Within the American political system, a polarized celebrity culture conditioned to respond to emotional buttons, clichés and slogans, military uniforms and badges have acquired astonishing power. But Obama might think twice before attaching too much importance to the trappings of military glory. A life spent in hierarchical, rule-bound, tightly controlled military organizations is not necessarily the best preparation for accurately judging the fluid world of politics at home and abroad.
More important, nowhere in the Constitution or in any other public document that frames the government of the United States is there mention that the president, a senator, a secretary of defense or any other federal official should have served in the armed forces. Military service can be ennobling, but there is no evidence that military service confers greater moral authority on a soldier over matters pertaining to war and peace.
Perhaps this explains why Americans automatically blame politicians for whatever is wrong — and politicians are rarely blameless. However, the record shows that whereas bad political judgment in war can often be rescued through effective military leadership, the reverse is rarely true. It’s why high command in wartime requires people of the highest caliber and character. Such people, like Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman in the Civil War, John Pershing in World War I, and George Patton and Douglas MacArthur in World War II, tend to be demanding, sometimes difficult for politicians to control, and often unpredictable; but without such people, regardless of the resources available, success is impossible.
Unfortunately, the George W. Bush administration always exhibited a marked aversion to advancing men of character to the most senior posts in a way not seen since the days of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. If they had, events might have turned out very differently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s because such men would have fought the administration over its culture of torture and abuse in relation to Muslim detainees, behavior that has betrayed American values, cost us our moral authority and done us incalculable damage internationally.
Instead, the Bush administration opted for biddable corporate men who followed orders, pushed the party line, lied and dissembled where necessary.
The most disturbing example of moral gutlessness occurred when Ambassador Paul Bremer announced the decision to disband the very Iraqi Army which the top U.S. Army generals had planned to reconstitute and use to restore order. A minority of generals — John Abizaid, for example — who composed the U.S. Army leadership in Iraq knew it was a disastrous decision that virtually guaranteed the most appalling consequences. But did he or any of the generals stand up and oppose the decision or threaten to resign en masse, and speak out publicly? No, they folded — and eagerly accepted the promotions that followed.
Such moral cowardice is inexcusable. In the final analysis, the generals turned a limited military intervention to remove the corrupt leadership of a weak, incapable despot into a destructive war of occupation waged against Iraq’s Sunni Arab population.
Then, they replaced Saddam Hussein’s regime with a corrupt Shi’ite Islamist Arab government with ties to Iran.
No less disappointing was the readiness of the retired generals to defend the incompetence and failure of their chosen successors by misinforming the American people about the true conditions on the ground in Iraq. Thanks to their disinformation campaign on television and radio, the disaster was concealed from the American public until the strategic consequences were so negative the only way to reduce U.S. losses was to buy off the insurgent enemy with bags of U.S. cash under the guise of the surge.
Despite the desperate need in our republic for accountability from everyone, including generals, the demand for accountability has been frustrated. Journalists who covet access cannot write stories if the generals and the Bush administration bar them from doing so. And politicians find it easier to attack each other. But the truth is, if the active and retired generals were corporate officers with a track record like Iraq, the shareholders would be up in arms, and the generals would have been fired en masse long ago.
No, Obama needs no help from former generals or from anyone sporting medals to win in November.
Douglas Macgregor is a former U.S. Army colonel and a decorated Gulf War combat veteran who writes for the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, Washington.