“The Executive Branch Should Not be Allowed to Conduct Such a Program by Themselves”

I mentioned in an earlier post that after writing about the U.S. military and emancipation during the Civil War, a friend on Facebook asked me if I had “any insight as to whether our modern army would fire upon its own US citizens at the orders of the Commander in Chief?”

I find it fascinating that an essay on the executive-military relationship during the Civil War roughly 150 years ago immediately prompted a question about our present situation regarding the use of drones in warfare. It reminds me that the questions we ask of the past are determined by the questions we have about the present, and that our roles as participants in the America of 2013 shape our observations and perceptions of the America of 1863, whether we like it or not. Indeed, President Barack Obama has claimed that he has been influenced by the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, but an argument could easily be made that the legacy of Barack Obama has influenced the way we look at Abraham Lincoln. My studies in graduate school have demonstrated that there really is no such thing as creating histories that depict events of the past “as they happened.” We create histories that depict events of the past as we think they happened with the partial, existing evidence we are able to study today.

It would be fair for me to say that regardless of what perspective one takes when looking at the Civil War, we can all agree that the demise of slavery was a good thing. Yet my friend’s question suggests that using the military to help destroy slavery in the South demands new questions to be asked about what the military can do on American soil today. In sum, what’s next? Where’s the boundary line between military benevolence and military despotism? Is the executive branch allowed to unilaterally call for an attack on an American citizen(s)? Doesn’t the Constitution protect us from such a thing?  Alas, strikingly similar questions were being asked by slaveholders in the border states who remained in the United States (Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, and Tennessee [sort of]) in 1863. Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to these states, many slaveholders understood that this act threatened the stability of their “property” and they vocally criticized Lincoln for what they perceived as an undemocratic and despotic act of executive fiat that demonstrated his love for “the Negro race.” In fact, one pamphlet distributed by Northern Democrats for the 1864 Presidential election was entitled Abraham Africanus I: his secret life, revealed under the mesmeric influence; mysteries of the White House. “The Executive branch should not be allowed to conduct such a program [emancipation] by themselves,” these people argued, in more or less terms.

Many Union soldiers during the Civil War argued that America was an exceptional nation because its rulers were bound by the rule of law and the ballot box, not a monarchical leader or a military dictatorship. Furthermore, they argued that America was composed of citizen-soldiers who did their duty and followed orders, regardless of how they felt about the government’s position on the issue. Most detested the constant political upheavals that plagued Europe and were proud of the fact that military coups did not take place in America.

I think we are seeing that strains of those convictions in our current political discourse over drones today. We are now in the midst of a filibuster in the U.S. Senate, led by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, after Attorney General Eric Holder sent Paul a letter saying that yes, under certain circumstances determined to be “catastrophic” in the minds of the executive branch and the executive branch alone the President CAN kill Americans on American soil. Viewed in this light, is it right for a soldier to always obey and enforce an order of the executive, even if that order targets American citizens and could be considered morally wrong? Many people have echoed Oregon Senator Ron Wyden’s comment that regarding drones, “The Executive Branch Should Not be Allowed to Conduct Such a Program by Themselves.” Equally important to our discussion, does the debate over drones today change the way we look at Lincoln’s use of the military in ending slavery during the Civil War?

These questions are tough to answer, but for me I think the current debate shows that we to need set more boundaries regarding what the executive can and can’t do with the military. I’d also point out that Lincoln did set some boundaries because he avoided issuing a similar document like the Emancipation Proclamation in the border Union states. He believed it was an unconstitutional violation of the 5th amendment regarding the confiscation of property (i.e. slaves) without due process. (Also remember that Confederates no longer acknowledged the laws of the United States, thus the EP was used as a “war measure” to destroy the Confederacy’s fighting ability). I think this demonstrates that there were limits to the President’s power in 1863 at least, but my interpretation is certainly up for debate.

Conversely, we’ve learned that the leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has died. Chavez was a brutal, undemocratic leader who made his first entrance into politics through a failed military coup–rather than the ballot box–in 1992. Indeed, throughout the 1990s Chavez believed that a military takeover of the government was the only effective way of enacting political change, according to this book. (p.116) Chavez even had a failed military coup enacted against his government in 2002. This situation asks us whether or not it is right for the military to have the right to arbitrarily decide when it will enforce the actions of their executive. If I’m not satisfied with the actions of an executive (as was Chavez), is it right for me to use my position in the military to reject those actions and attempt to overthrow the government, without the use of the ballot box?

Some intellectual food for thought. I welcome any feedback and appreciate your readership.