Civil-Military Relations

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How do Military Coups Fail?

DR GERAINT HUGHES

On the night of Friday 15th July 2016 elements of the Turkish armed forces attempted to overthrow the democratically-elected – but increasingly authoritarian – government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After a bloody night of fighting in Ankara and Istanbul, and at least 290 deaths, this attempted coup d’etat was decisively crushed as police, loyalist military units and crowds of civilian volunteers rallied behind Erdogan. The Turkish armed forces and the judiciary are now being purged of real and suspected enemies of the AKP government, and a state that is both a NATO partner and a pivotal ally in Southern Europe and the Middle East is experiencing instability as severa as that the country experienced in the late 1970s.

Edward Luttwak has already provided an analysis on the coup’s failure, and has indeed written what could cheekily be described as the authoritative manual on how to take over a state at gunpoint. In this post I want to take a broader view as to how and why military coups end in failure.

Mao Zedong famously observed that political power grows from the barrel of a gun, and the most dramatic manifestation of that statement can be seen when the armed forces turn against their political masters, and the citizenry wake up to find armoured vehicles on their own streets. The spectacle of soldiers overthrowing the constitutional order they have sworn to defend is a subject of enduring fascination even in stable societies. John Frankenheimer’s 1964 thriller Seven Days in May showed the Joint Chiefs of Staff plotting to oust the US President, in order to thwart an arms control treaty with the Soviets. During the early 1970s the prospect of Her Majesty’s armed forces doing the unthinkable and seizing power in the UK appeared to be a genuine threat, given the extent of the country’s political and economic crises, the failure of either the Conservative or Labour governments of that time to address them, and the widespread paranoia at the time. For Turkey, a state which has experienced three successful coups since 1960, military putsches are not academic exercises or the stuff of fictional fantasies.

Yet the plotting and execution of a coup represents can founder due to a series of factors. For a potential junta of generals or colonels to succeed, the following conditions need to be met.

Firstly, plotters have to be able to plan and organise the takeover of the state without alerting any loyalist colleagues in the armed forces, or the country’s security services.

Secondly, they will have to seize and dominate the state’s transport and communications network – roads, rail links, ports, airports, television, telephones and the media.

Thirdly, they have to achieve a shock effect on the government. The President, Prime Minister, monarch, ministers, and senior civil servants must be either arrested (or perhaps killed), or at any rate they should be neutralised. The spectacle of a leader fleeing a country and seeking asylum abroad is usually a sign of the coup’s success.

Fourthly, the coup needs to be executed with such speed that it becomes a fait accompli for potential opponents. Other elements of the armed forces and the security services must be left with the impression that the only choice they have is either futile resistance or acquiescence in the new order.

Finally, the coup cannot succeed unless it has either popular support, or the plotters can at least count on the general population being unwilling to defend the old order.

On organisation, militaries are not monolithic entities, and would-be caudillos have to surreptitiously identify potential allies within the officer corps, running the risk of exposing their scheming in the process. However, regimes which have a genuine concern over a military takeover will often ‘coup-proof’ their armed forces. Generals and admirals will be appointed on the basis of loyalty rather than competence. Commanders will be regularly switched so that they cannot build a support base among the soldiers, sailors, marines or airmen they lead. The regime will impose an over-centralised and dysfunctional command structure which will make it difficult for plotters to even meet without attracting the attention of the regime’s security services, and can also drive wedges between officers and the rank-and-file through political indoctrination. What worked for Nazi Germany has worked for Arab autocracies such as Iraq and Syria too.

As was the case with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq the secret police will often employ agents provocateurs to smoke out potential putschists by encouraging them to take part in bogus plots, and then arresting and exterminating them. Nascent coups can also be snuffed out if the regime prevents routine exercises or the issuing of ammunition, or if it develops its own parallel paramilitary forces that are better armed and trained than their regular counterparts, and manned by troops recruited on the basis of party, clan or ethnic loyalty to the state. Even if likeminded and resentful plotters can meet and plot in conditions of secrecy and security, there are of course other additional snags to deal with. What if more than one of the assembled putschists believes that he should be the next President for Life?

With communications, the would-be coup plotter might be guided by Lenin’s dictum that the first act is to seize the telephone exchange and the telegraph office. In the age of Twitter and the smart-phone it is no longer as easy to shut down attempts by the government to talk to the masses – or indeed to stop crowds rallying each other to defend the status quo. When Communist Party, military and KGB hardliners of the GKChP (the ‘State Council for the State of Emergency’) tried to oust Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 they were stymied by the fact that the head of the Soviet Air Force, Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, declared that his service would oppose their putsch. Without the Antonovs and Ilyushins of the air forces Transport Command, the GKChP was denied a means of moving their own troops and security personnel around a state that spans ten separate time zones.

In Turkey last Friday Erdogan and his Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, not only evaded capture or elimination, but also held their nerve. Erdogan himself rallied his AKP support base with a telephone call to a private TV channel (via FaceTime) which showed that he was (a) alive, (b) at liberty, and (c) still in the country and ready to fight his corner. The attempted coup in Spain in February 1981 foundered because King Juan Carlos broadcast his opposition and condemned its instigators. In the USSR 10½ years later the Russian President Boris Yeltsin emerged as an alternative source of legitimacy, climbing aboard a tank outside the Parliament Building in Moscow to address the assembled citizenry to resist the junta. In all of the above cases, the failure to neutralise effective opposition and to overawe the government contributed to the coup’s eventual defeat.

The routing of the Turkish coup, and the spectacle of soldiers being disarmed by civilians on the Bosphorus bridge, also shows that achieving a fait accompli is easier in theory than in practice. Coups are a nerve-wracking experience both for their instigators and for the troops they command, who often do not have the faintest idea of what they are doing and why. In certain cases, the coup plotters can rely on troops who are ready to gun down opponents in the streets, as was the case with Iraq in July 1958 and Chile in September 1973. But in other cases soldiers (particularly conscripts) who are faced with crowds of protestors or military units defending the powers-that-be can falter when given the order to shoot. It is a daunting decision to open fire on ones own fellow countrymen and women, particularly if you have doubts about whether you are going to succeed.

Then there are the masses themselves. The overthrow of the Estado Novo by the Armed Forces Movement in Portugal in April 1974 was met with public delight and approval. Nawaz Sharif’s ouster in Pakistan in October 1999 appears to have been greeted with popular apathy, while the Egyptian military’s overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 received widespread acclaim (although the Egyptian people may now have cause to regret their enthusiasm. Turkey, like Pakistan and Egypt, has a reputation for stratocracy, but institutional respect for the military appears to have been eroded over 14 years of AKP rule; the Ergenekon investigation of 2008-2009 into suspected coup plotting has arguably contributed to discrediting Turkey’s top brass in Erdogan’s favour, while also delegitimising military intervention in the country’s politics.

There are precedents for popular opposition undermining a military takeover. The Kapp putsch launched by Freikorps paramilitaries in Berlin in March 1920 initially threatened the destruction of the nascent Weimar Republic, as the commander of the German Army Hans von Seeckt refused to call out the troops to restore order. This attempted takeover was however undermined by a successful general strike called by the socialist and communist trade unions. Franco’s coup in Spain sixteen years later was initially thwarted by a popular counter-rising, which contributed to the ensuing civil war. The GKChP in the USSR in August 1991 was thwarted when Muscovites took to the streets in mass protests. In Turkey over the last weekend, even critics of Erdogan’s authoritarian style of rule (including the opposition CHP) condemned the coup. If the people are not onside, or are at least disinterested in the outcome, a takeover by the armed forces is usually either averted, or it simply leads to further violence and civil strife.

Turkey currently faces the prospect of an AKP dictatorship being imposed after a failure to impose a military one. Erdogan appears to be settling scores with all potential opponents – whether they backed this coup or not – thereby compounding the instability arising from the spill-over from the Syrian civil war, the renewed Kurdish insurgency and IS terrorism. In this case, there is an ominous precedent set by the putsch launched by pro-Communist Indonesian officers on 30th September 1965. After this coup’s collapse, Indonesia’s top brass launched a purge which killed an estimated half a million people, and also replaced Sukarno’s dictatorship with that of Suharto. Indonesia 1965 demonstrated that a failed coup d’etat can be every bit as disastrous as a successful one. One can only hope that Turkey does not provide another example.

Image: Tanks approaching the Ataturk airport, Istanbul, July 16th, 2016, via wikimedia commons.

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Ball Bearings Innovation: The Industrial College of the Armed Forces and the Increments of Transformational Change

This is the fourth of several posts running on Defence-in-Depth over the next few weeks arising out of the Military Learning and Innovation Roundtable held at the Joint Services Command and Staff College on Wednesday 17 June 2015. The roundtable explored the various ways in which armed forces have learned, adapted, and innovated in times of war and peace, austerity, and pressure from the eighteenth century to the present day. You can read more about the aims and objectives, research outputs, and future events of the Military Innovation and Learning Research Group at www.militaryinnovation.org. Podcasts from the roundtable are available to download here.

by DR JILL S. RUSSELL

Military innovation conjures in people’s minds the advent of iconic capabilities. The arrival of firearms, the shift from sail to steam at sea, and the conquest of the skies are the stuff of the common conception of the phenomenon. Mirroring the magnitude of the effect, the innovation itself is expected to be recognized as a major shift. To think this way, however, leaves off too many important advances. Where in fact some have only themselves effected minor change, in the repetition and scope of such societal endeavours as industrial war the revolutionary outcome is achieved. This type is what I am calling here Ball Bearings Innovation, based on a theme of German military industrial prowess in WWII. Apocryphal or otherwise, the ball bearing has been hailed as the lynchpin of their strength of arms. In this scenario the simplification of components according to fewer standardised parts created efficiencies that at scale advanced manufacturing capabilities significantly. Ball bearings become transformative, even revolutionary, when uncountable numbers are involved. Repeated at scale and across mass the irrelevant becomes mighty.

Where the Germans had ball bearings, the American military juggernaut in WWII had packaging and packing. Concerned with how individual and grouped items are contained, identified and wrapped for transport, storage and use, packing and packaging perfectly represent the materiel basis of American warfare. Improvements during the Interwar period in this seemingly irrelevant backwater of technological development would mean tremendous gains in logistics capabilities.

A key node of this effort resided in the newly established Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF). Opened in 1923, ICAF represented the next step in American Military education from the first rounds which had established the Command and Staff and War Colleges. Unlike these, ICAF depended significantly upon the intersection of government and civilian partners, as well as other services. The need for coordination across these many organizations was excellent preparation for the scale, complexity and terms of WWII operations. And the advances the school would help to usher along would manifest in the overwhelming margin of capacity the Allies brought to bear in the war against Germany and Japan.

The school’s mandate was to improve military capabilities in industrial warfare. Whether in planning or research, interaction with the private sector, or assisting th‎e demands of mobilisation planning, the curriculum across the period covered the spectrum of martial-industrial topics, to include consideration of requirements and needs of packing and packaging in war. Although many offices and actors were at work on this issue and others during this period, ICAF’s efforts were important for the interactions it created among the state, armed forces, and the economy. During the Interwar period the students benefited from practical military experience in WWI and other conflicts, business and research expertise, as well as the commitment of the government. Whether it was by reducing the transportation space needed per good or to replace losses, against the logistics demands of industrial war the incremental improvements in packing and packaging would exceed their minor scale. When it came to an American and Allied strategy dependent upon the weight of logistics in WWII, across the breadth of a global conflict at the apex of mass industrial warfare, the savings would accumulate to critical effect.

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Navigating past events or the pace of contemporary change, we tend to focus on the large terrain features. As we come to grips with the transformative effect of 140 characters in the strategic capacity of political narratives in war, it is clear this focus cannot serve. Particularly with innovation, concern for the small details which can accumulate to shape events will improve our understanding, whether of history or the present.

Image: Aerial view of Mulberry harbour “B” (October 27, 1944)

Soldiers of 22 Engineer Regiment march proudly past cheering crowds during a parade through Andover, Hampshire.

To mark their return from Afghanistan, over 400 soldiers of 22 Engineer Regiment of the Corps of the Royal Engineers exercised their Freedom of the Borough of Test Valley by marching through Andover, Hampshire, on Saturday 12 October 2013. 

The Royal Engineers or ‘Sappers’ have been busy this tour not only reinforcing existing British bases across Helmand Province but removing, closing and transferring bases across the province to Afghan control. This is a real indicator of progress, because as a base is closed or handed over and it shows that the Afghans are proving capable at sustaining their own operations.

Public Views of the Armed Forces in Britain: Misperceptions and Implications in 2015

by Dr. HELEN McCARTNEY

A new survey by Ipsos MORI and King’s College London has provided a fascinating insight into the way publics view their armed forces. The international survey was conducted in Great Britain, Australia, Canada, France, and the US and compared public beliefs about the armed forces with reality.

The results for Britain were eclectic, showing that while the public continue to hold the armed forces in high esteem, their understanding of the challenges facing military personnel is often widely off the mark.

Last week, I was fortunate to take part in a debate where we started thinking through what might have influenced the results. Bobby Duffy (Ipsos MORI), Prof. Christopher Dandeker, Dr Laura Goodwin and I sat on a panel chaired by Prof. Sir Simon Wessely. We considered what the results say about civil-military relations in Britain and what implications might they have for the armed forces and society.

Christopher Dandeker reminded us of the need to distinguish between public empathy and sympathy, the former being knowledge-based, the latter showing a desire to support, while Laura Goodwin raised the issue of who survey respondents might be thinking about and how far the results may also reflect the views of army families, friends and potentially armed forces personnel themselves. For example, public overestimation of PTSD rates and underestimation of levels of depression and anxiety may influence stigma and affect when and if help is sought.

Bobby Duffy urged us to think about the way in which we remember. After all, mis-perceptions of the military were not just confined to the British public; similar trends were seen across publics internationally, with the exception of the French. He argued that people remember specific stories that tap into emotions better than they retain statistics. Those individual stories might create a lasting mental image that is difficult to shift, even if they are, in fact, comparatively rare.

From my perspective, I think it is useful to consider how the public acquire their information about the armed forces. Even with the return of the British army from Germany and increasing use of reservists, the British armed forces still have a small military footprint in British society. Few members of the public have a personal experience of the military or know a member of the armed forces well. In the absence of personal knowledge, the public draws on established images of the soldier in British popular culture to form opinions about the armed forces.

It seems likely that this survey might be reflecting the multiple images of the soldier that co-exist today. Many responses in the polling support previous arguments made about the contemporary image of the soldier in Britain. In art, film, media, books, charitable work and museums the soldier appears in traditional forms – most often caricatured as a hero and, less often, as a villain. However, increasingly, the soldier is also identified as a victim – and I think we can see these trends reflected in polling.

So, for example, the dominant hero image is reflected by the 72 percent of respondents who say they have a favourable view of soldiers and the 65 percent of people who are positive about the armed forces as an institution. But at the same time, the British public over-estimates negative outcomes arising from military service. The villain image is present with the public assumption that soldiers would be more or as likely to serve a prison sentence – when in fact, they are 30 percent less likely to go to prison. We also see how the image of the soldier as victim has resonated with the British public through their overestimation of the risk of PTSD, overall suicide rates, and homelessness.

The victim image has become more prevalent in recent years, as a result of changes in British societal values, increased recognition of psychological effects of war and the British armed forces fighting unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Armed forces personnel came to be seen as passive victims – of government miscalculation and wartime experience – which allowed the public to simultaneously show support for the soldier while condemning the job they were required to do.

The survey results suggest that this victim image (alongside those of hero and villain) is one that is here to stay. The British public believe that service personnel will be adversely affected by their service, and this is reflected in the over-estimation of some of the challenges facing those serving in the armed forces and veterans today.

Image: Soldiers of 22 Engineer Regiment march proudly past cheering crowds during a parade through Andover, Hampshire, 12 October 2013. Photo courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence via Open Government License.