said if the general wasn’t going to use the Army, he would like to borrow it.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush has the same idea.
He doesn’t seem to notice that this time, the American military, far from being idle, is already being overused.
Lately, the president has been pushing a change in federal law so the active-duty armed forces could intervene immediately when any sort of disaster strikes.
He resents having to get permission from the governor of Louisiana or anyone else before dispatching the 82nd Airborne, as required by a 19th-century statute known as the Posse Comitatus Act. He wants the authority to use the Army for domestic law enforcement at his sole discretion.
His proposal reflects our habit of seeing the U.S. military not only as the guardian of national defense but as the answer to every question.
Starvation in Somalia? Send in the Marines. Ethnic conflict in the Balkans? Scramble the jets. A shortage of democracy in the Middle East? Heck, it’s nothing that 130,000 troops can’t cure.
We have grown to see our fighting forces as a giant Swiss Army knife, infinitely adaptable to a wide array of tasks.
Because the military is so formidably competent at its central mission, defeating our enemies in wartime, both presidents and the public tend to think it can handle any job it is asked to do.
But that’s like assuming that because your plumber can fix any drain, he can also tune your piano. We already know, in fact, the U.S. military is not equally adept at all functions.
It has not been conspicuously successful at establishing order and gaining public trust in Iraq. It has not made an appreciable difference at slowing the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. As we learned from abuses at Abu Ghraib and other prisons, it sometimes fails to meet minimum standards for the humane treatment of captives.
What it is good at is killing enemy fighters on the battlefield.
However, duties ranging far from that role don’t always fit with the warrior ethos the military has to instill in its people.
It’s hard to see why Bush feels the need to relax the current restrictions on his domestic use of the military. The law, after all, did not eliminate the option of sending active-duty forces to New Orleans.
Normally he may not do that without a request from the governor of the affected state, which in this case was not forthcoming. However, in a crisis, the president can invoke another law, the Insurrection Act, to override an uncooperative governor — as previous presidents did to enforce desegregation in the South during the civil rights era.
Why didn’t Bush use that authority? Maybe for the same reason he said Michael Brown was doing “a heck of a job” as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: He didn’t have a clue.
But there was another explanation, as The New York Times reported: “Administration civilians worried that there could be political fallout if federal troops were forced to shoot looters.”
Faced with the prospect of sending American soldiers to kill American civilians, Bush had second thoughts.
As he should have.
The purpose of the relevant laws is not to prevent use of the military for keeping order when it is the only feasible remedy, but to prevent it when there are other options. It should be a last resort. Why?
Because such undertakings can be dangerous for civilians and dangerous for soldiers. Infantry units are trained to destroy the enemy — not to respect the rights of wrongdoers, as we expect of cops.
Soldiers could be thoroughly trained for urban police duties, of course, but only at the cost of eroding their readiness for wartime combat, which could mean lives lost on the battlefield.
In New Orleans, the reason for the federal government’s slow and ineffectual response was not any legal roadblock but poor planning and sloppy execution.
You don’t make an incompetent better by increasing his powers. Barney Fife caused enough trouble without a loaded gun.
At this point in our history, though, the most obvious reason to refrain from using the military for such missions is that it can barely cope with the other demands on it. Bush might like to borrow the army for domestic tasks, but he’s already way beyond his credit limit.
Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org