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The Hazards of Military Worship

Posted on May 13, 2017

By Danny Sjursen / TomDispatch

  President Trump with Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Raymond Thomas, U.S. Special Operations Command commander. (Flickr / CC 2.0)

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Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

More, more, more.

I was guilty of it myself.  Commanding a small cavalry troop of about 85 soldiers in southwest Kandahar Province back in 2011, I certainly wanted and requested more: more troopers, more Special Forces advisers, more Afghan police, more air support, more supplies, more money, more ... everything.  Like so many others in Afghanistan back then, I wanted whatever resources would protect the guys in my unit and fend off the insurgent threat. No one, of course, asked me if the U.S. military should even be there, nor did I presume to raise the question.  I was, after all, just a captain dug into a tough fight in a dangerous district. 

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It’s funny, though, people sometimes ask me now, “What’s really going on in Afghanistan?”  They ask the same question about Iraq, where I led a unit back in 2006-2007.  I mean, the implication is: If you served over there, unlike those (liberal!) pundits and politicians who regularly mouth off on the subject, who would know better?  But I’ve learned over the years that what they don’t want to hear is my real answer to such questions, so I rarely bother to tell them that historians, analysts, and thoughtful critics, even ones who haven’t been within thousands of miles of our war zones, probably understand the “big picture” better than most soldiers. 

That’s the dirty little secret of America’s wars: despite the omniscient claims of some veterans, most soldiers see their version of war as if gazing through a straw at 30,000 feet. Combat and dedication to your unit and mission naturally steer you toward such tunnel vision.  And here’s the sad thing that no one wants to admit: that mantra applies as strongly to generals as to sergeants (and if you don’t believe that, just check out our wars of the last 15 years).  So it’s worrisome when president after president defers to and all too often hides behind the supposed wisdom of active and retired three- and four-star flag officers.

Don’t get me wrong, some of these guys can be impressive.  No one is perfect, but former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey was a gem with genuine scholarly and combat bona fides.  But consider him and a few others the exceptions that prove the rule.  Which is why civilian control of the military, and of the policymaking process that goes with military action, is not just a constitutional imperative but desirable for thoroughly practical reasons. Which, in turn, is why the makeup of the current administration—with an unprecedented number of generals in key positions—raises some serious questions.

And yet the problem is so much bigger than that.  Somehow—and this should be truly unnerving—Americans have gotten to a place where, it seems, they trust only soldiers.  In June 2016, for instance, a Gallup poll found that 73% of Americans had “quite a lot” of confidence in the military, versus 36% for the presidency and 6% for Congress.  Such disparities ought to inspire distress about the direction of our public institutions, but rarely do. 

Where the nation puts its money both reflects this reality and aggravates it.  Consider that in this fiscal year military spending exceeded $600 billion, or 12 times the State Department’s budget.  Worse still, the new president’s proposed budget would cut State by more than one-third—despite former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s quip that there are already more members of military bands than Foreign Service officers.

The Myth of (Infallible) Military Judgment

By now, it’s part of American lore that, facing a thorny problem or potential conflict abroad, a president should throw some stars at it.  If only generals were indeed pixie dust.  Historically speaking, though, since World War II, calling on the generals has often resulted in abject failure.  There’s plenty of evidence of that in the last 15 years of, at best, inconclusive war in the Greater Middle East, but first, let’s take a brief tour of military advice from the previous century’s crises.

MacArthur in Korea

In October 1950, just months after the Korean War began, President Harry Truman met General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the coalition forces in Korea, on Wake Island.  There, MacArthur assured the president of two things: that the Chinese would not intervene in the war and that the fighting would be over by Christmas.  A month later, hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteers” streamed across the Yalu River into northern Korea, sending MacArthur’s troops into headlong retreat.  Wrong once, the general promptly called for a massive U.S. troop escalation and the bombing of China, perhaps even nuclear attacks on that country.  Truman recoiled, fired the general, and opened negotiations, all while avoiding nuclear war.  And what happened to the twice-wrong MacArthur? In April 1951, with the war still underway—an armistice wouldn’t finally come until July 1953—he received a record-breaking 19-mile-long ticker-tape parade through New York City in which 3,249 tons of paper rained down on him.

Ike vs. the Generals

President Dwight Eisenhower so loved the Army that he asked his successor to return him to his five-star rank.  That way he’d be addressed as “General” rather than “Mr. President” in retirement.  Yet no president was more dismissive of the notion that military men, rather than civilians, know what’s best.  When a senator contended that the Air Force was better positioned than politicians to assess its own needs, Ike snapped back, “Bunk!” (He knew the Pentagon regularly overstated its case.)  As for sage military advice, Eisenhower dismissed General Mark Clark’s plans for an all-out assault in Korea as “madness” and sacked all his service chiefs after they “revolted” over a truncated defense budget he proposed. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Arthur Radford, even hinted that it might be “high time” to reexamine the taboo against using nuclear weapons in that war. Despite significant saber-rattling, Ike ultimately chose restraint.

In fact, he was notoriously skeptical of his generals’ advice and left office famously warning Americans about a growing “military-industrial complex.” The result of his presidency: the commanding general and hero of World War II held down defense spending, never used nukes, ended the bloody stalemate of a war in Korea, and—most importantly—avoided World War III.

Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs Deal With Cuba

The U.S. high command, like much of the American public, was obsessed with newly Communist Cuba. In April 1961, after the Bay of Pigs, a disastrous CIA-sponsored invasion by Cuban émigrés, the generals proposed a new plan, Operation Northwoods.  Approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it called for false-flag terrorist attacks on émigrés in Miami or on U.S. ships off the coast to drum up public support for a war against Cuba.  President John F. Kennedy refused.

Soon after came the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought humanity as close to extinction as it’s ever come.  When U.S. intelligence learned that the Soviet Union had stationed nuclear missiles on that island, just 90 miles from Florida, the government entered full-scale panic mode.  During deliberations on how to proceed, the Joint Chiefs—to a man—recommended air strikes against Cuba and a possible follow-on invasion.  Later, in a memo, they declared that they were prepared to use “nuclear weapons for limited war operations in the Cuban area.” 

Instead, Kennedy chose a blockade and negotiations.  The Russians responded by pulling their missiles out of Cuba and humankind lived to fight another day.  After one of those meetings, Kennedy remarked to an aide, “These brass hats [generals and admirals] have one great advantage. If we… do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.” Deeply disturbed by the advice of the Chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy later confided to some White House guests that “the first thing I’m going to tell my successor is to watch the generals, and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.” 

The Generals Grapple With Southeast Asia

In April 1961, the Joint Chiefs recommended that President Kennedy intervene to stop a “North Vietnamese-sponsored” Communist offensive in Laos through the use of air strikes and the introduction of U.S. ground forces in that country. When Kennedy asked the military chiefs what to do if the North Vietnamese Communists bombed Laotian airports as the U.S. flew in troops, one replied: “You [drop] a bomb on Hanoi, and you start using atomic weapons!” In fact, Army General Lyman Lemnitzer assured the president that “if we are given the right to use nuclear weapons, we can guarantee victory.”  Kennedy ruled against his generals on both counts.

Nevertheless, Kennedy and then President Lyndon Johnson foolishly agreed to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  In that war, admittedly, civilian policymakers were often the chief villains.  However, the generals were anything but blameless.  In 1967, as U.S. casualties increased and many Americans began to question the country’s involvement in the conflict, the senior commander, General William Westmoreland, assured Congress that there was, in a phrase that became infamous, “light at the end of the tunnel.”  When Vietcong guerillas attacked nearly every American base in South Vietnam in the January 1968 Tet Offensive, he had only one answer, a solution once again all-too-familiar to twenty-first-century Americans: more.  He requested 206,000 additional U.S. troops on top of the half-million-plus already in Vietnam.  President Johnson balked and began negotiations with North Vietnam.  It took—tragically—seven more bloody years, but eventually U.S. troops were extracted from what a near consensus of credible historians now conclude was an “unwinnable” war.

These examples obviously don’t imply that no general ever gave solid advice or that civilians weren’t perfectly capable of concocting their own hare-brained war-making schemes.  Rather, the point is to deflate—just a bit—the present all-too-popular notion of American military infallibility, or at least superiority. 

Above Scrutiny?

It’s dangerous to deify any public institution, let alone the country’s bureau of violence.  That’s not, in itself, a knock at the military to which I’ve dedicated my adult life, but a basic recognition of the gravity of all martial exertions.  No government agency is so holy that it shouldn’t be scrutinized, not in a real democracy.  Yet American society is headed in that very direction, along with its new president.  On Inauguration Day, finding himself in a crowded room with all the generals he had appointed to key positions in his administration around him, he declared emphatically, “I see my generals, generals that are going to keep us so safe.” 

We usually imagine the threat of military control over decision-making as an aspect of opaque autocracies, but it can also stem from the excessive exaltation of a “warrior” class in a democracy.  Consider the chilling comments of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer after a controversial raid in Yemen in January left Ryan Owens, a Navy SEAL, several al-Qaeda fighters, and a number of civilians, as well as several children, dead.  

Spicer took umbrage after a number of people, including the notoriously hawkish, wildly pro-military, former POW Senator John McCain, questioned the operation’s value.  The press secretary’s statement, however, went beyond standard partisan defensiveness and into genuinely treacherous territory when he asserted that “anyone who would suggest [the raid] is not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens.”  That represents a new standard for public debate on military operations.  Think of the implications: if a single serviceman dies, then all critical scrutiny of such actions is off the table, being by its very nature disrespectful and unpatriotic.  Taken to its logical conclusion, such an approach would leave no room for public protest or even the vestiges of an antiwar movement in response to future American war making.

Lest anyone imagine that Spicer simply misspoke, President Trump promptly upped the ante.  He tweeted: “Sen. McCain should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media. Only emboldens the enemy… our hero died on a winning mission.”  Take a moment to let that sink in: to question the effectiveness of a raid in a country with which the U.S. is not at war, which resulted in multiple military and civilian deaths—even when the critic is the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee—should now be considered “emboldening” the enemy.  Somebody pinch me. 

Generally, however, that raid led mainly to endless praise for both Chief Petty Officer Owens and the U.S. military.  In fact, no matter the situation, the carnage involved, or the decision-making behind it, the rhetoric of praise for America’s “warriors” has become a commonplace of our national life.

In fact, we military professionals ought to be confident enough to weather genuine scrutiny of both our decision-making and our acts.  The danger is this: while we’re caught up in the countless “thanks-for-your-service” platitudes, upgraded airline seating, ever larger flags flying o’er sporting events, and other forms of hollow soldier-worship and militarized “patriotism,” the nation may be losing something precious: the right to dissent.


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