The Generals Are Failing Their Soldiers—and America

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. (Evan Vucci / AP)

September 2006. Iraq was falling apart. Nearly 100 American troops were being killed each month. The war seemed hopeless, unwinnable (because it ultimately was). So the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Peter Pace, convened a “council of colonels’ – purportedly some of the brightest minds in the military – to recommend new policies. Only three, reportedly, had any combat experience in Iraq, but still, these guys were sharp. The group debated endlessly and eventually reached an impasse. They had three separate proposals and the group generally divided along service lines. Some Air Force and Navy guys wanted a phased withdrawal – the “Go Home” option – but their ideas were promptly dismissed. Other (mostly Army and Marine officers) wanted to “engage in prolonged conflict – the “Go Long” option. Finally, the most prominent army officers – including America’s current National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster – wanted to “Go Big” and heavily reinforce the troops in Iraq with a “surge.” You can guess which side won out.

George W. Bush liked the can-do optimism of the “surge” team and doubled down. Violence briefly dropped, a couple thousand more American troops died, and the military promptly declared victory. We’re still dealing with the fallout.

That generation of colonels became today’s generals. The whole worldview of most senior officers is built on a fable, a myth: the surge worked. The reality is much messier. We’re still in Iraq (and Syria, and Afghanistan, and…everywhere). Still, our generals have a ready response. You see, the story goes, the problem is we didn’t go big enough or long enough and the damn liberals (like Obama!) pulled out the troops too soon. The “surge myth” provides our generals a comforting counterfactual, a road not taken, whereby the military could’ve-would’ve-should’ve won, but were denied victory.

So it stands, in 2018, that instead of a sensible “go home” option, America’s generals and civilian policymakers have handed us the worst of all worlds – a combo of “go big” and “go long.” Forever war.

Let’s be clear: most generals and admirals are “yes-men.” They’ve made a career of placating bosses and telling superiors exactly what they want to hear. After all, how do you think they got all those stars? Problem is: once they become senior flag officers, the “boss” is often a civilian Beltway insider in Washington, and those guys, well, what they want is more war, more bombs, and more endless interventions. And the generals? They’ve happily complied for coming up on 17 years now. Which would be all well and good if they were playing a board game (like Risk!) or a computer simulation, but these are real kids being shuttled from one indecisive theater to another like so many toy soldiers. No one wins, of course…except the military-industrial complex. There’s the tragedy.

Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and (ostensible) liberals alike, have stood at the helm of America’s post 9/11 forever wars. Neither mainstream party has the guts (or the compunction) to pump the breaks and pursue a less grandiose foreign policy. I, like so many others, bet big on Obama and, ultimately, lost a huge hand. The solutions aren’t in Washington, and, unfortunately, given the end of the draft and a castrated antiwar movement, the answers aren’t in the streets either.

Who, then, could put a stop to the madness? The generals, that’s who. This is a scary time for the republic, one that would have the Founders rolling in their graves, whereby Americans only trust the military among various public institutions. That ain’t healthy but it’s the reality we inhabit. So, basically, the American republic needs a whole bunch of generals to make known their dissent, slam their stars on someone’s desk, and threaten to resign if Washington doesn’t dial down these countless interventions and turn to Congress for a real declaration of war (or peace!). It’s a long shot, sure, but it just might be crazy enough to work.

Don’t count on it, though. Odds are the generals will carry on with their optimistic, can-do, delusional talk of “turning corners,” and “breaking stalemates” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and who knows where else. I’ve listened to one general after another speak to my soldiers since 2001, and they’ve all pretty much got one thing in common. There’s barely a hint of creativity or constructive critique in the whole bunch. Heck, this is a generation of generals who’ve known nothing but more war and more stalemate in perpetuity. They’ve been peddling the same tired old failed strategies to witless civilian policymakers for decades. It’s all they know!

Got a problem somewhere in the Greater Middle East? Well, the generals have a (distinctly military) recommendation for you: surge troops, advise and assist local forces, surge again, rinse and repeat! And when it doesn’t work out (it never does), have no fear – that general will have retired and grabbed a gig on the board of some defense contractor, and, guess what? Some slightly younger general, who just happened to previously work for the first guy, is now ready with the same advice: how ‘bout a surge?

The system of promotion and the very culture of America’s military is inherently flawed. Senior officers rarely ask questions because it hurts their careers to think critically. For all their protestations to the contrary (we want soldier-scholars), neither the military hierarchy nor civilian leadership want critical thinkers. Mark Perry, in his recent book, The Pentagon’s Wars, puts his finger on the core issue. “The inability [of generals] to act,” he claims, “flow[s] from a system where disagreement, or even reasoned dissent, [is] viewed as inappropriate, or worse.” Welcome to the U.S. Army!

Still, my fantasy isn’t completely unprecedented. Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s National Security Adviser, did his dissertation and even wrote a book – Dereliction of Duty – on the failure of senior officers to stand up to LBJ on the Vietnam War. McMaster, then just a middling major teaching (as I later would) in the West Point History Department, wrote of Vietnam that “the president was lying, and he expected the [Joint] Chiefs to lie as well or, at least, to withhold the whole truth.” McMaster concluded that the war was “lost in Washington;” which I find a dubious assertion since I’m quite sure the Vietnamese had something to do with it. Nevertheless, in pointing out the failings of the generals to speak truth to power, what he called their reinforcing failings of “arrogance, weakness, and lying in the pursuit of self-interest,” McMaster was dead on. He and I disagree about what the generals should have recommended – he thinks more troops might’ve done the trick, I’m certain the US should’ve never been in Vietnam – but we both feel the generals and admirals should’ve resigned in protest.

McMaster is a genuine scholar and one of the brightest officers the army has fielded in a generation. Still, a year into the Trump administration, the man, and his entire peer group of generals, utterly disappoint. The new National Security Strategy all but declares a new Cold War with Russia and China and ratchets up tensions with North Korea and Iran. The National Security Adviser, the Joint Chiefs, and senior theater commanders are now – at least according to every public statement we’ve seen – all in for expanded interventions, more mini-surges, and, frankly, indefinite war in countless locales. Therein lies the irony: a generation of flag officers read and, ostensibly, internalized the message of McMaster’s brave book. Yet now, 17 years into these failing, fruitless wars, not one has the courage to “call BS,” and turn in their stars.

Nor should we let these guys (and they’re mostly guys) off the hook. To a man, they know better. They’ve all attended the military’s various Command and General Staff and War Colleges. Some of the brighter bulbs even studied at the prestigious US Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS). They’ve spent years reading about the strategy trinity. It even has a nifty formula for the knuckle draggers among them: Means + Ways = Ends. Simply put, in order to balance the proverbial three-legged stool, the Objective (Ends) must be achievable, and meeting that objective requires sufficient resources (means) combined with effective methods (ways). Makes sense, right?

Make no mistake, most of these generals know, I mean viscerally know, that the objectives set for the US military – “defeat terror,” “build democracy,” “stabilize Afghanistan,” and whatever else – are nowhere near achievable. They also know that the current all-volunteers force has neither the resources (like manpower) nor magical tactics (ways) to pull off the miraculous. And still they’re silent. So I ask again: where are the brave military voices ready to tell the one fundamental, if inconvenient, truth about today’s wars – the strategic trinity is bunk! The ends: unachievable and so much fantasy; the means: utterly insufficient; and, the ways: uncreative and lackluster at best.

So let me say it one last time: the generals and admirals – the sharper ones anyway – know this! They realize the “ends” don’t match the “means” and there aren’t any “ways” available to correct that stunning mismatch. Yet on they stagger, praising the (genuine) courage of their troops, maintaining a cordial, can-do cheerfulness, and shuttling more soldiers into unwinnable quagmires. Thus, they please their masters – Trump, Obama, Bush, it doesn’t matter who presides – and do what they do best: achieve the next promotion and feed personal ambition. Of course no one says that (even a shameless self-promoter like Petraeus wouldn’t be so blatant) out loud. We military men all share the same defect, the original sin of the soldier – self-righteousness. I’m guilty too. We’re told and tell ourselves we are special so often that we start to believe the mythos. We’re not ambitious, we’re selfless; we serve not ourselves, but our nation. Of course, the truth is far more complex and the motivations of human behavior rather gray.

Generals aren’t superheroes and, God knows, neither is this lowly, decidedly mediocre major. Still, we can and should expect better from our nation’s senior military advisors. My favorite general from this generation, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, demonstrated – in his own small way – what’s possible. Pressured by Republican hawks and even influential voices in the Obama administration, to do more and get involved in the Syrian Civil War, Dempsey ever so subtly served the nation’s best interests. He neither sad “no” outright, nor responded with a “yes, sir, can do,” but rather explained in writing the options available and the severe costs and acute risks of each escalation in Syria. His warning was persuasive, at least to some in Washington, and ultimately President Obama – at least briefly – avoid further interventions. Young men and women who would undoubtedly have died, didn’t! In part we can thank Martin Dempsey, the curious career soldier who once taught English Literature at West Point and regularly serenaded his troops with his tenor voice. He ain’t perfect – none of us are – but there’s a lesson in this man’s decisions.

Sadly, it’s unlikely any of Trump’s top generals will follow the Dempsey example or, more forcefully, publicly threaten resignation. There just aren’t very many courageous critical thinkers at the pinnacle of the military profession. The generals select their own, deciding which colonels join their exclusive club. This is a formula for nepotism and sycophancy, not creativity or intellectual diversity. Sure, some military dissenters and free thinkers populate the publishing world, but they almost exclusively wear the middling ranks of major or lieutenant colonel. More likely, they’ve already left the service. There’s a reason why such folks don’t wear general’s stars, and it comes down to a broken military culture.

Generals select their own; they also punish and promote internally. Captains, Lieutenants, and Sergeants take the fall for tactical or ethical errors in judgment. Generals, at worst, quietly retire or, sometimes, even get promoted. Back in the bad old days of 2007 Iraq, when Baghdad was on fire and no one, it seemed, had any solutions, one Lieutenant Colonel, Paul Yingling, had the gumption to publish a scathing article in the official Armed Forces Journal. “The intellectual and moral failures common to America’s general [officers]…constitute a crisis,” he wrote. As it stands, he concluded, “A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” That remains, with America now having lost or losing several wars, a staggering, discomfiting truth. Yingling made it to the rank of full colonel – itself a near miracle – and now teaches high school social studies for about one-third of his previous pay. Courage isn’t always rewarded.

And so, in 2018, after 17 years’ worth of generals who saluted, obeyed orders, promised victory, and delivered nothing of the sort, this author doubts anything substantial will change. It seems all that’s now on offer from our senior officers are the “go big,” option, the “go long” option, or some perverse hybrid of the two.

So the generals will fail us, as they tend to do, and the U.S. military will go big, go long, and go forever.

To where, you ask? Nowhere fast.

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.

Maj. Danny Sjursen /
Maj. Danny Sjursen
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Maj. Danny Sjursen

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