How a tiger becomes a man-eater

The News, May 2, 2006
View from the West: How a tiger becomes a man-eater
Ethan Casey

"What is happening now," the great Pakistani fighter pilot Cecil Chaudhry told me in early 1999, "is precisely how a tiger becomes a man-eater. It's obvious. This is how all our martial laws have happened. It's not as though there's Bonapartism in the army. It's failure of civilians. One institution after another is being destroyed or desecrated. He [then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif] is opening up too many fronts for himself. The writing is there on the wall, the way the army is being involved."

The new army chief, Chaudhry added in a tone of respect, "is a soldier." This was, of course, General Pervez Musharraf, whom the world soon got to know much better.

One of the unacknowledged truths of the 21st-century is that countries we call 'developing' are in some ways ahead of 'developed' ones. These euphemistic adjectives assume a chronological forward movement which entail 'development' toward affluence and liberal democracy. But we know in our hearts that this is wishful mumbo-jumbo. Pakistanis know it from long and direct experience living under military rule. Americans are just beginning to smell the coffee.

As A J P Taylor observed in his biography of Bismarck, the armed forces are a fundamental institution in any state, and it does no good to wish or pretend otherwise. Military takeovers occur when the civilian-led political system breaks down or loses legitimacy. I witnessed this first hand in Cambodia in July 1997; the soldier who aimed his rifle at my chest brought the point home with inarguable force. Two months in Pakistan in 1999 reinforced the lesson: true though it may be that (as a liberal Pakistani asserted to me recently) Musharraf "has no business running the country", it's at least as true that Nawaz Sharif's downfall was self-inflicted.

All of which is brought to mind by the recent chorus of retired US generals calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. As much as many of us might be grimly gleeful to see the secretary of defence -- and, by extension and implication, the president -- get such a comeuppance, we do well to pause and ponder before cheering on the retired generals.

Bill Center made this case in an April 19 op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. Center is president of the Washington Council on International Trade here in Seattle and, more to the point, a retired US Navy rear admiral.

"Civilian control of the US armed forces is a fundamental democratic principle that our military men and women internalise from day one," he wrote. "… The secretary [of defence] issues orders on behalf of the president. Those orders must be obeyed, period. A senior commander who disagrees with the secretary is expected to voice those concerns. Once a decision is made the officer is expected to comply or resign. …

"The decision to resign belongs exclusively to the individual. The retired generals had their chances to resign. … If they now want to offer an opinion on the conduct of the war, they are well qualified to do so. They are also free to criticise the secretary's leadership. It is not their place, however, to call upon the president's second-in-command to step down."

I interviewed Center on a separate topic and found him affable and impressively, even dauntingly well read and thoughtful. So I sought him out for a second conversation.

"I believe the phrase 'slippery slope' is applicable," he told me. "And if we don't keep a firm line, we're going to keep stepping over the line until eventually there won't be any line."

He told me that, of the unusually large number of responses his op-ed prompted, those from military people tended to agree with him, while civilians failed to appreciate the dangers. I asked whether he thought this gulf had arisen because of President Nixon's decision to abolish the military draft in 1973. Yes, he said; it's "one of the unintended consequences of the all-volunteer force. Fewer and fewer people have military experience, and those that do, their experience is outdated."

To redress this, he would "send all of the officers that go to grad school to civilian schools, and in military schools half the student body would be civilians." He would also recruit teachers, newspaper editors and other civilian thought leaders to teach at military colleges.

I asked his opinion of the famous episode when President Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command in Korea for insubordination, in April 1951.

"Truman was right," he said bluntly. "And it's complicated by the fact that MacArthur really did want to be president. Any general who aspires to be president is automatically doomed." (Eisenhower, paradoxically, was a good president because "I don't think he sought to be president.")

"I'm not saying that a military guy is obligated to obey an illegal order -- that's not the case," Center concluded. "But there are people arguing that Rumsfeld is issuing illegal orders, and that simply won't fly."

The writer is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time: Email:;


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