Monday, December 31, 2018

Overrating Generals, a 2018 Spew Theme

The good news of the Trump Attrition of 2018 is that, unless Trump appoints another senior retired or active officer to replace those who have left, I will be posting less about overrated officers.  In 2018, H.R. McMaster retired, James Mattis resigned in protest and had his term ended two months shorter than planned, and John Kelly is on his way out.

Last night, a retired Canadian general asked if there were any generals I liked:
My first response was: selection effect.  That is, that those who were most prominent lately were those elevated into key positions by Donald Trump. And since everything Trump touches turns to shit and since he would likely pick officers who might look good in a uniform but not be well equipped for their positions, the outcomes would not be great.  Mattis comes off the best because he had a vibrant cult of personality before going into this position, because SecDef was far closer to his expertise than National Security Adviser was to Flynn or McMaster or Chief of Staff was to Kelly, and because Mattis was the least bad.  We can believe that he held the line against even worse things from happening, but that is mostly wishful thinking.  Until we get solid evidence that any of these generals did that, I will be skeptical. 
McMaster?  I had heard from friends inside the national security community that he was one to scrub analyses until he got the conclusions he wanted.  He had very little DC experience, and, damn it, he was still a serving officer when he was sent out to justify Trump's policies--not a great look at all. 
Kelly?  A xenophobe through and through, now seeking to distance himself from kids in cages and all that.  He was awful as DHS Secretary, and he did not manage the White House well either.  One can blame Trump for being impossible to discipline, sure, but Kelly might have been chief of staff of various military units, but no experience for this most political office. 
Oh, and Flynn.... was no longer NSA, but he was a pivotal former general for much of 2018.

My second response is that there might be something broken in the US military's promotion systems when folks like Kelly and Flynn rise to the top.  Maybe folks are rewarded for kissing up and kicking down (Tommy Franks?). 

My third response was to consider distance a bit. Those senior officers that I have met have mostly been impressive--which means I am a fan of many Canadian senior officers including most of the Chiefs of Defence Staff I have met (especially Vance and Natynzyck), those who ran Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command/Joint Operations Command, and those who did time in Afghanistan (Thompson, Leslie, Devlin, Noonan, Lacroix, Grant, Hainse, LaRoche, Lessard, Milner).  Perhaps meeting these folks caused me to be less critical?  Well, maybe not since I am omitting from this list other senior officers I met who did not impress me much.  Also, Vance knows to expect "pejorative" questions from me when he speaks at various events.

My fourth response was to list senior American officers who mostly impress me: past Chairmans Dempsey and Mulllen, past SACEURs Stavridis, Craddock; ones who I served under while on the Joint Staff such as Cuculo. Formica, and Abizaid.

To be clear, I tend to be most critical of the automatic veneration of folks who have stars on their shoulders.  Yes, they attained high rank, which might mean that they are great leaders, but it also might mean they happened to survive a process that can be gamed.  We need to evaluate people based not on their status, whether it is four-star general or endowed professor, but on what they say and what they do.  I try never to pull rank in an argument--that I am a full professor so respect what I say--and I don't think that those who have attained high rank should go uncriticized or should be automatically considered to be smart or wise.  We have seen too many crappy people at the highest levels of militaries, academia, business and elsewhere to be uncritical just because someone has achieve some status.

I fully expect my 2019 to be a highly critical one--Trump and his people are awful and will do much that is worthy of criticism.  Fewer of those people will be those who were generals or admirals, and that is a good thing.  That they will be replaced with people who are worse is almost assured, but at least they will not be automatically adored due to the uniform they used to wear.

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