The Monopoly of Violence: The case for firing General Stanley McChrystal
As an author of crime fiction, my literary world is thoroughly salted with violence. Like a good miner, I spend a great deal of time in the mine examining the ore, picking off a murder, a mugging, or a robbery from the walls of the community where I live. Bangkok. Violence isn’t so much a theme of literature as a way of life for most people around the world. In pre-historical times, violence was much worse. Authors of crime fiction like myself study the causes of violence. We are always alert for stumbling on the hidden trap door where, once opened, we can explore why violence happens.
Localized, individual acts of violence we class as crimes. The police handle the offenders and the suspects are processed through a civilian court system with certain safeguards and determined to be guilty or innocent depending on the evidence the government produces. This is how a society dispenses justice. And justice matters if a modern political system is to remain stable. Notions of crime, police and justice are recent in our history.
From 130,000 (our best start date for homo sapiens) until around 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and cities, incidents of male hunter gather violence would have looked, to our modern eyes, more like criminal acts than war. Small-scale ambushes and raiding parties with the raiders armed with primitive weapons. The contemporary idea of justice didn’t enter into the picture. Hit and run missions resulted in relatively small body counts. But the overall numbers of men killed added up as murdering outsiders was a constant feature of life. It is estimated that one out of three men during this long period in our development were homicide victims. Violence, it seems, is deep inside our DNA.
Our written records go back about 5,000 years. We have documents of that show almost constant war during this period. By 5,000 years ago men had been organized in armies and wars could be waged in the modern sense. We find violence on a large scale—and size does matter—falls along a continuum between insurgency, terrorism and war.
In our modern world, the monopoly of violence is divided between the military and police. The military forces, rather than the police, are given the task of engaging in this kind of violence. There are rules of engagement but the processing is different. The goal in such a conflict is to capture or kill as many of the enemy as necessary to achieve victory. The idea of victory is different than justice. The object of the military is to inflict a defeat so that the enemy loses the will to fight and will seek peace as an alternative to violence. Wars which field organized armies is quite modern. But given our history, as a species we were a natural to up the scope and scale of our historical impulse to violence.
In the case of the police and the military—army, marines, navy, air force, coast guard—the larger question arises as to how a democracy controls, monitors, deploys, punishes, and rewards policemen and soldiers.
Professor Richard Wrangman’s premise in Demonic Males, Apes and The Origin of Human Violence, makes it abundantly evident that how species, especially the male counterpart, is hardwired for violence. The male temperament that leads to violence cuts across time and cultures. It is found in Africa, Asia, West Europe, Latin and North America. There are no exceptions to this rule. “Patriarchy is worldwide and history-wide.” Paradise where violence was absent is a fantasy; it never existed.
Coalitions of males patrolling territory and killing other males in raids and ambushes have been an essential part of our species. What makes us, like chimpanzees, unique is our deliberate searching for victims and killing the helpless without mercy. Violence isn’t some random event that evil or bad men commit. It is innate in all males who have a long history of forming gang-parties to defend and expand their territory. Male violence is the historical avenue for expansion and control of scarce resources and sexual partners.
Steven Pinker in an essay titled The History of Violence, notes that pre-modern raids and ambushes historically killed only a small number of participants. But the number of incidents of violence was much more frequent and the population was much smaller. The percentage of adult males killed was vastly higher in pre-historical times. The professional modern killing machines of war kill a far smaller percentage of males. Though given the hugely larger population of males, while the absolute number killed is much higher the percentage of males killed is significantly lower. Pinker points to the tipping point on the decline of violence to the Age of Reason.
“These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Eisner and Elias attribute the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And, today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband.”
In the modern era with complex political systems and large populations, has produced centralized governments, which control the monopoly of violence by controlling the state-sponsored agents of violence—the police and military.
Above, Pinker lists the conditions where violence festers. I’d add another category—states where civilian control and jurisdiction over the police or military is compromised, weak or ineffective. Such states are necessarily failed, failing or inside collapsed empires. There are many such states where the military calls the shots. Whatever else one calls such a state, democratic isn’t one label that fits well. Though many seek shelter under that illusion.
In the United States an example of the clash between military and civilian authorities is played out between the Obama White House and General Stanley McChrystal for what the New York Times in its lead op-ed piece called the general’s undisciplined comments in a Rolling Stone magazine article.
Michael Hastings’s The Runaway General has created conflict between a military general whose vision of fighting a war is in apparent conflict with the civilian authorities. No doubt such conflict flies under the radar of most wars but when a general who has been put charge of the war by civilian authorities goes public with his discontent and criticizes the civilians who, on paper, are his superiors, then a decision has to be made. And that decision has little to do with the general’s complaints but everything to do with the political decision that places the military and its generals firmly and squarely under the control of civilians who have been elected to office.
Generals aren’t elected officials. That doesn’t stop them from being political. It doesn’t stop them from wanting to run a war their way and without interference from wimpy civilians who go home at night to a warm, safe bed. The military and police run highly hierarchical organizations based on command and control. Soldiers and police work under the orders of their commanders. Soldiers aren’t asked to cast a vote as to whether they move out at 04.00 hours and attack an entrenched enemy. They are ordered to do so. The military and police are cultures that by their nature are anti-democratic. Such a culture is necessary otherwise they wouldn’t be effective in their duty.
The problem is self-interest, hubris, along with the nature of the culture required to make soldiers and policemen effective. The first two traits are broadly spread through the population, covering military, police and civilians. A democratic system with checks and balances, an opposition, free speech, and elections, is our best attempt to reign in the self-interest and hubris of men (and women) who exercise power. If you look around the world at countries where the military runs the show, directly or indirectly, you discover the generals have a way of defining enemies in a way that supports their interest; such regimes avoid elections, restrict speech, citizens who challenge the military are detained without charge, harassed or they ‘disappear’ and corruptions flourishes. In a democratic political system the question of when to use and stop using violence through projecting military force must rest in civilian hands. Otherwise the military will make its own assessment of when to use force, what is effective force, and define victory.
By allowing General Stanley McChrystal a free pass, the United States would send a powerful message to the military-backed regimes—and there are many—that even the Americans have come around to the point of view that the top brass in the military can act like an opposition in a political context. The top general won’t be reigned in even though he’s taken on the civilian administration, directly questioning their judgment in public. Whatever happens in Afghanistan or Iraq, that coded message would be a bad decision for all of us.
Should the American civilian administration have not act firmly, its decision would have been seen around the world as a successful declaration of independence by the the military from its elected civilian controllers. Cut off those civilian restraints and the inherent instincts bottled in the military, we would be far less safe and secure. Military generals around the world would take the American military victory over the civilian government as a chance to stare down their own civilian governments.
Without a president ready to dismiss a general who goes public with his criticism of his civilian bosses, who are responsible for starting, funding, organizing and ending killing missions, America would have joined many countries in the third world. Whatever is to be won or lost in Afghanistan or Iraq would no longer have mattered as the larger war to secure the basis of democratic government would have been lost.
Whatever else President Obama does in his first term in office, the dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal from his command position establishes a fundamental principle of who is charge in cranking up and dispatching a force of violence. Even the highest general reports and serves at the discretion of the president. If the public disagrees with President Obama’s Afghanistan or Iraq war, they can vote him out of office. Contrast that with the third world, where a many voters may disagree with a top general’s decisions but such disagreement leaves them without any effective political recourse.