President Trump has sent thousands of active-duty military troops to the southern border of the U.S. Last Friday, Governor Pete Ricketts said that Nebraska “stand[s] ready to send additional troops to aid this mission if called upon.”
And what is that mission? Well, President Trump has made it very clear. The caravan of mostly Central American refugees and asylum-seekers slowly making its way north represents “an invasion of our Country.” And since this is an invasion, it needs a Good Name — like “Desert Storm” or “Iraqi Freedom.” This one was called “Operation Faithful Patriot.” At least before someone, somewhere in the Pentagon saw sense.
The national press responded immediately by pointing out that (a) the caravan does not represent, under any possible definition, an invading force and (b) the active-duty military isn’t really being mobilized to defend the southern border against it. The result has been a tedious explanation of what those 5000+ troops are actually allowed to do. Let me summarize all that for you: They can’t do much. And the reason they can’t do much is because in the absence of scenario (a), it is actively illegal for the military to be used in this way. As so often happens these days, we have to go back to legal principles that were settled decades ago. Actually, in this case, over a century ago. The Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of the military for enforcement of U.S. domestic policies, dates to 1879.
So the general tenor of the press coverage has been to assure us that All Is Well. We aren’t actually overturning a legal principle that has been in place since Reconstruction, because the United States Army is actually just going to be handing out water bottles. And, you know, razor wire. There has been some minor support from people who believe these troops will be supporting the asylum seekers as they arrive to our border, but that support is flawed for two simple reasons. First, FEMA is the appropriate agency for emergcency management response, and second, if processing asylum seekers is truly the intention, as would be constitutionally appropriate, what is truly needed at these border sites are immigration attorneys, judges, and translators. None of the dialogue from the White House or the governor’s mansion has been to that effect, however, and the duty specific training of the troops being deployed does not indicate life support and asylum processing.
But the real story here is that our Governor (and indeed, our President) actually do think that this is an “invasion” that requires a military response. Ricketts “supports the mission” in the same way that one might have supported fighting the Nazis in the forties. He “stands ready” in the same way that one stands ready to go topple the Kaiser. It is, in every way, the rhetoric of war. Needless to say, as with all wars, people who don’t support the war aren’t supporting the troops. People who don’t support the war, aren’t supporting the country. People who don’t support the war, aren’t supporting freedom. Ricketts gets all that high-flying moral rhetoric for free by merely saying that he “supports the mission” and “stands ready.”
It is easy to call this what it was: an expensive bit of political theater in advance of the midterms. But we would like to suggest that Ricketts is playing a far more dangerous game. Because what this is really about is normalizing the use of the United States military in cases where there is no actual military threat of any kind. But it’s more than that, really. If we can get Nebraskans to think of domestic policy issues like immigration as being just like an actual war, perhaps we can get people to think of other things as being just like actual wars. Because wartime rhetoric has the advantage of casting one side as “faithful patriots” and the other side as seditious dissenters. Don’t like the idea that we might treat thousands of people fleeing violence and political corruption as a criminal gang? Well, we’re beyond that now. Now we’re at war. And when we’re at war, we need to stop debating and start supporting. Ultimately, it’s a massive, desperate, corrupt, and morally bankrupt attempt to force cloture on the entire issue of immigration. Once we’ve normalized war, and its weapons, in one arena of domestic policy, how do we go back?
The nineteenth-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once wrote that “war is simply a continuation of political discourse, with the addition of other means.” In Rickett’s case, it is the continuation of politics with the same means, because he’s using the military not to fight a war, but to alter — and fracture — our political discourse. He is 100% down with that plan. And squashing our ability to dissent? That’s a feature, not a bug, in the modern GOP in Nebraska and beyond.