Two examples of our soldier-scholar generals have a lot to say about the men who have risen to lead our military these days. They also reflect how politicized that leadership has become.
Gen. David Petraeus, the most honored among the generals who fought our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan retired and was appointed as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He fell from grace when it was revealed he had had an affair with his biographer. He resigned and a lifetime of service to the nation was forever besmirched by his moral failure and lack of judgment.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, leading the war in Afghanistan was brought down by a Rolling Stone article that reported indiscreet comments by members of his staff. He tendered his resignation to the President and retired from service.
Both represented what most people regard as the best and the brightest of the men currently leading our military these days. Even so, I recalled General Douglas MacArthur, a hero of World War II and a man behind the strategic and successful attack on Inchon during the Korean conflict. He was sacked by President Truman when his ego and ambition got the best of him while advocating widening the conflict to attack Red China. An earlier general, George B. McClellan, General of the Army of the Potomac with similar presidential ambitions, was sacked by Lincoln when he failed to vigorously pursue the Civil War.
Politics has always played a role in the waging of war and defense. For a very long time, Americans elected either generals or men who had led troops in battles of one sort or another. In recent times, we have had a draft-dodger, Bill Clinton, as President and the current Commander-in-Chief has never served in uniform, nor gives any indication he has any knowledge of military affairs. He is free to over-ride the advice of his generals.
Gen. McChrystal is making the rounds on television talk shows promoting his new book, “My Share of the Task.” He resigned because his role as a leader had been compromised by the Rolling Stone article and because a leader must take responsibility for the actions of his aides even if he was not a party to them.
The son of a West Pointer, a general, McChrystal wrote “I was raised to respect soldiers, leaders, and heroes. They were what I wanted to be. They were why I was there.” The man he respected and revered most was his father.
His autobiography is long and detailed, not the easiest reading experience, but one that reveals what brings young men (and now women) to West Point to pursue a career in the U.S. Army. The same holds true for those who enter Annapolis and the Air Force Academy. This is where they learn the history and strategies of war.
America is at a crossroads of determining whether to downsize our military—at this point in response to a draconian reduction in its budget that may or may not be reversed by Congress. We have done this before. The success of World War II came only after that war had been going on in Europe since 1939. Only after the homeland was attacked by Japan in 1941 America was all in. It is as if we have learned nothing from this and other elements of our history.
The first priority of government is the defense of the nation and we are getting ready to leave ourselves defenseless in a dangerous world in the wake of the continued hollowing out of our armed forces.
The Air Force’s fleet of planes; some of which have been in service since the Vietnam War. Others have flown thousands of sorties in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our Navy has fewer ships than we had at the end of World War I. Between those in for repairs and those in port for R&R that leaves about 90 vessels to patrol the seven seas to protect and project American interests. Our services are staffed by volunteers; a small army of civilians ensures that the service personnel are free to concentrate on their mission. Sequestration cuts would force the Pentagon to initiate monthly furloughs among 791,000 civilian force.
Under agreements made by President Bush our military is out of Iraq and that nation is wracked by attacks from insurgent radical Islamists, often aided by Iran. In Afghanistan, after approving a limited surge against the Taliban, President Obama has made it clear he intends to withdraw our troops by the end of 2014 if not sooner.
Americans are understandably asking whether either conflict was worth the blood and treasure they consumed. There are more than a few military observers who think we have failed in Afghanistan just as the Russians learned to their regret.
Meanwhile, we are led by a White House filled with people who are reluctant to link the words “Islam” and “terrorism” despite 9/11 and its aftermath. We are led by a President who says all the right things about terrorism, but whose policies will allow Islamic terrorists to take control of nations like Afghanistan and possibly Iraq where we fought to free them from despotism. The current administration is reluctant to be drawn into conflicts that might expand, such as Libya or the new conflict in Mali where the French are taking the lead.
Both Generals Petraeus and McChrystal were regarded as the masters of counter-terrorism on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the new way wars are fought these days. It is long and slow, and it is a response to the rise of fanatical Islam throughout the Middle East and in other parts of the world such as the northern tier of Africa and elsewhere on that continent. It is made more difficult by the corrupt leadership in those nations.
As McChrystal notes in his book, “After Iraq, ‘nation building’ was an unpopular term, but our assessment had concluded that Afghanistan’s inherent weakness in governance was the core of the problem. Security had to come first, or else the government could not function. But absent legitimate governance, real progress was impossible.” Real progress has proven impossible. We have spent billions to train and equip an Afghani army and police. Their allegiance to the government is unreliable at best.
What is never mentioned is the way U.S. generals were transitioned in and out of Afghanistan every year, never there long enough to do more than deal with the bureaucracy back in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.
Two of our generals are now removed from positions of leadership, one through a personal failing and the other through the happenstance of an article in a leftist publication. This hardly seems the way to wage war abroad or to protect the nation at home.
© Alan Caruba, 2013