Generals Can't Be Trusted
General Stanley McChrystal wants 40,000 more troops for Afghanistan. Lee Siegel on why presidents should be skeptical of such requests from people who are, at heart, warriors.
There is a reason why the nation’s commander in chief is a civilian and not a military man. The generals can’t be trusted.
That is to say, they can’t be trusted to assess a political situation in anything but the most aggressive military terms. And they are not averse to disobeying orders or even lying about the situation on the ground to achieve what they believe to be, with ironclad conviction, the only objectives worth striving for. Think MacArthur, Patton, Westmoreland.
Because they are born and trained to fight, generals' prescriptions will always be belligerent. Escalation is their middle name.
They may be honorable men, and they may be courageous men, but the most ambitious and powerful generals are warriors above all. Their instinct is to hold their ground rather than retrench, advance rather than retreat, intimidate rather than negotiate. Generals make war the way birds fly, singers sing, and architects build. Because they are born and trained to fight, their prescriptions will always be belligerent. Escalation is their middle name.
• Ted Sorensen: America’s Next Unwinnable War• Walter Russell Mead: Why We Need Deals With Shady People to Win in Afghanistan • Christopher Buckley: It’s Time For Us to Leave Afghanistan • Michael Smerconish: Musharraf on Fixing Pakistan and the Afghan Surge It’s strange how naïve the mainstream media is about the warlike nature of the generals. Last Saturday, a greatly impressed New York Times article about revisionist interpretations of the 15th-century Battle of Agincourt observed that the revisionism had made its way into the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, created by General David Petraeus, and “adopted in 2006 by the United States Army and Marines… smack in the middle of the debate over whether to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.” The article went on to say that “the manual’s prime conclusion is the assertion that insurgencies cannot be defeated without protecting and winning over the general population.” Sure enough, a few days later, a wide-eyed David Brooks concluded a column worrying that Obama doesn’t have the guts to keep fighting in Afghanistan by echoing the earlier article, writing admiringly that “Gen. Stanley McChrystal has said that counterinsurgency is “an argument to win the support of the people.”
What the article didn’t say, or even seem to know, was that the very same strategy of “protecting and winning over the general population" was stated military policy during the Vietnam War—it was called “hearts and minds.” The result—it is almost sardonically proverbial—was to end up destroying much of the general population in order to save it.
But, then, “hearts and minds” was the earnest phrase of a civilian, President Lyndon Johnson. You could not blame the generals for interpreting the idea of winning over the population in military terms and translating it into “subjugating the population.” That’s what generals do. (McChrystal, who has been accused of complicitness with torture in Afghanistan, may well have just such surprising ideas about how to “win the support of the people.”) In fact, the concept of total war was invented by an American general during the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman—a policy whose horrendous consequences reverberate to this day in the rift between “red” and “blue” America. In this case, Sherman had the blessing of his president, Abraham Lincoln—Obama’s idol—who was smitten with his generals.
When, earlier this month, McChrystal publicly rejected the idea of narrowing the war effort in Afghanistan, some people made the comparison between him and Douglas MacArthur. Just as McChrystal seemed to have questioned White House policy, MacArthur publicly criticized President Truman’s desire to keep the conflict in Korea from expanding into war with China. But you didn’t have to accept this somewhat hysterical analogy to be troubled by McChrystal’s audacity in influencing political policy.
MacArthur is a case study in the generals’ habit of mind. Before he challenged Truman, he flouted his superiors and launched raids deep into North Korea just shy of the Chinese border. As a result, Chinese troops had a pretext to enter North Korea, and they did, wreaking havoc on U.N. troops and upsetting the balance of the war. Ask the lowliest grunt on the battlefield: Not only do the generals often make decisions that needlessly put the men under their command at risk, but their tactical choices often have the direst results.
Or consider MacArthur’s contemporary, General George Patton, another natural-born warrior who was unable to see politics in anything but starkly military terms. Just as MacArthur hungered for a decisive war with China, Patton wanted to take on the Red Army at the end of the Second World War and drive straight to Moscow. If he’d had his druthers, American troops might now be worrying about IEDs in Poland.
Perhaps the most chilling general, given the decision about troops that Obama has to make and his reliance on reports from the military, was William Westmoreland, the head of U.S. Military Operations and then Army Chief of Staff during the Vietnam War. From the beginning of the war, Westmoreland sent along glowing reports of American military progress in Vietnam, later being accused of deliberately underestimating North Vietnamese troop strength in order to bolster Americans’ support of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. (A libel suit that Westmoreland famously filed against CBS, which made the claim, was settled out of court.)
Whatever Clausewitz meant by his famous dictum,“War is a continuation of politics by other means,” it’s clear that he considered the objectives of politicians and their generals to be the same. They’re not. Beautifully tuned war-machines, like Achilles, the generals will always propose—generically, with slight regard to context—that force is the solution to the problem of force. They are merely following the nature of their special gift. But we, who are uneasy with killing and being killed, don’t have to follow them.
Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently,Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.