Unless you are in uniform, George Bush is not your Commander-in-Chief.
Excerpts from Garry Wills, At Ease - Mr. President, New York Times. Wills is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern. He says the expression of commander-in-chief is one of the most abused terms in our political lexicon:
. . . . The president is not the commander in chief of civilians. He is not even commander in chief of National Guard troops unless and until they are federalized. The Constitution is clear on this: “The president shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States.”
When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations, he gave himself the proper title, “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” That title is rarely — more like never — heard today. It is just “commander in chief,” or even “commander in chief of the United States.” This reflects the increasing militarization of our politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline. In wartime, it is true, people submit to the national leadership more than in peacetime. The executive branch takes actions in secret, unaccountable to the electorate, to hide its moves from the enemy and protect national secrets. Constitutional shortcuts are taken “for the duration.” But those impositions are removed when normal life returns.
But we have not seen normal life in 66 years. The wartime discipline imposed in 1941 has never been lifted, and “the duration” has become the norm. World War II melded into the cold war, with greater secrecy than ever — more classified information, tougher security clearances. And now the cold war has modulated into the war on terrorism.
There has never been an executive branch more fetishistic about secrecy than the Bush-Cheney one. The secrecy has been used to throw a veil over detentions, “renditions,” suspension of the Geneva Conventions and of habeas corpus, torture and warrantless wiretaps. We hear again the refrain so common in the other wars — If you knew what we know, you would see how justified all our actions are.
But we can never know what they know. We do not have sufficient clearance.
When Admiral William Crowe, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized the gulf war under the first President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker said that the admiral was not qualified to speak on the matter since he no longer had the clearance to read classified reports. If he is not qualified, then no ordinary citizen is. We must simply trust our lords and obey the commander in chief.
The glorification of the president as a war leader is registered in numerous and substantial executive aggrandizements; but it is symbolized in other ways that, while small in themselves, dispose the citizenry to accept those aggrandizements. We are reminded, for instance, of the expanded commander in chief status every time a modern president gets off the White House helicopter and returns the salute of marines.
That is an innovation that was begun by Ronald Reagan. Dwight Eisenhower, a real general, knew that the salute is for the uniform, and as president he was not wearing one. An exchange of salutes was out of order. (George Bush came as close as he could to wearing a uniform while president when he landed on the telegenic aircraft carrier in an Air Force flight jacket).
We used to take pride in civilian leadership of the military under the Constitution, a principle that George Washington embraced when he avoided military symbols at Mount Vernon. We are not led — or were not in the past — by caudillos.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s prescient last book, “Secrecy,” traced the ever-faster-growing secrecy of our government and said that it strikes at the very essence of democracy — accountability of representatives to the people. How can the people hold their representatives to account if they are denied knowledge of what they are doing? Wartime and war analogies are embraced because these justify the secrecy. The representative is accountable to citizens. Soldiers are accountable to their officer. The dynamics are different, and to blend them is to undermine the basic principles of our Constitution.