I wanted to grow up to be a revolutionary. No kidding. Not at first: when I graduated from kindergarten, part of the ceremony involved each child naming his or her chosen career over the PA system, each announcement being followed by a collective “Aww”, or however you spell the sound emitted by parents in response to cuteness. I actually managed to provoke a laugh with mine: I wanted to be the first FBI man in space. A laugh, followed by the cute sound.
By the time I was comparing colleges, we were killing Vietnamese on TV every evening, and I was convinced that the time was near when I, as a pacifist and a conscientious objector, would have no logical choice but to join the Weather Underground. (I don't think I ever told my mother, so now's as good a time as any. Hi Mom.) Nixon had just won re-election in a landslide, which we now know was rigged (if you're too young to know about this, watch All the President's Men with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman leading a superstar cast). I had given up on peaceful change. I strongly expected Nixon to attempt to declare martial law, and at the time I expected most of the military to follow his lead. What else could I do?
I've long since realized I was wrong: a few military people would have followed Nixon, but most, including most of those who voted for him, would immediately have decided he was crazy and refused to implement the martial-law decree. The American military is not just a military machine of unprecedented proportion; it's also a group of Americans, the vast majority of whom believe in the Constitution.
Today, we're involved in another quagmire, not Vietnam but starting to have many similar aspects. And the military is still not the problem. As Slate's Fred Kaplan says:
Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff who was upbraided by Donald Rumsfeld for warning Congress that postwar occupation would require a few hundred thousand troops, probably hasn't had to buy his own lunch for several months now. All he has to do is show up at the Army-Navy Club around mealtime and any number of eager officers are no doubt happy to reward him for speaking military truth to civilian power.
What do you want from a chief of staff? The military system worked. We got an Army chief of staff who not only told the truth as he saw it, but turned out to be right. Sure, he was dumped and dissed, but that was the fault of the political system.
The other big government bogeyman from my youth was the intelligence community, in particular the CIA. Now I admit that George Tenet hasn't come out smelling like a rose, but then he didn't go in smelling like one either. The agency as a whole probably provided some bogus intelligence, but only under massive political pressure. Seymour Hirsch, writing in The New Yorker, describes the situation, and notes one analyst's response: “At some point, you just say Fuck it”. No agency in a democratic government is immune to pressure from the highest ranks, and visits from the Vice President constitute pressure. And even Tenet, when forced to fall on his sword and accept responsibility for the “sixteen words”, added a caveat, to the effect that “We told him not to say it”.
So here's how bad the Bush Administration is: they've managed to make both the military and the intelligence community look good.