Bash the Generals

In 2003, I found myself in a Kuwaiti desert, preparing for battle, foiled by a weather slide that wouldnt print. Id led my detachment of tactical intelligence analysts only three months but had really been preparing for combat leadership since taking my Oath of Office almost seven years earlier. Id pushed myself to run faster than the Army standards for males, to identify traditionally enemy vehicles on sight, and to immerse myself in Middle Eastern history, culture, and basic languages. Now sand was invading every crevice of body and machine, and all my expensive training was useless for want of a properly formatted printout. My husband (academy classmate and Ranger-qualified infantry officer) was only yards away, preparing his antitank platoon for the same fight, and I knew that watching his gun truck cross the line of departure a few hours before mine would be frightening, as would the constant threat of ambush or incoming fire; but it never occurred to me that the single greatest stressor when preparing for a light infantry brigades ground invasion would be Death by Dell. It wasnt that the slide was essential to the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom, since the weather could be briefed in three lettersH-O-T; it was that our major was growing so furious about the technical snafu that it was paralyzing all attempts at analysis. Beloved by higher-ups for brains and PowerPoint wizardry but prone to temper tantrums when subordinates failed to understand his self-contradictory orders, he was the Staff Officer stereotype personified. He was, in short, perfect material for a generalship.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%I tell this story because Democrats seem to have developed an attachment to generals. In 2004, when John Kerry wanted to project commitment to a strong defense, he surrounded himself with high-ranking retired military officers. (During the Democratic convention that year, twelve retired admirals and generals stepped onto the podium to endorse him.) When the midterms came around in 2006, the liberal online magazine Salon proudly noted that two retired generals had called for a Democratic takeover of Congress. And, just recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosis Web site carried statements from five generals endorsing the Iraq Accountability Act, which calls for drawing down the troops.

Well, maybe that helps get us out of Iraq. But if its military votes you want, thats not the way to do it. Thats because most troops dont like generals.

Generals dont think like the other 99 percent of troops, because generals are political animals as much as theyre military animals. Their career advancement depends greatly on White House and congressional favor. Their subordinates know this. We dont envy them the hassle of juggling politicians, reporters, subordinates, and the salesman and contractors peddling some brilliant new gadget that real troops will think worthless. But we also associate them with air-conditioned Iraqi palaces, aides fetching cold drinks, and hours spent cleaning to prepare for their nice little speech.

Thats why once reporters and strangers are out of the room, the real bitching begins. The gist of the complaints is consistent: that the militarys senior leadership is out of touch with the troops, more concerned with their political safety or financial future than with the sacrifice of leadership. Thats rarely been as clear as it is now, when generals have remained largely silent as military training and readinessespecially in the Reserves and the National Guardhave been steadily decimated by an uncertain, fundamentally nonmilitary mission in Iraq.

The difference between a good military leader and a bad one is simple: a good leader has strategic knowledge, tactical competence, and a dedication to troops and country over self; a bad one lacks such traits. The duty to advise civilian political leaders about military strategy requires moral courage. Generals must object to plans that are not militarily sound. Unfortunately, a lot of mediocre leaders are promoted based on their caution or staff work, adding to a self-perpetuating problem. Loyalty to the system matters a great deal for promotion; todays generals pick tomorrows generals, and they often pick officers who look and think like they do. Unfortunately, this causes many good military leaders to flee. They dont want the frustrations created by micromanagement, inattention to training, or unclear missions. (A 1999 study at Fort Benning, Home of the Infantry and notionally the heart of the Army, confirmed what most of us already knew: leavers are generally considered to be among the best officerscompetent, innovative thinkers that the Army needs most.)

As the war in Iraq grinds on, we see the fruits of such trends. Bluntly put, theres no escaping the role played by top military brass in getting us to this point. Nor can the brass avoid blame for understating the catastrophic implications of White House decisions for military readiness, training, supply, recruiting, medical systems, and overall morale. Even if civilian politicians didnt know how to use their defense resources judiciously, youd think that generals and admirals, who get paid over $100,000 a year to be the militarys far-seeing advocates, would have pointed out the serious disconnect between civilian visions and genuine military capabilities. They might have warned that if the military isnt capable of fulfilling current missions without exhausting itself or instituting a draft, then the military is out of business: Not. Mission. Capable.

To be sure, some generals perform superbly, and some have even sacrificed their careers in order to voice unpopular thoughts. (Witness Eric Shinseki.) Also, every general has been steeped in military ethics emphasizing the importance of civilian control of the military, which makes voicing dissent a delicate matter that must always be weighed against respect for the Constitution. Nevertheless, for too many senior military officials, going along with poorly considered civilian plans has been justified in the name of respect for civilian control. It often looks more like careerism masquerading as principle.

When we see hypocrisy or weakness in leaders, we struggle to honor anything more than the courtesies demanded by rank. Over the last decade, Gen-X and Gen-Y soldiers and leaders have become disillusioned, looking up at a military hierarchy that seems more Office Space than Band of Brothers. With the military falling apart from the inside out, the last thing we need is undeserved praise heaped on the military senior leadership behind the status quo. Democrats should understand this.

Of course, that troops should have a say in choosing their commander-in-chief is in one sense bizarre. But that doesnt mean they dont embrace the opportunity. For any Democratic candidate genuinely interested in making inroads with the military, learning about the perspectives of enlisted soldiers and lower-ranking officersnot admirals and generalswill be essential. With any luck, such a candidate will come away convinced of the need for greater accountability from the upper ranks, echoing down through subordinate leaders and across to civilian counterparts. At the very least, he or she will begin to grasp the extent of the militarys problems today. And anyone who does thatand who can offer some hope of reenergizing the spirit of American service that the military representswins.

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