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Send Gen. Honoré to civics class

By Col. Paul Yingling, Special to CNN
This 1830  painting shows an elderly James Madison, "Father of the U.S. Constitution" and the fourth U.S. president.
This 1830 painting shows an elderly James Madison, "Father of the U.S. Constitution" and the fourth U.S. president.
  • Col. Paul Yingling rejects Gen. Honoré's op-ed on sending Congress members to boot camp
  • He says Honoré is not really advocating a coup d'etat, but is objecting to partisan rancor
  • But founders, Constitution hold that democracy thrives on combativeness, he says
  • Yingling, who served five tours in combat, says Honoré does not speak for all veterans

Editor's note: Col. Paul Yingling is a professor of security studies and deputy director of the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany (CNN) -- Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré first gained national attention commanding the military's response to Hurricane Katrina. He's back in the spotlight again, arguing that members of the U.S. Congress lack a sense of "shared purpose." His solution is to send them to internment camps.

Here are some quotes from his opinion piece: "It's time to get draconian ... time to load our elected officials on troop planes and send them to Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

"Put them in tents with no air conditioning, have Army drill sergeants teach them teamwork and physical sacrifice. When they recognize their responsibility to the people of America, they can return to D.C., their upscale restaurants, and military plane trips, as though they were royalty."

Taken at face value, Gen. Honoré is advocating a coup d'etat. Neither the president nor the Army has the authority to intern people based on their political beliefs or behaviors, let alone members of Congress.

Col. Paul Yingling
Col. Paul Yingling

Honoré's "draconian" measures violate every conceivable constitutional principle, from due process to the separation of powers. While using the innocuous term "boot camp," Honoré is actually advocating interning members of Congress for the purpose of political re-education. "Boot camp," or basic training, has a distinct military purpose: to transform civilian volunteers into effective service members responsive to the lawful orders of a chain of command.

Honoré's re-education facility at Camp Shelby has no such military purpose. Instead, its purpose is to change the political beliefs and behaviors of popularly elected civilian officials. Honoré would release members of Congress from internment only when they "recognized their responsibility to America." Honoré does not specify who will make this judgment, but it certainly cannot be the voters. Perhaps Honoré expects the president to make this judgment, or perhaps it will be left to military officers. In either case, the moment that the U.S. military starts teaching Congress about "teamwork and physical sacrifice," the rule of law in America will have come to an end.

A more plausible explanation is that the general didn't mean what he said. Relying on the colorful bombast that made him a media darling during the Katrina debacle, Honoré may be speaking apocryphally. He doesn't really intend to force members of Congress to live in tents in Camp Shelby. Instead, he's lamenting the partisan rancor in Washington when compared with the discipline of America's military forces.

Still, it's clear that Honoré misunderstands the ideas that underpin the U.S. Constitution. James Madison, rightly called "Father of the U.S. Constitution," did not expect members of Congress to embrace Honoré's "shared purpose." Instead, he expected vigorous debate on the very topics under discussion in Washington today.

Madison and the other founders knew that Americans held different views on the proper size, scope and purposes of government. They anticipated the formation of factions organized around these views and developed mechanisms to cope with the resulting disagreements.

In fact, Madison specifically rejected Honoré's "draconian" approach. Writing in Federalist 10, he said:

"There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes and the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving every citizen the same opinions, the same passions and the same interests.

"It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an ailment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish for the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency."

Unlike Honoré, Madison understood the folly of trying to give every citizen the same opinions, passions, interests or purposes. Instead, Madison created a system to control the effects of faction, harnessing the tensions in America's diversity for the public good.

Our founders gave us a large, diverse republic governed by majority rule, subject to checks and balances designed to protect individual liberties. Politicians may bring extreme views to government, but no one leader or branch of government can impose those views on the country. Under our Constitution, dramatic change is difficult, and most reforms are slow, noisy and messy, just as intended.

The United States is engaged in an important debate about the proper size, scope and purposes of government. Along with the grandstanding that is part and parcel of politics, we are examining alternative arguments about the most fundamental questions of political life.

None of us knows where these debates will lead, but it's certain that the result will be a compromise among intelligent and patriotic people who simply see the world differently. That outcome is far better than any sense of "shared purpose" learned at Gen. Honoré's camp in Mississippi.

Finally, it's important to question Gen. Honoré's assertion that he speaks for "most veterans." I do not know where he acquired this authority, but I am certain that he does not speak for me.

I have served five tours in combat, including three in Iraq; I find the general's views to be contrary to my oath as an officer and repugnant to my ideals as a citizen. If the general plans on sending Congress to Camp Shelby, he'll need to send me, too.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Yingling and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.