Friday, April 14, 2006

Night of the Generals

Angry generals protesting Rumsfeld at the front entrance of the Pentagon

THE FACTS. It's pretty certain a lot of the milbloggers are going to get upset with us about this one. But we have to say it. We have a lot of respect for the troops in the field, but maybe not quite so much for the generals. In our reading of history, generals are mostly assholes, except when they're admirals, which is altogether worse. There are sometimes a few generals -- but not always -- who know how to fight, and win, and respond brilliantly to unexpected circumstances. Most of the time, though, generals are the beneficiaries of a kind of organization in which they are guaranteed to be surrounded by yes-men who depend upon them absolutely if they are ever to become generals themselves. Which means that generals, by and large, are the survivors of a yes-man competition they could have lost at any time by one distressingly candid objection to a superior officer. Which also means that most generals are clones of George McClellan, great organizers, administrators, and self-promoters whose egos far outweigh their talents or usefulness in time of war. A common feature of such armchair generals is their constant conviction that whatever resources they're offered, it's never enough. Never enough to engage the enemy, never enough to defeat the enemy, never enough to pacify the enemy once he has been defeated in the field. It is always, to them, much much better to do nothing instead and insist that all your junior officers congratulate you every day for the brilliance of your inaction. Every day they stall and equivocate and counsel patience, their self esteem increases. They come to fancy themselves great thinkers, politicians, statesmen, peacemakers. Think Colin Powell or Wesley Clark. What they are is bureaucrats.

Obviously, the rewards of winning the yes-man competition are great, even if (or especially if) you're a mediocrity. Troops in the field are rightly admired for serving their country. Generals, on the other hand, tend to self-righteously admire themselves for being so well served by their country. They are endlessly flattered by juniors, ferried from place to place gratis, and have free rein to enjoy the perks of a U.S. military base network that could easily enable them to play golf for free in every state in the union in 50 days.

This is not a new observation. Research the New York Times's habitual view of generals when they aren't trying to use them to bring down a President they don't like. They have no use for them. The very title general has been synonymous with the word 'liar' to the mainstream press since Vietnam. Until today.

So what's different about today? We have a bunch of major generals -- retired, and therefore not subject to military discipline, inflated with all the omniscient ego of a soldier who doesn't have to engage the enemy ever again -- who object to the absolute authority of a civilian who didn't spend thirty years kissing the asses of those who happened to graduate ahead of him at West Point. And they have a terrible story to tell about how their brilliant advice was rudely rebuffed by a Secretary of Defense serving at the pleasure of a President who actually dared to go to war. What could be awfuller than that?

Here's what could be awfuller than that. A corps of generals who could run roughshod over the civilian command of the military. All we've learned from the temper tantrum of the past few days is that generals don't like to be told what to do. Particularly by a Secretary of Defense. Today the NYT seems to agree with them. But ask yourselves this: If we hadn't renamed the office in the peace-loving aftermath of WWII and if it were still titled Secretary of War, how would you feel about generals wanting to bully the Secretary? But the dirty secret is, they didn't want to take orders from men in mufti even back then. They've always thought  they were above that. They aren't, but it's the danger they've posed to every government in history from Rome onwards. The absolute supremacy of the civilian government over the military is one of the great points of genius in our Constitution. It's why the government of the United States has never been seized by a general, not even Douglas MacArthur. But, by the way, does anyone remember the name of Truman's Secretary of Defense? No. Truman had to fire MacArthur himself, because his SecDef was too much of a wimp to do it himself.

We will all remember Rumsfeld's name. On the whole, that's a damned good thing.

Sorry, milbloggers.

CLOSING NOTE. Please don't overlook the complementary entry (posted mere minutes ago) just below this one about the great new Neil Young song calling for impeachment of the President. I'm sure we can all agree how important and significant it is that both generals and rock stars want this administration brought to heel. How would it be possible to find people who have more empathy for and understanding of ordinary citizens? Scroll down for the music scoop of the year.

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