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Viewer Questions for Larry Wilkerson about NDAA and the US Military Officer Corp

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

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Now joining us as part of this special programming is Lawrence Wilkerson. Larry Wilkerson is a retired colonel. He was the former chief of staff for the U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary—I should say government and government policy. I think I bungled that, Larry, but you can fix it. And he’s also a regular contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Larry.


JAY: So what we’re doing in these special segments is we’ve asked viewers to send in questions. And on the whole I’m just going to ask their questions, and then you and I can discuss where that leads. So we’ve got a lot of questions for you, and we’ll do a series of segments. And here’s the first question. And it goes like this.

First of all, let me set this question up, ’cause it’s a little long to read the whole thing. But you, Larry, have talked before that the NDAA and this new legislation that allows the Armed Forces to use indefinite detention against people, including American citizens, is something that the officer corps themselves don’t really like—it breaks the civilian control of the military. And Paul B. writes:

My question is: how many of the fundamentalist army officers that started to populate the officer corps under Reagan, and who now in some cases are general-grade officers, will take to the “unwanted” (he puts unwanted in quotation marks) changes like a duck to water. Did the officers in the Naval service oppose the change? What do the Air Force officers think about all this?

So, Larry, he’s saying that he thinks perhaps there are people in the army that won’t mind these new powers. What do you say?

WILKERSON: Let me exercise some due diligence at the beginning and say that my contact with the officer corps as it exists today is quite in the past. I do have some contacts. I do see people at the lieutenant colonel, the colonel, the major, captain level quite frequently, but that is no way a representative sample of the Armed Forces.

That said, I believe the gentleman’s question aims at something that has some merit to it, in the sense that of all the services, the Air Force has characteristically historically been, shall we say, the worst in terms of a heavy evangelical population. At one time, for example, they had scandal after scandal at the Air Force Academy. Last time I checked, they had something like 13 chaplains, 12 of whom were evangelicals, one mainline religion. That’s probably changed because it was being looked at hard at that moment. And probably the Army and the Navy and Marine Corps have their contingent too, but I don’t think it’s dominant.

And let me also say that I don’t think all evangelicals, fundamentalists, born-again Christians, whatever we choose to call them—fundamentalists is probably the best term—are bad.

JAY: I was actually going to ask you that. Is there any—I mean, based in your experience, is there any reason to think that evangelical officers would be more likely to welcome such powers than otherwise?

WILKERSON: Not really. My chaplain in Hawaii, for example, when I was executive officer of the Third Squadron, Fourth Cavalry—and this is some time ago, this is in the late ’80s—my chaplain was evangelical. And we had a little hard time adjusting, a few months, early months, and so forth. I mean, they did things like—he didn’t invite everybody to, but if you wanted to, you could roll in the aisle and speak in tongues. This did not sit well with, you know, Southern Baptist me. Nor did it sit well with some of the wives and older officers in the squadron.

And yet we came to learn that Greg was a pretty sharp guy, that he had a handle on true problems, morale and so forth, that he was a good Christian, if you will, more like Christ than the Devil, which is not true of a lot of fundamentalists. And so, working with him and making sure he understood and we understood he understood that you don’t spread this around forcibly, you let people do what they want to do, worship the way they want to worship, and don’t drive people away by being, shall we say, too unnatural in what you’re doing, we had a pretty good relationship, and he was darn good—.

JAY: And I think when it comes to this, we should, you know, not forget that this legislation was passed, supported by the Obama administration, passed by Congress, and that those are two institutions that are certainly not dominated by fundamentalists.

WILKERSON: Right. And even given—if I’m to trust Carl Levin and others, lesser lights, who’ve told me this, the administration is the one who insisted—when Congress said, let’s pull this bit about American citizens out, the administration insisted it be left in.

JAY: Yeah, Levin said that publicly on the floor of the Senate.

WILKERSON: Yeah. So if someone is really culpable here in taking it the last step, as it were, it’s the administration.

Just summing up, I would say that there are fundamentalist officers in the military whose attitude, ignorance, ignorance of science, denial of climate change, and so forth and so on, haunt the services and haunt their ability to lead well. But I think that’s—I do think that’s still a very minimalist group.

JAY: Well, we have another question from a viewer, which is a little bit in the same vein. This is from—let me get it here—Jonathan. And I don’t seem to have his last name. But Jonathan writes—I guess he’s imagining some day where there could be some kind of social protest, some kind of uprising within the United States. And here’s what he says, at any rate. He says:

Mr. Wilkerson, given your experience teaching at the Naval War College, do you believe that the officer corps of the U.S. Armed Forces would obey and carry out orders to engage—.

He says “armed combat”. I guess that’s not unimaginable, but there’s not much precedent for it in the United States, unless you go back into the 1930s, where I guess we did see some machine guns used by the American army against protesters.

WILKERSON: Go back to 1968 in the streets of Detroit.

JAY: Yeah, and Kent State. He says:

Would the U.S. Armed Forces follow orders if they’re told to use arms against American citizens?

WILKERSON: I think they would, and I think they would based on certain criteria, one, that they believe those whom they are confronting threaten good order and discipline, and in this sense not just of the Armed Forces but of the nation as a whole. Harry Truman, for example, did not hesitate to contemplate calling out the military during the steel strikes. And we’ve done that sort of thing before. If the military perceived that it was a real threat to the nation—after all, their oath is to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic—then I think they would carry out the orders.

The crux comes when you start to do this against groups who are exercising their constitutional rights to politically protest, to free speech, and so forth and so on. Military officers are not stupid. In fact, I would submit they’re some of the brightest people in this land, thank God. And they’re going to question that sort of thing. Yes, they’re going to question it. I don’t know what they’re going to do. I suspect there’s going to be an initial protest, an initial “We don’t want to do this, boss,” and then maybe some soul-searching, and we may see some officers actually resign over it if it gets to the extent that you and I are hinting at here that it might get if we take this to the ultimate degree and begin to try to consolidate political power and expand political power, achieve political power through using the Armed Forces. Then it’s going to get rough.

JAY: But we’ve seen a little bit of hints of something like this. In Wisconsin it was interesting. Governor Walker fully expected the police to support him and apparently was expecting to be able to use the police against the protesters. And then the police actually joined the protesters, led by their union. And, of course, we saw in various places—most recently, I guess, you could talk about Egypt—where mass protest, peaceful protest become an enormous political force. And we’ve seen it even in Toronto at the G-20 and many different places in the United States, at G-20 meetings and such, where mass protests have led to mass arrests, which seemed to be sort of dress reversals for how to deal with social protest. I mean, if it ever got to the point where this got to become such a political force, mass protest, that it [sic] actually called not just police but the army—I guess this is pure speculation, but I guess that’s what he’s asking. He wants you to speculate. How do you think the officers that you know would respond to that?

WILKERSON: I think most local, state, city, even national politicians realize that turning to the police force is one thing, turning to the Armed Forces is quite another thing. And so you’re going to see this kind of reaction all across the land if protests like you’re talking about begin to develop, economic, political, or whatever. The police are going to be the first element turned to. And then, if there is an military element turned to, it’ll probably be the National Guard, and it’ll be under state auspices, not federal. If it goes to National Guard federalized or to actual active-duty Armed Forces in the streets, as it did, for example, in ’68 during the race riots, that was a very unique situation that people could quickly identify the enemy, as it were, simply based on skin color and where you were at the time when you were protesting.

JAY: Yeah, for some of our younger viewers, just really quickly tell us what you’re talking about.

WILKERSON: Well, in ’68, for example, I was on alert as a lieutenant to be mobilized and sent to Detroit to actually command (because they wanted active-duty officers commanding) a National Guard—a federalized National Guard platoon, complete with armored personnel carriers, 50 caliber machine guns, M60 machine guns, and so forth, ready to go, with very specific rules of engagement, because of the race riots in Detroit.

JAY: And this is actually—was the uprising, you could say, after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

WILKERSON: That was part of it, yes. There was Martin Luther King Jr., there was Bobby Kennedy, there were a lot of things going on at that time, and those were very—.

JAY: And there were troops in cities—like, right now we’re in Baltimore. I’ve seen the pictures of the soldiers patrolling the streets of Baltimore. It looked like, certainly, an occupied territory.

WILKERSON: Yeah. And I’ll just give you my reaction to that as a lieutenant was, I’m going to follow orders and I’m going to accomplish the mission, but I wasn’t feeling too circumspect about, you know, live ammunition and guardsmen underneath me with live ammunition, with American citizens at the end of my gun barrel. That I was not something that I was looking forward to. And I was very, very happy when I did not get mobilized and did not get sent to Detroit.

So if it were to come to the military having to be used, I think it would come through what I would look at as martial law. And I think martial law would come about as a result of a massive terrorist attack, for example. That’s the most likely one. It could come about as a result of a massive earthquake, the kind that have been predicted for years now for California in the San Andreas Fault area. There’s a kind that’s been predicted for Yellowstone, a massive earthquake and volcanic eruption that would damage three-quarters of the United States if not 100 percent. Those kinds of things. An atomic weapon, a dirty bomb even, going off in New York City or Washington. Those kinds of things would call for martial law declaration. And the police and the military would work in tandem, with the military taking the lead, and they would cordon off whole areas, perhaps whole regions, and the law would be military law, and civilians would be under that military law and, ultimately, under the military commander in charge of that area. That’s the more likely scenario.

JAY: If we go back to the first question, though, the NDAA, you get a little window or taste of that, in theory, now. The army can actually, on American soil, go arrest somebody, indefinitely detain them, because they have suspicion about them being somehow connected to terrorism or something associated with it.

WILKERSON: And I think this is—Paul, I think this is—basically, it has other potential, as you’re intimating, but I think it’s basically the fear of—and this is really ironic—of lawmakers—lawmakers, Paul—the fear that in the Article Three courts, that is to say, those courts that we’ve established under Article Three of our Constitution, the civilian courts are unable to handle this terrorism problem. And the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the military courts—tribunals or formal courts or whatever within the military—are much more able to handle this problem because it gets it out of the civilians’ hairs. Basically that’s what they mean.

And so they want the pursuit of these people to be through the military, their imprisonment to be through the military, ’cause then it can be indefinite—who cares? And they want their trial, if it does come to trial, to be through the military. And they don’t want it cluttering, if you will, the Article Three courts from a point of view of legalism, and also from a point of view of security.

You saw the kind of brouhaha that the Congress put up when President Obama suggested bringing some of the hard cases from Guantanamo—of which there are very few, but there are a few—and trying them in—keeping them in prison in this country and trying them in courts in this country, ultimately in maximum-security prisons, which are far worse, in my view, than Guantanamo is now in terms of prison facilities and haven’t had too many people escape from them. So it’s ironic that the Congress says these are not adequate facilities or adequate judicial proceedings for these so-called terrorists. That’s why I think they did the NDAA the way they did.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, the constitutional rights now then become a privilege, because—


JAY: —if we don’t think you deserve it, we can just pull it.


JAY: Okay. Well, once again, we’re going to continue this discussion with Larry Wilkerson in a series of interviews. And now let me just pitch you one more time.

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So please join us for the next segment of this series of interview with Larry Wilkerson, coming soon on The Real News Network.


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Lawrence Wilkerson

Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.