Cuckoo for a coup

October 31, 1994|By Robert Reno

TWENTIETH-CENTURY history is tragically replete with examples of nations that became disenchanted with the perfidy of civilian politics and imagined only the military could get things done, could act with patriotic disinterest.

Are we experiencing one?

Politicians are despised, Congress reviled, the presidency embattled.

Running against big government, big spending and bureaucracy the new coin of politics.

Yet the largest and most expensive component of government, the hugest of its bureaucracies, the armed forces, enjoys an opposite level of trust, popularity and influence suggesting certain unhappy periods in the history of, say, Argentina.

In President Clinton's fight with the joint chiefs on questions of sexual orientation, the commander in chief lost. The military enjoys a leverage in Congress undiminished by the end of the Cold War.

Former President Bush suffered the image of a dithering buffoon except when leading the nation into a war that drove his approval ratings to Valhalla.

Mr. Clinton is seen as a more effective president when he sends troops somewhere, anywhere.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf became a folk hero in an inconclusive ground war that was over in 100 hours. Oliver North, even without the bemedaled tunic he wore to lie to Congress, will still cut an unmistakably military figure if he takes his seat there next year.

And Colin Powell, yet to utter a peep of his views on the burning issues of the day, is believed to have the Republican presidential nomination sewn up.

Really, if MacArthur was still commander in the Far East, deep into his dotage and treating civilian authority with disdain, can you imagine Mr. Clinton taking the political risk of firing him?

William Hamilton, a retired Army officer, wrote a piece for USA Today taking malevolent satisfaction at Mr. Clinton's failures and declaring, "He has learned what every occupant of the oval office learns: If you want something done and done right, call upon the U.S. military."

He speaks, I guess, with much the same disrespect that large numbers of serving officers hold for their commander in chief.

Surely, voters don't imagine there isn't in the armed forces as much loafing and pork as in, say, the post office.

The Tailhook scandal cannot have made Americans identify with the values of some of its bravest aviators.

The public must know that the lordly perquisites of a senior general officer or admiral make the life of a senator or Cabinet member look austere.

We know in detail the foolishness going on in Congress.

In the military, it is not recorded on C-SPAN or cackled over by the hyenas of the press corps. The military's business is conducted largely behind the convenient shroud of "national security."

This obsession with military virtues is a curious phenomenon in a nation with such a civilian tradition, which honors the soldiers who serve it but affectionately associates military service with bad food, sadistic sergeants, Napoleonic officers and mindless regimentation.

Those who have served in it know that you leave the Army with nothing so much as an improved sense of humor.

Now a nation that had tended to exalt its Marshalls, Eisenhowers and Bradleys over its Custers, MacArthurs and Pattons, is captivated by the televised swaggering of Mr. Schwarzkopf and the messianic posturing of Mr. North.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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