Saturday, February 22, 2020

Why No AntiWar Generals Any More?



Tom Dispatch |  When Smedley Butler retired in 1931, he was one of three Marine Corps major generals holding a rank just below that of only the Marine commandant and the Army chief of staff. Today, with about 900 generals and admirals currently serving on active duty, including 24 major generals in the Marine Corps alone, and with scores of flag officers retiring annually, not a single one has offered genuine public opposition to almost 19 years worth of ill-advised, remarkably unsuccessful American wars. As for the most senior officers, the 40 four-star generals and admirals whose vocal antimilitarism might make the biggest splash, there are more of them today than there were even at the height of the Vietnam War, although the active military is now about half the size it was then. Adulated as many of them may be, however, not one qualifies as a public critic of today’s failing wars.

Instead, the principal patriotic dissent against those terror wars has come from retired colonels, lieutenant colonels, and occasionally more junior officers (like me), as well as enlisted service members. Not that there are many of us to speak of either. I consider it disturbing (and so should you) that I personally know just about every one of the retired military figures who has spoken out against America’s forever wars.

The big three are Secretary of State Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson; Vietnam veteran and onetime West Point history instructor, retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich; and Iraq veteran and Afghan War whistleblower, retired Lieutenant Colonel Danny Davis. All three have proven to be genuine public servants, poignant voices, and -- on some level -- cherished personal mentors. For better or worse, however, none carry the potential clout of a retired senior theater commander or prominent four-star general offering the same critiques.

Something must account for veteran dissenters topping out at the level of colonel. Obviously, there are personal reasons why individual officers chose early retirement or didn’t make general or admiral. Still, the system for selecting flag officers should raise at least a few questions when it comes to the lack of antiwar voices among retired commanders. In fact, a selection committee of top generals and admirals is appointed each year to choose the next colonels to earn their first star. And perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that, according to numerous reports, “the members of this board are inclined, if not explicitly motivated, to seek candidates in their own image -- officers whose careers look like theirs.” At a minimal level, such a system is hardly built to foster free thinkers, no less breed potential dissidents.
                                                                     
Consider it an irony of sorts that this system first received criticism in our era of forever wars when General David Petraeus, then commanding the highly publicized “surge” in Iraq, had to leave that theater of war in 2007 to serve as the chair of that selection committee. The reason: he wanted to ensure that a twice passed-over colonel, a protégé of his -- future Trump National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster -- earned his star.

Mainstream national security analysts reported on this affair at the time as if it were a major scandal, since most of them were convinced that Petraeus and his vaunted counterinsurgency or “COINdinista" protégés and their "new" war-fighting doctrine had the magic touch that would turn around the failing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Petraeus tried to apply those very tactics twice -- once in each country -- as did acolytes of his later, and you know the results of that.

But here’s the point: it took an eleventh-hour intervention by America’s most acclaimed general of that moment to get new stars handed out to prominent colonels who had, until then, been stonewalled by Cold War-bred flag officers because they were promoting different (but also strangely familiar) tactics in this country’s wars. Imagine, then, how likely it would be for such a leadership system to produce genuine dissenters with stars of any serious sort, no less a crew of future Smedley Butlers.
 
At the roots of this system lay the obsession of the American officer corps with “professionalization" after the Vietnam War debacle. This first manifested itself in a decision to ditch the citizen-soldier tradition, end the draft, and create an “all-volunteer force.” The elimination of conscription, as predicted by critics at the time, created an ever-growing civil-military divide, even as it increased public apathy regarding America’s wars by erasing whatever “skin in the game" most citizens had.
More than just helping to squelch civilian antiwar activism, though, the professionalization of the military, and of the officer corps in particular, ensured that any future Smedley Butlers would be left in the dust (or in retirement at the level of lieutenant colonel or colonel) by a system geared to producing faux warrior-monks. Typical of such figures is current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark Milley. He may speak gruffly and look like a man with a head of his own, but typically he’s turned out to be just another yes-man for another war-power-hungry president.

One group of generals, however, reportedly now does have it out for President Trump -- but not because they’re opposed to endless war. Rather, they reportedly think that The Donald doesn't “listen enough to military advice” on, you know, how to wage war forever and a day.