The news is full of Middle-East countries where long-standing despots are being edged out by the populace whose interests they have failed to respect. In almost every case: Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, including Libya, elements of the army have either supported the rebels or stood by while events developed.
That got me thinking, that in the 30+ years I was affiliated with the U.S. Navy, I never was taught anything about how to support a coup. I was, and remain, totally coupless.
Mary and I recently returned from a Leadership Conference, held in Richmond, Virginia. The trip afforded an opportunity to not only learn valuable personal improvement skills, but also to visit friends of long-standing and discover much of the southern richness surrounding the Civil War. Two facts stand out. One was given when we visited the Tredegar Iron Works. Tredegar made almost all of the canons used by the South in the war. They were well suited to do this because they had made all the canons used by the Union in the early years of the war. And that was the interesting fact: canons for both sides were exactly alike! They used the same ammunition, fired with the same firing procedures, and were often captured and used by the opposing side, since the soldiers were trained exactly alike in their operation.
The second fact was that Robert E. Lee was offered the command of the Union Army. He was, after all, a leader in his class at West Point. One can only imagine that meeting. How he must have agonized, weighing the tremendous honor and expression of respect against a sense of loyalty to his birthplace and the causes about which his family and friends felt so keenly. As a matter of fact, all the Confederate generals graduated from West Point and served with distinction in what remained the Union army. Their choice, to fight for the South, tells much about the complexity of the issues that caused the war: far more than slavery, and much to do about the distinction between North and South as to where the wealth of the Nation came from.
It tells even more about why the United States is unlikely to ever have a coup. Each re-enlistment of my Navy career required taking an oath, on a Bible, to support the Constitution, the Republic for which it stands, and the President of that Republic, my commander-in-chief. Although it was assumed that I would follow the orders of my superior officers, there was no oath to do so.
In many countries the officer class is separated from the rest of the military by education. In fact that was true in this country at the time of the Civil War. But today, we have a very educated rank and file, who are not likely to change allegiance merely because of military leadership. Hence, no coups. We also have free elections, and in many cases, term limits, that preclude festering, popular unrest.
And that is probably a good thing, because on one occasion when the Weapons Officer on a carrier I was attached to, was desirous of using up outdated ammunition, he took me, along with the rest of the officer’s mess, to the firing range. After several minutes, firing my .45, he approached me and advised, “If we are ever attacked by pirates or something, wait until they are very close and throw the gun at them. It’ll likely do more damage.” Now that we are actually at some risk of pirate attack, the country is probably safer with me in retirement.
As I write this I am preparing to leave, later today, to attend a two-day seminar by the Naval War College staff. Last year they talked about the Somalia pirates and what we were doing to handle that problem. This year I am taking my grown son who, although he never joined a service, has a long-standing interest in things military. I expect the focus of attention will be the Middle-East. Maybe I’ll learn more about what makes a coup.