The militarization of America

The militarization of American society is not coming in some jack-booted coup d’etat: It’s coming on little cats’ feet, in increments, as we turn toward the military as the institution of last resort, the one on which we depend to provide the service and protection we all need. More and more, it seems, we look to our military in the expectation that only it will function well under duress.
Cases in point: President George Bush plans to secure the southern border using 6,000 National Guard troops to provide logistical support until a full complement of Border Patrol agents and attendant technology can fill the gap; the possibility of putting the military in charge of catastrophic disaster response instead of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is under discussion; the National Governors Association complains about the burdens being placed on the National Guard.
There are several dangers here. The first is not that the American military will take over the country—rather, the danger is to the military itself as it finds its mission of safeguarding the United States and American interests diluted by non-military commitments and distractions, reducing its overall effectiveness.
The American military has always participated in disaster response and support, from hurricane relief to fighting wildfires. But ever since Hurricane Katrina, the loss of faith in the civilian branch of government has been so stark and precipitous that everyone—from state and local officials to the president to citizens on the street—seems to be looking to the military to provide the succor and services that were once expected from civilian agencies.
Roots of the problem
The roots of this development go beyond just Katrina: They can be traced back to the whole “small government” or “shrink government” movement that has been ascendant in American politics since 1980.
Before looking at this movement, we have to ask ourselves why American government became big in the first place. There’s no doubt when the movement began: It started in 1932 with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But why did American government become “big?” It became big because it faced big challenges: The Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and its domestic attempts to eradicate poverty and enforce civil rights.
From the presidency of Ronald Reagan on, first in rhetoric and then in action, the small-government movement has been trying to reverse this course. In 1996, President Bill Clinton acknowledged the movement’s success when he declared in his State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over.”
But shrinking government also means shrinking government capabilities and citizen services as well, and when big challenges come up, a shrunken government may not be able to cope with them. FEMA’s woeful performance during Hurricane Katrina shows what happens when a crippled civilian agency confronts a major challenge.
When civilian government capabilities shrivel and major challenges loom, the only institution beyond the reach ofthe shrink-government movement is the military, and so the military begins to take on missions that were once—and properly—in the civilian domain. This is not a good development.
Lessons and warnings
This lesson is brought home once again in this edition, when we look at the state of America’s first response community—and the view isn’t pretty.
The problem is not only that first responders are overcommitted and underfunded; it’s also that these most public-spirited of people are being stretched by their commitments to the National Guard and Reserves and their deployments overseas.
The time has come to realize that we’re facing big challenges again: the global war on terror and nature’s wrath. A shrunken, crippled government won’t be able to cope with what we face, and we can’t look only to our military and the same core of overworked people to handle every challenge ahead.
It’s time to tone down the anti-government rhetoric and restore resources, capability and effectiveness to the civilian side of government. The country’s future—both physical and constitutional—depends on it. HST

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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