Friday, November 21, 2014

Private Command Structure versus Public

Most sensible people do recognize that having a command structure with authority for those at the top to make decisions is good for the overall functioning of any social unit. Even among chimpanzees there are dominance hierarchies, and this is something that would not exist in nature if it did not serve a function.

Military units need military discipline, and even seemingly unimportant details can help. Lawrence, who works with my chimpanzee Bow, was in the service, and he was talking to me the other day about how requiring new recruits to keep their uniform clean was not really about keeping the uniform clean, but about maintaining overall discipline. If recruits were disciplined for tiny, unimportant infractions, then they learned to obey every command by the time they were faced with actual combat.

People who join the service understand that they are giving up most of their civil liberties when they sign up. In many other organizations, people also give up the right to express themselves when they join, Many companies require employees not to speak or publish about certain topics that are considered sensitive to the business of the company. Women who had the right to vote in New Jersey in the 18th century lost that right when they got married. But they didn't have to marry, unless they were sure they trusted their husband to vote the way they thought was right.

Freedom does not mean the freedom to do anything at all at someone else's expense. Free men and women give up rights every day in order to receive certain benefits from other people, to whom they cede their rights. Speaking up for freedom does not necessarily imply that we are against command sturctures in social units. It does not mean that we don't understand the value of discipline.

As long as there is a choice whether to join or not, there is nothing unconstitutional or wrong in the curtailment of those rights set forth in the constitution and bill of rights by a unit of society. But what if a general rode into your American  town and imposed martial law on everyone, without asking permission? Could that ever be constitutional? And if it is unconstitutional, could it ever be necessary or useful?

That is the topic of today's article on Historia Obscura. It's not that military law is bad -- it just needs to stay in the military. Martial law is not for civilian populations. That was one of the basic beliefs that led to the American revolution.

Just as a parent may have the right to discipline his own child but not the neighbor's child, a military commander needs to understand that he can discipline those under him, but not everyone else. It's a very simple proposition.

Friday, November 14, 2014

How to Take Back a Punishment and Be Vindicated

There are three branches to the United States government. What one takes away, another one can give back. For instance, if the legislative branch makes a mistake and passes an unconstitutional act, the executive can refuse to enforce it and the judicial can nullify it.

If somebody is wrongfully adjudicated guilty of a crime, the executive can pardon the accused, and the legislative can offer restitution in payment for what has been suffered.

But what if someone is in the middle of a lawsuit to reclaim his property, and the legislature just passes a law that the spoils go to one of the parties to the litigation? I don't have direct evidence of this myself, but I have heard that something like that happened to the goods belonging to Jean and Pierre Laffite. Before their lawsuit could come to trial, a law was passed to the effect that the goods belonged to Patterson. Is that constitutional?

It's good to have checks and balances. And yet.... this ability to undo what has already been done can be misused. And sometimes a person does not want  a pardon for a crime he has not committed. He wants vindication, instead.

Notice that when President Madison pardoned all the Baratarians who served in the Battle of New Orleans, Jean Laffite did not claim that pardon, because he believed he was not guilty of a crime.

And when Andrew Jackson was forced to pay $1000.00 as a fine for being in contempt of court, for having Judge Hall incarcerated for granting a writ of habeas corpus during Jackson's imposition of martial law, Jackson never asked for a pardon. Instead, toward the end of his life, he got Congress to pass a law that the fine was to be paid back to him.

Why? Was it because he needed the money? Or was he trying to make a point? According to the book by Matthew Warshauer, Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law it was because: “He viewed the return of his fine as a larger statement about the legitimacy of violating the constitution and civil liberties in times of national emergency.”

What can we learn from this? If you get in trouble, but you want to be vindicated, don't go for a pardon. Get an act of Congress to refund your money.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Jean Laffite: American War Veteran

Today is Veterans Day, and everywhere we see pictures of people in uniform. People who served in the armed forces. Some of them died for their country, some were wounded, and all were part of the military branch of the government.  But it is important to remember that some of the greatest veterans who ever lived never wore a uniform.

The true heroism of Jean Laffite's independent contribution to the American war effort can be read in Pam Keyes' article, Commemoration of a Hero: Jean Laffite and the Battle of New Orleans.

Of course, Andrew Jackson was also there and also made valuable contributions. But without Jean Laffite's help, the Battle of New Orleans would have been lost. Quite possibly the entire war would have been lost. We would have ended being British subjects who were thankful for the services of the redcoats on Veterans Day.

One of the founding principles of the United States was having no standing army. Let us not forget that this is what the original founders fought for in 1776 when they resisted the British attempt to tax them to pay for the defense of the colonies.

It would be a shame to save the Union only to lose the constitution

Friday, November 7, 2014

Reframing the Context: The Secretary of War

Context is everything. When a certain group manages to reframe the context of a discussion, then the sorts of answers available to any given question seem to become limited to a specific number of listed possible responses.

The Seal of Office of the United States War Office
Take for instance the question of war. A long time ago, everyone understood that war was inevitable, and they talked about how to pay for it, who should serve and when to declare it.  In the cabinet of the president of the United States, there was a Secretary of War.

Under George Washington, the Secretary of War was Henry Knox. He had been the chief artillery officer of the Continental Army, and before the ratification of the constitution, he served as the Continental War Secretary.

At first, the Secretary of War was responsible for all military affairs, but in 1798 the separate position of Secretary of the Navy was created, and the Secretary of War's scope was reduced to cover only the army. After 1886, the Secretary of War was third in line of succession to the presidency, right after the Vice President and the Secretary of State. (I bet Al Haig knew that!)

Something rather big happened to the Secretary of War position in 1947, with the passage of National Security Act of 1947: the Office of Secretary of War entirely disappeared. According to the Wikipedia: "The Secretary of the Army's office is generally considered the direct successor to the Secretary of War's office although the Secretary of Defense took the Secretary of War's position in the Cabinet, and the line of succession to the presidency."

Why? Why did they do that? By eliminating the word "War" from the name of the office, did we eliminate war? No. There have been lots of wars in which the United States was involved since 1947. But none of them have been declared! This means that the Executive Branch has been free to wage war without the consent of the other branches ever since the word "war" was eliminated from our respectable statesman-like vocabulary.

Change the linguistic context, and you change the meaning of the constitution. Apparently, the requirement for a declaration of war went away as soon as we stopped calling it war.

Today, everybody seems to agree that war is a bad thing and we should avoid war at all costs. Everyone gives lip service to this idea. And yet it is easier for the president to start a war than ever before!

Reframing the context is a very dangerous thing. It would be better if we still called it war and had open  discussions about when it should be declared and who should pay for it and who should be asked to risk life and limb in waging it.