Sunday, December 9, 2018

A General View About Generals

I believe Kori Schake wrote that one benefit of Trump appointing so many retired (and one active) general to key positions in the administration is that it might cause the public to be a bit more critical of American military leadership--that they will no longer idealize military leaders.  Have we gotten there yet?

With John Kelly finally on his way out, maybe, some folks are saying how he and his reputation have been diminished by being a part of the Trump administration.  Because of how much awful stuff has happened since Kelly became Chief of Staff, people are forgetting what an enthusiastic xenophobe he was as head of Department of Homeland Security.  Remember how ICE and CBP behaved when the Muslim ban was originally instituted?  Yeah, that is on Kelly.  When Kelly was appointed, my friends in the national security community who knew of Kelly's reputation as a general were not pleased.  Kelly might have had more opportunities to do awful things as part of a Trump Administration, but he was picked because he was awful.

Flynn?  The Obama Administration got rid of Flynn because he was and is very, very flawed. It is not as if Flynn showed up in Trump world and was corrupted. No, he was corrupt (an agent of two governments) before he was named National Security Adviser.

HR McMaster was more widely respected, although I had heard from folks inside DC that he was not only poorly prepared to operate in the beltway but tended to have such strong beliefs about things that he would word-smith documents that disagreed with his point of view.

Mattis?  People still pour lots of wishful thinking into the SecDef, hoping that he will protect the country and the world from Trump's instincts.  Maybe he has, but he has also acted much less like a SecDef and much more like a Marine General--minimizing press access and delegating way too much power to the commanders.  One example of the latter: the US has dropped more bombs on Afghanistan in the past year apparently than in any other year since 2008 (thanks Bombshell podcast).  One of the truisms about the US military--they don't want to fight any new wars but want to escalate any war they are currently in--seems to be playing out.

People might think that the up-or-out competitive process within the US armed forces leads to the best people becoming generals and admirals.  That depends on whether that competitive process rewards functional or dysfunctional behavior and thinking.  Does kick down, kiss up strategy work?  If so, then you might just get very flawed senior leadership.  I don't think all generals and admirals are awful.  I don't think all generals and admirals are wonderful.  I think most are decent human beings, but indecent ones (Kelly, Flynn) are perhaps not as unique as people think. 

The question now is whether Americans will become more critical of their military leadership. What I mean by critical is to be open-minded and willing to assess the behavior and outcomes, rather than blindly accepting anyone with stars on their shoulders as brilliant and wise.  To be fair, the US military has been asked to do things that they do poorly--build governments and nations.  But the stuff they are supposed to do well--sail without running into other ships, for instance--is not so hot these days.  I can't blame American military leadership for all of the problems associated with the Forever Wars, but they do have some responsibility.  All I ask is that we as citizens take some responsibility, too, by taking seriously what each of these senior officers adds and/or subtracts. 

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