26 May 2014
A nation and its army
Irreverent thoughts for Memorial Day: I've been following the news from Thailand and watching footage of the coup d'etat announcement by the new military junta. I couldn't help thinking: who are they kidding? It's the same old playbook that juntas have been using for generations: reduce TV programming to martial music and patriotic tunes to put the sheep in the mood. Then you have that sad bunch of generals on TV, as if citizens are supposed to be automatically impressed if not awed by their collective presence. Does anyone anywhere fall for it anymore? Can a nation's military expect to be recognized as an impartial, nonpartisan arbiter of its political future acting out of disinterested benevolence and a truly objective sense of national interest? I suppose there are people -- civilians as well as military -- who would like to think so, who would like to have something, in the absence of monarchy or, in Thailand's case, as a supplement to it, that embodies the continuity of the state if not the spirit of the nation, or shows that the nation's essence isn't subject to a vote. But some would say that to imagine a military playing this role is an ideology in its own right. Others might question whether, in a country so apparently and irreconcilably divided on partisan (or class) lines as Thailand, the military is really neutral, preferring none of the major factions. Whatever the true motives of the Thai junta, their country is only the latest case in which extralegal solutions are sought for partisan impasses. The previous example was Ukraine, where the solution seems to be federalism or separation, the divide being as much geographic and cultural as it was partisan. Any multiparty democracy theoretically faces the danger of partisan gridlock, depending on the rights its constitution grants political minorities. Can such systems provide an authority above partisanship for the nation to fall back on, and will people in such systems accept the necessity sometimes of an assertion of authority that isn't elected? If not the military, what can this authority be? The people themselves, you might say, but Ukraine proves that people power in one place doesn't necessarily represent all a nation's people. A mob is as likely to be partisan as a junta. The real problem, in our age of mutual distrust, is that we don't know when it's safe to submit. There's always a fear that an election won by the other side will be the last election, while is some cultures ideologies embolden people to refuse governments even the minimal degree of submission (call it deference if you prefer) necessary for stable administration. We assume our eternal right to say no; will we ever acknowledge an obligation, at any time, to say yes, whether because a majority expects it or a survival imperative requires it? Military juntas appeal to the idea that the nation has an existence independent of elections and parties, though a soldier's idea of the nation's essence may differ from a true democrat's. They are distrusted by those who believe that a nation's direction can only be defined democratically, by voting and perhaps inevitably through the instrumentality of parties. If politics were more simple -- if it were only a matter of how we survive -- perhaps neither parties nor juntas would be necessary. But politics is rarely that simple, and the complications sometimes seem to make the simplest functions doubtful. Neither Thais nor Ukrainians nor Americans agree much on the direction of their countries, their mutual responsibilities as citizens, and so on. Despite what liberals think, none of them can keep disagreeing forever if disagreement means perpetual gridlock. Either elections must confer upon one party decisive power to govern without obstruction, or some unelected force must be able to act decisively when parties cannot, at least when the needs of the nation objectively demand it. Perhaps some Thais trust their army to play the latter role. Does any American trust his army the same way? If not, maybe the military needs reform so that it can be trusted in a crisis, or else some trustworthy alternate force must come into being. If someone has a practical solution to these puzzles, his or her memory would be worth honoring every year.