The Generals Won’t Save Us From the Next War
Poll after poll indicates that the only public institution Americans still trust is the military. Not Congress, not the presidency, not the Supreme Court, the church, or the media. Just the American war machine.
But perhaps that faith in the U.S. Armed Forces is misplaced. I got to thinking about this recently after I wrote articles calling for dissent among military leaders in order to stop what seems to be a likely forthcoming war with Iran. While I still believe that dissent in the ranks stands the best chance of galvanizing an apathetic public against an ill-advised, immoral conflict in the Persian Gulf, I also know its a pipe dream.
These are company men, after all, obedient servants dedicated—no matter how much they protest otherwise—to career and promotion, as much or more than they are to the national interest. The American military, especially at the senior ranks, is apt to let you down whenever courage or moral fortitude is needed most. In nearly 18 years of post-9/11 forever war, not a single general has resigned in specific opposition to what many of them knew to be unwinnable, unethical conflicts. Writing about the not-so-long-ago Vietnam War, former national security advisor H.R. McMaster, himself a problematic war on terror general, labeled in his book title such military acquiescence Dereliction of Duty. That it was, but so is the lack of moral courage and logical reasoning among McMaster and his peers who have submissively waged these endless wars in Americans’ name.
Think on it: of the some 18 general officers who have commanded the ill-fated, ongoing war in Afghanistan, each has optimistically promised not only that victory was possible, but that it was “around the corner” or a “light at the end of the tunnel.” All these generals needed, naturally, was more time and, of course, more resources. For the most part they’ve gotten it, billions in cash to throw away and thousands of American soldiers’ lives to waste.
Why should any sentient citizen believe that these commanders’ former subordinates—a new crop of ambitious generals—will step forward now and oppose a disastrous future war with the Islamic Republic? Don’t believe it! Senior military leaders will salute, about-face, and execute unethical and unnecessary combat with Iran or whomever else (think Venezuela) Trump’s war hawks, such as John Bolton, decide needs a little regime changing.
Need proof that even the most highly lauded generals will sheepishly obey the next absurd march to war? Join me in a brief trip down an ever so depressing memory lane. Let us begin with my distinguished West Point graduation speaker, Air Force General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers. He goes down in history as as a Donald Rumsfeld lackey because it turns out he knew full well that there were “holes” in the Bush team’s inaccurate intelligence used to justify the disastrous Iraq war. Yet we heard not a peep from Myers, who kept his mouth shut and retired with full four-star honors.
Then, when Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki accurately (and somewhat courageously) predicted in 2003 that an occupation of Iraq would require up to half a million U.S. troops, he was quietly retired. Rummy passed over a whole generation of active officers to pull a known sycophant, General Peter Schoomaker, out of retirement to do Bush the Younger’s bidding. It worked too. Schoomaker, despite his highly touted special forces experience, never threw his stars on the table and called BS on a losing strategy even as it killed his soldiers by the hundreds and then the thousands. Having heard him (unimpressively) speak at West Point in 2005, I still can’t decide whether he lacked the intellect to do so or the conscience. Maybe both.
After Bush landed a fighter plane on a carrier and triumphantly announced “mission accomplished” in Iraq, poor Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the newest three-star in the Army, took over the hard part of conquest: bringing the “natives” to heel. He utterly failed, being too reliant on what he knew—Cold War armored combat—and too ambitious to yell “stop!” Soon after, it came to light that Sanchez had bungled the investigation—or coverup (take your pick)—of the massive abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison.
General John Abizaid was one of the most disappointing in a long line of subservient generals. It seems Abizaid knew better: he knew the Iraq war couldn’t be won, that it was best to hand over control to the Iraqis posthaste, that General David Petraeus’s magical “surge” snake oil wouldn’t work. Still, Abizaid didn’t quit and retired quietly. He’s now Trump’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, which is far from comforting.
Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster was heralded as an outside-the-box thinker. And indeed, he was a Gulf War I hero, earned a Ph.D., taught history at West Point, and wrote a (mostly) well-received book on Vietnam. Yet when Trump appointed him national security advisor, he brought only in-the-box military beliefs with him into the White House. He then helped author a fanciful National Defense Strategy that argued the U.S. military must be ready at a moment’s notice to fight Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and “terror.” Perhaps at the same time! No nuance, no diplomatic alternatives, no cost-benefit analysis, just standard militarism. These days, McMaster is running around decrying what he calls a “defeatist narrative” and arguing for indefinite war in the Middle East.
Then there was the other Washington insider and “liberal” favorite, one of a trio of “adults in the room,” General Jim Mattis. Though sold to the public as a “warrior monk,” Mattis offered no alternative to America’s failing forever wars. In fact, when he decided his conscience no longer allowed him to stay in the Trump administration, his reason for leaving was that the president had called for a reduction of troops in Afghanistan after 18 senseless years. U.S.-supported Saudi terror bombings that killed tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians? A U.S.-backed Saudi blockade that starved at least 85,000 Yemeni children to death? Yeah, he was fine with that. But a modest troop withdrawal from a losing 18-year-old war in landlocked Central Asia, that he couldn’t countenance.
Then there’s the propensity for politics and pageantry among senior military officers. This was embarrassingly and unconscionably on display in the tragic cases of Private First Class Jessica Lynch and Corporal Pat Tillman. When, during the initial invasion of Iraq, the young Lynch’s maintenance convoy got lost, she was captured and briefly detained by Saddam’s army. Knowing a good public relations opportunity when they saw it, Bush’s staff and the generals concocted a slew of comforting lies: Lynch was a hero who had fought to her last bullet (she’d never fired her rifle), she’d been tortured (she hadn’t), her combat-camera equipped commando rescue had come just in the nick of time (she was hardly guarded and in a hospital). Who cares if it was all lies, if this young woman’s terrifying experience was co-opted and embellished? The Lynch story was media fodder.
More tragic was the Pat Tillman escapade. Tillman was an admirable outlier, the only professional athlete to give up a million dollar contract to enlist in the military soon after 9/11. Tillman and his brother went all in, too, choosing the elite Army Rangers. It was quite the story. Rumsfeld even wrote the new private a congratulatory letter. Then reality got in the way. Tillman was killed in Afghanistan during a friendly fire incident that can only be described as gross incompetence. Almost immediately, President Bush’s staff and much of the Army’s top brass went to work crafting the big lie: a heroic narrative of Tillman’s demise, replete with dozens of marauding Taliban fighters and a one-man charge befitting the hard-hitting former NFL defensive back. Promoted to corporal posthumously, he was awarded the Silver Star. Some of his fellow Rangers were instructed to lie to the Tillman family at the memorial service regarding the manner of Pat’s death.
Only Bush’s neophytes and the Army’s complicit generals didn’t count on the tenacity of Tillman’s parents. They waged something nearing war with the U.S. military for several years until they found out the truth, unearthing a coverup that implicated Bush’s civilians and many of the military’s four-star generals (including Stanley McChrystal, John Abizaid, and Richard Myers). The Tillman family got their congressional hearing, but the sycophantic representatives on the Hill refused to seriously criticize the top brass and no one was seriously punished.
It turns out, by the way, that Tillman was much more intriguing in real life than the generals’ concocted tale. Far from some ubiquitous jock, he was a genuine thinker with immense intellectual curiosity. And he was antiwar, at least when it came to Iraq. He told a close buddy in his squad that “this war is just so fucking illegal” and even maintained a correspondence with Noam Chomsky. That the military would use and abuse this gifted, principled man as a tool to sell an illegal war ought to have at last dispelled any delusions of general officer duty or ethics.
Then there’s what I’ve seen at (admittedly) the most micro level. I’ve generally worked for majors and colonels more interested in pleasing their “bosses” and earning promotions than fighting off ill-advised missions and protecting their precious troops. I’ve buried more brave young men than I wish to count. Some of my commanders were driven by ambition; some could barely spell Afghanistan. Most were promoted anyway. It is they who will be obediently leading the next war when it comes…in Iran.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army Major and regular contributor to The American Conservative. His work has also appeared in Harper’s, the LA Times, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, The Huffington Post, Truthdig, and The Hill. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He co-hosts the progressive veterans’ podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.